It is has been a bad past few weeks for social media. Hauled before a Senate Committee hearing, senior legal representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google were recently exposed to rigorous questioning from Senators keen to unearth their complicty in disseminating fake news, most notably that from Russia, and so understand to what degree they played a part in undermining a fair outcome to the 2016 Presidential Election.
The hearing has been an opportunity to give vent to growing public frustration at the institutions that were once apotheosized for their content impartiality. Long since, however, the idea has crystalised in mainstream thinking that social media presents a threat to democracy. The Economist – known typically for its circumpection and measured tone – recently ran with the cover title, “Social Media’s Threat to Democracy”. Meanwhile a recent YouGov poll in the US asked participants whether courts should now be able to “shut down” media outlets for “publishing or broadcasting stories that are biased or inaccurate,”. Forty-five percent of respondents were in favour, whilst fifty-five percent of respondents favoured fining such “biased or inaccurate” media outlets.
But, if we are led to believe that social media platforms– in their current unregulated form – are threats to democracy then we should also be alert to the idea that our public response to that threat might equally quell democracy. By deluding ourselves that fake news can be removed from the media – social or otherwise – we risk a headlong pursuance of this fanciful goal at the expense of crippling social media platforms and all that remains good about them.
In case you have forgotten quite what it is that is worth cherishing about social media, then it is worth reminding oneself of the heady days of 2004 when Facebook burst onto the scene. Cutting a welcome swathe through the tide of Neo-conservativism in the west and tyranny elsewhere, it, and other social media platforms quickly went on to show time and again their beneficent capacity to unite subjugated and disenfranchised peoples and mobilise them in opposition to repressive and authoritative regimes.
The Arab Spring was kicked off with a single Facebook post when Wael Ghonim, a 29-year-old Google marketing executive, posted an image of the bloodied and disfigured face of Khaled Mohamed Said, a 28-year-old from Alexandria who had been beaten to death by the Egyptian police. His new Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said” quickly galvanised a grass roots movement that later succeded in overthrowing the autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak.
Social media became the darling of grass roots democracy across the world. “Democracy is just a Tweet away” commented Evgeny Morozov in the Net Delusion, whilst New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof seemed to capture the techno-centric zeitgeist when he quipped of the classic 21st century conflict, “one side are government thugs firing bullets….on the other side are young protestors firiing ‘tweets’.
So, why the sudden volte-face? The answer lies with fake news, and the alleged inability or unwillingness of social media platforms to scrutinize the content being published via their platforms.
By 2016 the influence of fake news was so pervasive that during the US Presidential Election, as one study by Stanford academics Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow found, some 38 million shares of fake news were recorded. That translated into over 760 million instances of a user clicking through and reading a fake news story, or roughly three stories read per American adult.
Thus did the US public wake up to clickbait headlines such as “Pope backs Trump”, “Hillary sold weapons to ISIS”, and “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead” all of whose content was utterly spurious.
Besides the outright deceptive, there were countless other articles which contained unintentional reporting mistakes, rumours that did not originate from a particular news article, conspiracy theories which were harder to prove as being deceitful, articles which took a comical spin, and, articles which took a slanted perspective without setting out to deceive. Taking all these ‘cousins’ of fake news together, the mass danger they presented to the outcome of 2016 Presidential Election seems alarming.
But, is there a chance that the dangers of fake news could be overstated? To this point, let us first of all state the blindingly obvious. ‘Fake news’ though itself a recent neoligism, is nothing new. Propaganda, misinformation, deceit and smear are all terms with historical tenure. It is perhaps a little ironic that it was Hilary Clinton, whose campaign arguably came off the worst as a result of the spread of fake news in 2016, has herself been such a skilled practitioner in its darks art. When news of Bill Clinton’s 12 year affair with Gennifer Flowers threatened to derail his chances of victory in the 1992 election, Hilary was said to have created a ‘war room’ in the campagin offices dedicated to smearing, defaming and ridiculing Flowers and another half dozen women implicated in illicit affairs with Bill.
