Former President Barack Obama this week referred to social media-fuelled misinformation as “the single biggest threat to our democracy”. This, alongside countless other examples of the breakneck speed with which falsities travel around our world, begs the question: how did we get here?
It wasn’t so long ago that the starry-eyed among us dedicated ourselves to social media platforms such as Facebook to share photo albums documenting school parties, birthday tributes to friends and a way to, generally, keep in touch. However, the days of this seem distant and instead we now face an onslaught of false information through sites like this – pictures, captions and headlines warped and shared beyond recognition.
Of course, it’s not just Facebook in the firing line here, soon-to-be-former President Trump has been notorious in his use of his individual Twitter account to breathe fire on those who question his fraudulent election claims, those who fact check his musings on the needlessness for masks and, presumably most important to him, those who insult him directly.
The President’s use of social media has taken the platform, and others, to levels never before seen in politics. No longer are correspondents and viewers held in bated breath for the formal announcements of administrations past, as now these have likely been leaked multiple hours before and shared a thousand times over.
In examples of legitimate information this is presumably a good thing – a population connected with its leadership in real-time – but when the information spread is false or distorted is it the case that in our super-speed, on-demand world, fake news simply outruns its truth?
Imagine Facebook in the real world. A community filled with your friends, relatives, acquaintances and even far-reaching ‘friendships’ with the girl you met in a club bathroom three years ago and promised to keep in touch with. Regardless of how close the bonds might be with these people, those on your friend’s list are your people. Those you have elected to share your corner of the internet with.
Something like that comes with a certain degree of trust, you are willing to have these people in your network. So, presumably, when someone shares a post on Facebook suggesting an extortionate amount of public funds are dedicated to the ‘thousands’ of immigrants who find their way to British shores or that similar ‘thousands’ of votes were cast in the American election by those deceased or no longer living in the country, are we inclined to believe our friends?
Research shows that older age demographics are less likely to discern fact from opinion, a finding which I consider even more accurate when I consider people such as my parents. Those who, unlike us, went through much of life without smartphones or social media platforms, and who likely consider their Facebook community to be that of neighbours and friends – people you could knock on their door for a loan of the proverbial sugar.
Although it’s worth noting misinformation knows no generational bounds, I worry that the ruthlessness of the media and often the naivety of our older relatives to its developments are something which, if not assisted, could have devastating consequences within our society.
I think of countless hair-pulling conversations shared between my friends and I in exasperated group chats. Sighs of “they’ve done it again” referring to a parent intensely presenting a phone to their child’s face displaying what they consider to be ‘a well-known fact’ suggesting COVID-19 is linked to a 5G pillar in a town no one has heard of, forwarded to them by a friend of a friend which means it has to be true.
As irritating and sometimes infuriating as it can be for our closest friends and family to share these claims with us, should the engaged among our generation step up our efforts in a time of international crisis when it seems many of the biggest players in social media are stepping down?
Whilst sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have moved to dispute false information and provide independent fact-checking, for some it may be too late and for others, they are unwilling to declare certain falsehoods as being so.
If years of hostility towards media outlets coupled with an internal awareness of “fake news” has been instilled through social media perception, attempts to hinder the spread of damaging misinformation online may be nothing more than fuel to conspiracy laced fires that our society is ‘controlled’ and we are being ‘censored’.
In this case, the younger generations could be the ones to challenge these views. In a UK study, 58% of respondents identified seeing content shared online as incorrect or misleading, yet only 20% corrected those who had shared it.
This to me is something that could be easily done if we found ways to positively engage with our networks and draw them into discussions where we could share evidence to create greater awareness of misinformation and its spread. Young people are already credited for turning tides in elections and shifting the political climate into one which we can shape and exert real influence over, so why not add combating misinformation to our 2020 to-do-list? Wear our masks, wash our hands, support movements we believe in and curb disinformation through social media channels.