Updated: Aug 24
Monday 1st February 2021, George Davis
“Democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile.” Such were the words of newly inaugurated President Joe Biden during his acceptance speech. At the U.S. capitol he addressed the nation, where just two weeks previously violent protests took place leading to the forceful storming of the building as well as 5 deaths. The perpetrators were Trumpian zealots, whipped up into a frenzy by his inflammatory and unfounded claims across social media and in speeches, that it was he and not Biden, who had won the election.
Here reveals a very modern-day threat to democracy. The mass consumption by politicians, news outlets and civilians of social media as a political platform.
This shift in how we digest our political news has left us vulnerable to the spread of misinformation, polarising society and undermining democracies through leaving our elections open to foreign interference. The events in Washington hinted at the emergence of a bewildering, dystopian society. In this age of post-truth politics, experts are ignored, lies freely shared and accepted, and governments and institutions deeply mistrusted.
In this ashen-smog world, where it is getting harder to tell right from wrong or truth from fiction, more and more of us rely on the pale blue lights of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to illuminate our path. A report from Pew research centre found that in 2019, 55% of US adults got their news from social media either “often or sometimes”, an 8% increase from the previous year. In the UK according to an Ofcom report, the figure was 49%.
This has created a vicious cycle. First, more of society is susceptible to the spread of oversimplified and untrue news stories. Second, society is more susceptible to extremist influences. This leads to a more fractured political environment and society. The final stage is violence.
Let’s take this step by step. As opposed to traditional news outlets like newspapers, social media sites are designed to send out short, sharp chunks of information. Twitter has a 280-character word limit. Now as Einstein said, “politics is far more complicated than physics”, events are often complex, multidimensional and massaged to suit a government’s agenda.
Take the UK/EU Withdrawal Agreement, a 1246-page compilation of rules and regulations covering trade, law enforcement, environmental standards and much more.
Can a 280-character tweet sufficiently summarise this? Of course it cannot and that is often the problem. People who receive their politics solely from social media are often consuming oversimplified, erroneous versions of events, warping their political perceptions.
That’s not to mention the proliferation of fake news. In 2019, the top 100 fake news stories on Facebook were viewed 150 million times, enough to reach every registered voter in the USA at least once.
And who is sending, or even creating this fake news? Sometimes it’s politicians themselves, the very people who should be protecting us from it. An obvious example springs to mind. Speaking after Biden’s election victory in mid-November, Donald Trump tweeted, “He (Biden) only won in the eyes of the FAKE NEWS MEDIA. I concede NOTHING! We have a long way to go. This was a RIGGED ELECTION!” The nature of the tweet seems comical; the numerous capital letters and exclamation marks put into question whether it was written by the 45th President of the United States, or by a 6-year-old having a temper tantrum. Yet to laugh and scoff would be to miss the point. Facilitated by social media, Trump’s lies were given a huge platform to his millions of followers, and contributed to the scenes of frenzied thuggery at the Capitol on the 6th of January.
Social networks don’t do enough to combat these lies. Google and Facebook have employed third party fact checkers to scrutinise political messages, but a lot still slip through the net. Furthermore, they are often nervous in calling out political figures. Thus, politicians often get away with lying. Twitter has gone further in banning political advertisements, but this only covers a narrow scope of political misinformation.
The next step in the cycle is the solidification of political views into prejudice, poisoning political discourse and moulding a hostile environment averse to healthy debate and compromise. As more people exclusively consume their news from social media, they are steadily indoctrinated by the thick sleet of fake news and misinformation.
Political echo chambers are created as the design of algorithms ensures that sites like Facebook constantly offer similar content in relation to what the user has viewed in the past. This creates an illusion of invincibility for users, and a false confidence that everyone must think like they do. So, when suddenly faced by another opinion, people often feel personally attacked and are hostile to discussion.
The dehumanising use of usernames for Twitter accounts only serves to encourage angry abuse based on politics. After all, it’s easier to attack someone for their views if you don’t think about the person behind the screen typing.
As if the inciting of violence and the polarisation of society isn’t enough, elections are now vulnerable to foreign meddling by hostile states. The 2020 Russia report published by the UK intelligence and security committee found there was “credible open-source commentary” that Russia carried out “influence campaigns” on social media sites to influence voters during the 2014 Scottish referendum. The report stated that it was likely that Russia did the same thing during the 2016 EU referendum and the 2019 general election. In the US, the Mueller report found that Russia carried out a social media “information warfare” that “favoured” candidate Trump in 2016.
It is disconcerting to think that the two political earthquakes of 2016 which have had far reaching national and international ramifications, were partly caused by foreign states meddling. Social media sites have made this possible, opening up a new front of digital warfare.
So what is the solution? How can governments protect democratic values from the outstretched tentacles of Zuckerberg and co? Well first of all, social networks are a market and like any market, they need to be managed through regulation. Independent authorities like the supreme court have a responsibility to censor and punish against all misleading activity online, posted by politicians or a political party.
But the key is education. Politics classes should be compulsory in secondary schools, educating kids about political parties, their ideology and major political changes in society. Also, more education is required about the threats of depending on social media for news. Educate and encourage values of learning and tolerance based on facts when it comes to politics, instead of baseless hate and prejudice being taught online.
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