Digital and social media in an age of populism and pseudo-science: light at the end of the tunnel (one hopes)

October 3, 2017

This post is an extract from an eBook I shall be publishing soon: watch this space.

I am frequently asked about social media in the context of some of the more unsavoury phenomena of our age. Such as the rise of assorted populist movements. Or the pseudo-science peddled by some activists, from climate change deniers to the anti-GMO brigade.

Countless items of disinformation disseminated by such people, and their zealous supporters, are seen (and believed) by millions. Some are rebutted, others not; but frankly, once a story is in the open, rebuttals are often drowned out, however fervently the aggrieved parties seek to stand their ground. Some people still insist that Hillary Clinton runs a child trafficking ring out of a pizza parlour in Washington DC. Need I say more.

Many quite reasonably ask what on earth we can do about it all. With the (mostly) reputable gatekeepers of old (i.e. traditional media) side-lined, how can we stem the flow of nonsense? Mechanical fixes are touted. Like insisting that Google and Facebook better filter their platforms. Or that they block the financial incentives that encourage people to set up and feed fake news sites (e.g. impeding the likes of the famed Macedonian teenagers that set up fake news sites to generate ad revenue during the US presidential campaign). Facebook in particular has faced scrutiny over the unsavoury ads its platform shows people likely to appreciate that type of thing, and are being called on to make it harder for crazies to advertise.

But whatever fixes are put in place, nonsense will still likely proliferate, as long as audiences are eager to consume it in the first place.

There are two takes on this that are essential:

  1. By scapegoating the internet and looking for quick technical fixes, we ignore the root causes of populism and the triggers that encourage people to disseminate nonsense.
  2. A more sober understanding of what the internet can and cannot achieve might actually be quite helpful.

I am by no stretch of the imagination diminishing the perils of fake information disseminated over the internet. It is a very bad thing indeed. When believed, fake news can convince people on the fence to move to the dark side. And even when not, it contributes to the general sense of rift and disillusionment we face in our public/political arena.

But scapegoating the internet, along with populist politicians (however reprehensible) and the supposedly dumb people who vote for them is far too easy.

Many of the so-called elites – politicians of the non-populist sort, media, and corporates – are the root of their own plight. They have behaved in a manner that has drained public trust and fuelled the populist machine. Expressed differently: they have done more damage to themselves than populists, fake news, demented activists et al – and indeed, have allowed fake information to be plausible in the first place.

The response by the political establishment since the 2007-08 crash has for the most part been grossly insensitive, making it too easy to make the case that elites in ivory towers are the enemy of the common man or woman whose wages have stagnated, or have lost jobs and homes (and presumably plenty of self-respect). In parallel, modern day corporate scandals like Dieselgate, journalists behaving unethically, or the murky dealings of sinister media empires have hardly helped.

Meanwhile, corporations that are targeted by activists peddling pseudo-science, fail to see that in many cases they are targeted because they are easy prey. Organisations that are honest, transparent, and generally good corporate citizens are targeted far less forcefully. The starting point of the victims of pseudo-science, and other illegitimate activist claims, should be ‘how can we first behave, and then secondly, communicate better’; and not ‘pseudo-science and the internet are the sole triggers of all that is wrong in the world.’

Which brings us to the second point, that of a potential silver lining, brought about by a more sober understanding of what the internet can and cannot do. For years, far too many of us believed the internet was the second coming, and would bring about prosperity and world peace for all. Quite literally. Think back to 2011, when many claimed that social media alone was responsible for the Arab Spring and the ensuing loveliness and chorus of group hugs it would produce. Seems so long ago now.

Given events of the last few years, belief in what Evgeny Morozov calls cyber-utopianism – the failure to see the internet’s undesirable side, and believing it to be purely a force for good – has faded. And this is a good thing. It means most of us (hopefully) have a more sober and realistic view of what the internet can achieve. In public affairs and communications terms, this might involve assessing and mitigating risk before we engage in online communications. Or adopting a level-headed integrated strategy that sees digital and social media as a set of useful channels amongst many, rather than insisting on digital first.

Moreover, might the threat of fake news – in part – encourage the derided elite to clean up its act? Is the best defence against fake news not to be the sort of person or organisation that fake news peddlers largely leave alone because they are holier than though? Muck is less likely to stick when thrown at saints, so genuinely behaving well is a far more precious asset than slick spokespeople and pretty communications material.

I live in hope.

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