Any advertising or campaigning undertaken by someone trying to get elected has to be declared so we know how much they spent. There are limits on how much any candidate is allowed to spend and it is easy to check their accounts. But messages supporting them on social media, directly or indirectly, are usually free and even paid for ads can be shared for free. If a message goes viral millions read it and it costs nothing. It is not surprising that social media gets a lot of attention from anyone seeking power.
But not everyone wants power for themselves. Or, at least, it is not always that simple.
Breitbart News is a very powerful organisation in the US that supports parties or candidates who it thinks will implement the policies they believe in. They are skilled in using ‘fake’ or manipulated ‘news’ to move public opinion further to the right and thus support radical right wing candidates who might otherwise be considered too extreme to get elected. If such an organisation were operating in the UK would you know? Would you spot their output? (n1)
In the US, Facebook is under pressure fromn investigators trying to find out how much was paid by Russian sources for ads supporting US candidates. It is alleged that 3,000 political ads were bought, perhaps to destabilise the US as an act of foreign policy – warfare by Facebook posts.
Most people reading Facebook or Twitter are not really paying attention. Ideas, images, assumptions and values flash by at speed, with popular stories being spread quickly and uncritically, liked and shared long before anyone finds they are not true. A denial or proof they are not true may or may not follow but by then the unspeakable has been said and the Overton window might be moving. There are two distinct elements to this; untrue stories and damage by implication.
Untrue stories are easily spread. If they are shocking and thus interesting they will be shared and if they confirm what people already wish to believe they will be accepted as facts. They may later be challenged but by then it is too late – they will still be repeated and believed by those who wish to believe them. And for those who are ‘undecided’ or ‘ not political’ they may just tip a decision to vote in one direction.
There are fact-checking sites (see below) but how many people bother to check stories they casually meet on Facebook or hear in the pub? Especially if you find it interesting and it confirms your prejudice. Was it ever true that Obama did not have a US passport? Of course not, but many Trump supporters still believe it. If a fake story gives pleasure then it will be repeated even by people who know it is false. Everyone seems to love a conspiracy theory and the Middle East is made more unstable because of the way fake news is used.( n2) How much influence did the Russian state have on Trump’s election (n3 )? How much influence could a lobbying group have on UK elections? And how would you know it was happening?
The problem is so widespread that a generation bought up on such a diet may often start to assume all news is fake, giving rise to a scepticism that rejects all important information on the assumption it is probably ‘fake’. This leads to a disengagement from the political process so they are in effect, disenfranchised. And, of course, easier to manipulate, as they have no foundation from which to examine influences. The less you ‘believe in politics’ the more you are pushed around by those who do.
Another potential result of being disenchanted with the political system is that voters don’t vote on simple family loyalties or from habit anymore. Instead, they look at pools and predictions about who is doing well and try to switch parties, voting tactically, perhaps on a single issue, to keep a party they don’t like out of power or even just to make a point that they are fed up.
Meanwhile, those who might benefit or suffer from a certain proposal in a manifesto might form a pressure group or hire a lobbying form to try to influence both parties and voters, taking advantage of the new instability.
Not all attempts to influence are easy to spot or even very direct. When Hilary Clinton published her book on how and why she lost the US election to Trump, it received thousands of reviews on Amazon within a few hours. 50% of those reviews gave it one star out of five, which spoils her reputation and discourages people from reading it. Another 45% gave it five stars, supporting her. It is very unlikely any of those people had time to actually read the book – they just wanted to express an opinion about the author. They were all removed by Amazon. How much influence any of this had it is hard to know. What we do know is that comments on social media can be posted quickly and cheaply by robots and are, at the moment, largely unregulated. The problem with free speech is not that someone is free to call you a fool, but that they can convince others you are a fool in ways that are hard to fight.
In an uncertain world, where even the best of our knowledge might be relative and temporary, we still need to have principles we can act on. How you select them is a personal choice, possible a lifelong journey. What matters is that you choose them. We hope this site has encouraged a more critical process. As we asked at the start – are you a consumer or a citizen?