‘Fake news’ is probably the most scrutinised recent product of social media culture, especially in the aftermath of the U.S. Election. The amount of articles on my Facebook feed describing their motivations, indications and even presenting ‘can-you-tell’ quizzes probably equals the number of blatantly fake stories I have seen.
‘Fake news’ used to mean satirical sites like The Onion; harmless, and hilarious when unwitting victims responded to ridiculous articles with comments in caps-lock detailing their incredulity. Now they are seen as more sinister, a malicious form of deception with the aim of intentionally misleading people in the run up to important events – tweets aimed at Democrat voters ‘reminding’ them that they could vote by text in the U.S. Election for instance.
I believe there is a parallel phenomenon that is equally dangerous, albeit one which is not generating an entire body of literature: a growing form of ‘tribalism’ in social media.
All social media networks are built around complicated and relentlessly-updated algorithms, computer equations that filter what we see online. Some are more obvious than others, some are not. Facebook in particular often advertise their work and announce most major updates publicly (this blog presents a comprehensive list of them). These algorithms track our behaviour on social media and from all the possible posts that we could see, they choose the few that make it to our personal feeds. Ostensibly, these functions prevent cluttering and provide tech-savvy businesses with the apparatus to reach potential customers that might otherwise pass them by.
So, the mechanisms of social media sites show us the things we approve of and hide the things we don’t in order to keep us coming back – it’s hardly surprising. In this video, Mark Zuckerberg describes how Facebook’s News Feed feature is an attempt to ‘give everyone in the world the best personalised newspaper’. Consequently, however, the online space that we spend ever more time in shows us a version of the world that isn’t quite balanced or true. We are encouraged (or simply desire) to unfollow or unfriend people that we ‘wouldn’t get on with’, and so the people we see online are all slightly more like us, and the news headlines are mostly in agreement with each other. Any perception of reality is distorted due to these algorithms and worse still, the process is exponential; the more you define and consolidate your niche, the taller the walls get and the less likely it is that you’ll read anything that challenges your view of the world (unless you actively look for it).
This might all sound a little dramatic; it doesn’t matter, for instance, if your social media feeds repeatedly tell you that your favourite sports team is the best when they are not. If I follow Manchester United on Facebook I will happily know that they are the crème de la crème of the Premier League and that Paul Pogba is proving to be the greatest bargain signing in the history of football. I wouldn’t follow any other teams, of course, but luckily I have the luxury of weekly concrete results to prove me wrong and bring me back to reality. If I only follow Breitbart News on Twitter then I will see that Muslims are secretly in charge of American universities and that black men are habitual liars. When the stories are political instead of football-related it is hardly an exaggeration to say that this is incredibly dangerous for the future of our scoiety and democratic institutions.
Polarisation in a population’s political beliefs is not a significant threat to democracy, as is often claimed. Take the example of benefits allowances here in the UK; left-wing voters are more likely to support a more generous welfare system and right-wing voters more likely to oppose such a system. Hardly the most contentious issue, and one with considerable middle-ground, but still an issue in which there exists a clear dichotomy of opinion. There also exists a significant amount of debate around the issue, however, and debate and compromise are fundamental to progress and success. You might not like compromising and the end result might not look like the shiny manifesto that you retweeted from your favourite commentator last week, but that is how politics works. A lack of crucial debate is the inherent peril that lies in the false virtual realities of our social media networks. Polarisation is normal; polarisation without negotiation and an understanding of opposing positions is terrifying.
‘Most people, most of the time, prefer to seek approval or security’ writes Christopher Hitchens in his work Letters to a Young Contrarian, ‘and nor, incidentally, are those desires contemptible in themselves’. But he also sends a warning: ‘seek out argument and disputation for their own sake’, because a healthy political system depends on them. Keep colleagues and friends on Facebook, especially the Ukippers or the Corbynites, even if you merely roll your eyes every time you have to see their opinions aired out online – do not simply follow the Guardian, follow the Telegraph too, and learn to recognise the euphemisms employed by both sides of any debate.
In his biography of Barack Obama, David Remnick includes the comments of one of the President’s oldest friends: ‘Barack is the interpreter,’ Cassandra Butts explains. ‘His role is … in explaining one side to the other’. The ability to bridge political divisions through knowledge and understanding is not unique to Obama, but that ability is hampered by the cosy clouds of our multiple personalised newsfeeds. Combat social media tribalism wherever you can, and we will all be better off for it.