Social media: the secret force behind political polarisation?
‘Fake news’ was the Collins Dictionary word of the year for 2017. It has been most commonly used by US President Donald Trump to describe media reports with which he does not agree. While I am not often one to agree with Mr Trump, the phrase does have increasing relevance to the issue of current affairs on social media. With around 500 million tweets every single day, social media is now one of the primary ways, if not the primary way, in which we consume news. On Twitter, hoaxes and unreliable sources are now, for the first time, just as likely to go viral as accurate, well-researched journalism. With the line between fact and fiction becoming ever more indistinguishable, is social media the secret force behind political polarisation?
Social media has revolutionised the way that we interact with current affairs. Traditionally, news consumption has been centred around trusted media outlets that adhere to strict codes of practice. The National Union of Journalists’ code of conduct makes explicit the need for accurate, honest and fair information. In the twenty-first century, anyone, irrespective of credibility, can publish online. In theory, the ability to view multiple sources should restrict the spread of lies; easy comparison between articles should produce one chronology upon which everyone can agree. However, social media provides no verification for truth. It is no coincidence that social media is considered the least trustworthy source of general news; and yet it remains the most popular.
Social media is undermining trust in all sources of news. It offers leaders such as Trump, and to some extent UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a back door to escape political pledges, giving them a seemingly invincible quality as a result. Johnson’s famous assertion that he would rather be dead in a ditch than remain in the European Union beyond October 31st has been cast aside now that it has not come to fruition. The availability of almost infinite, instantaneous information has seemingly reduced the value of the truth. Instead, gaining attention, likes and retweets is the most important motive behind information publication. Vote Leave’s slogan that the UK sends £350 million to the EU each week remains widely believed by the British public despite many studies emerging to show that this is not the case. Social media is not a meritocracy of truth. It lends the loudest voices to those who produce what the public wish to hear.
Coincidentally, or perhaps poignantly, one of the runners-up for word of the year in 2017 was ‘echo chamber’ referring to a bubble in which people are not exposed to opinions that differ from their own. On social media, people are likely to follow like-minded individuals or organisations with which they can identify. In this way, users construct their own spheres of reality in which everyone sees the world through the same set of prejudices. Studies have shown that confirmation bias is a powerful phenomenon: if we see information which confirms our existing beliefs, we are much less likely to question its validity. It is under these conditions that fake news has become so successful. Stories can circulate through echo chambers without check on accuracy.
The issue of Brexit is a prime example of how echo chambers can be considered a force for political polarisation. Remainers and Brexiteers rarely come into contact on social media, as they each live within protective spheres of reality which confirm their pre-existing views. While it is perfectly reasonable that each side of the debate relays recent events according to their own views, echo chambers prevent these contrasting interpretations from meeting. The result is political polarisation as individuals on each side of the political divide become subscribed to wholly different narratives. It is here that echo chambers are at their most dangerous. A social media feed merely reiterates a user’s prejudices and political opinions.
We have the power to interact with and influence others beyond the capability of any era before. Idealists might once have predicted more transparency from governments and politicians as the ability to lie is restricted by the unlimited availability of information. The reality, as it so often is, is gloomier. It would be bold to assert that social media is the principle driver behind political change in the twenty-first century – there are certainly other forces at play here. However, it seems that social media is getting overlooked. The use of political advertisements on Facebook has been widely publicised, and yet it is our own actions that are more powerful. It is high time for considering how our presence on social media, and the material content we share and consume, can impact the political shape of our society. Next time you are scrolling through your Twitter feed it is perhaps worth remembering that social media does not reflect the truth, it simply reflects a truth you wish to see.