Going back further, a reading of Goebbels’s diary entries, which he assiduously sought to preserve for posterity and the burnishing of his mastermind propagandist legacy, reads like a modern-day treatise on fake news, so familiar is its turn of phrase. ‘Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated believe they are acting on their own free will’, he wrote. Its logic certainly seems to have inspired the Russian bot group, the Internet Research Agency, when they sought to foment civil unrest by organsing two opposing rallies on the question of the ‘Islamaziation of Texas’ in Houston. They needed only then to sit back and see their disruptive work unfold.
A second point is that whilst fake news has clearly attained new depths of infiltration across the media over the past 24 months or so, we should also recognise that the internal spam filters of most people have become more discerning. A study by Stanford and Brown Universities indexed political polarization in the U.S., using data from the American National Election Studies and the Pew Research Center to profile internet and social media usage by age demographic. Their findings showed that those between the ages of 18 and 39 saw a polarization increase of only 0.05 index points as a result of media they were exposed to online. Those of 75 years and older saw only marginally higher polarization growth of 0.32 index points.
A final point to mention is that since the prime objective of many Russian bots has not been to propagate one single message or manifesto, but instead to sow division by advocating an almost infinite number of standpoints, then they arguably only really add additional layers of noise to an already crowded media space. And, further, since people tend normally to read, like and share articles which support their own pre-existing views, thanks in large part to how algorithms are designed to operate, then arguably the bulk of fake news – Russian or otherwise – is unlikely to create wholesale shifts of attitudes.
So, given the complex nature of fake news, how best should we approach the topic going forward?
The obvious solution is to lean on social media channels to tighten up their own rules on content publication. Facebook, the largest social media platform, has taken a lead here. Tagging the provenance of each article with their recently introduced ‘I’ button allows readers to see who has produced the content, by linking to a description of the author from Wikipedia. Also Facebook has introduced a new algorithm which can demote suspect, clickbait content, and furthermore have taken on an additional 1,000 staff to help monitor published content. These measures will no doubt have some impact, though it strains belief to imagine that sophisticated techno-ideologs – from Russia or elsewhere – will not find ways to circumvent these measures if they so choose.
This is unfortunate, but is still preferable to an alternative in which governments step in and enforce censorship of a type that is going to erode the democractic, open-source essence of social media platforms in a chimerical endeavour to stamp out fake news. Not only would this be sisyphean in its futility, serving to push public discourse elsewhere across the net, but it could also unravel the huge potential of social media platforms as engines of grassroots democracy. If governments begin to wade in and levvy fines against social media for instances of misreporting, fomenting unrest or any other type of infraction (itself an inherently contentious grey area), then it is not hard to imagine social media platforms beginning to reign in their content for fear of further punishment. Given that so much of the content spread during the time of the Arab Spring and the Maidan Uprising was by its nature inflammatory, and arguably an incitation to violence, then the threat posed by government censorship to incipient grassroots movements could be very damaging.
There is of course a glaring irony to all of this. Light touch self-regulation of social media that preserves their existence as open source platforms will inherently leave them open to the interference of oppresors, which must simultaneously be stringetly guarded against when it takes comes in the form of government censorship.
But, in the final analysis, it seems there are only two realistic choices to be had: either have open source social media platforms and accept that they can be hijacked by any manner of nefarious agent, or use the cloak of government censorship to emasculate them and deliver a deathblow to grassroots populism across the world.
No matter how much they might refine and rebalance their algorithms, or take on extra staff, social media platforms can never make themselves impervious to the probings of trolls and the bots who will continually test their defenses. It is probable then that Twitter, Google and Facebook will at some stage find themselves answering to another Senate Committee Hearing and explaining away their shortcomings to irate politicians. But, when considering the alternative, described best by Alex Stamos, Facebook’s Chief Security Officer, as a scenario in which Facebook must play the part of the “a Ministry of Truth” to guard against what it considers fake (or even slighty iffy) news, then I’d far rather that we sit back and enjoy fake news as just an unslightly carbuncle on what is otherwise a beauitful and beatific force for societal good.