Nazza Ahmed argues for the necessity of scepticism in a culture of “fake news” on social media
When I scroll through Facebook or Twitter, it isn’t long before something controversial or false about politics appears. The ease with which such posts are manufactured, targeted and tailored to individuals is worrying. In this era of “fake news” we can see intense activity on social media that seeks to distort, or worse, blend, fact and fiction for political purposes. These practices have been most evident in the EU Referendum and the US Presidential Election of 2016.
The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal reveals one of the worst data information abuses on social media. Formative in this process was the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Old Etonian Alexander Nix, and ex-Chief Strategist under Donald Trump, Steve Bannon. Data harvested by the organisation was used to target individuals with posts designed to sway their vote, or at least their thought, in a certain way. Whistle-blower Christopher Wylie divulged that up to 50 million Facebook profiles were harvested for these purposes.
There is also a wider culture on social media where posts with manipulated or false information can seem entirely true without any verification. Images and videos make things seem real and believable. One example is the unverified videos Donald Trump retweeted from the far-right organisation Britain First, which supposedly showed Muslim migrants attacking people in Europe. Those on the left often fare no better. 15,000 people shared an image of Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke in the House of Commons lying down with his eyes shut, appearing to be asleep. This led to complaints of laziness and disgracefulness. What the picture doesn’t show, however, is that he is partially deaf and slouched so that he can listen to the audio speakers on the Commons bench. These two examples are just a tiny sample of the many instances of incorrect and manipulated information that are constantly distributed.
In reaction to this “fake news” climate, people have demanded regulation and corporate accountability. They believe this will stop the spread of false and manipulated information. Much of the media and general commentary has sensationalised this aspect, focusing on elite white men and their big, bad organisations as the cause of all of these problems. The hashtag #DeleteFacebook, which trended worldwide, is illustrative of the prevalence of this top-down approach.
However, beyond this top-down perspective, there is another story to be told – that of the individual user of social media. It was not Alexander Nix, Steve Bannon or Mark Zuckerberg who caused Brexit and Trump. Ordinary people did. When I see posts spreading untrue or manufactured information, it is usually ordinary people who have written or shared them. And so, while attention has, rightly, been focused on elite individuals and their organisations, we must not simply victimise social media users and voters as mindless pawns on a political chessboard.
It is clear that social media has impacted politics and our democracy in recent years. This process was inevitable and will continue to expand further into the future. We can’t turn back time to when politicians stood on soap boxes and gave speeches to large public audiences. Or to when a political leaflet and cringeworthy party political broadcasts sufficed in supplying information. Nor should we delete Facebook and Twitter and wear tin foil hats to keep our political integrity in the face of such malpractices.
We should simply be more aware of our social media democracy. We should employ a healthy dose of scepticism towards whatever we see and question its validity and accuracy. This sounds simple and obvious enough. But it is easy to forget how much social media makes the whole “a picture is worth a thousand words” idea so convincing. In some cases, that is not true. Those words will always be written by the author of a false and manufactured source. What we see and believe is often what someone else wants us to see and believe. Because this notion is not so apparent, it becomes easier to swallow fiction as fact and falsity as truth.
We must, therefore, always challenge what is on social media, as we would in any other aspect of our lives. This can seem difficult when we are so consumed by the rapidity of social media. At times, it is demanding to examine whether something viewed on social media is true or not or whether it deserves more consideration. Yet this is something we must do if our social media democracy is to be a healthy one. A simple fact check or a quick Google search can make all the difference in distorting political fact from fiction. In the face of larger malpractices and the surrounding “fake news” culture of social media, scepticism is crucial in retaining individual political agency.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons