Did social media just serve democracy notice?

Politics appears to be growing increasingly polarised, with major political parties moving towards the fringes, leaving the centre exposed and devoid of a powerful, engaging voice.

This is perhaps most apparent in the UK and in the US, where blogs and social media drive the news cycle, and the media behemoths blindly follow.

As i discuss in my review of Ryan Holiday’s “Trust me I’m lying” the phenomenon of “feeding up the chain” can see a story propagate from a niche blog or regional news room to national and international outlets – empowering the voices of inflammatory groups on the political fringes by causing outrage either for our against a cause.

At the same time, social media has changed the way people access and curate news and this has impacted the political arena more quickly and to a greater extent than anyone could have predicted. Not only do we tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people that broadly share our views, we have a tendency to unfollow or unlike those that disagree with our points of view. This means we all tend to create social bubbles that reinforce our beliefs and shift our opinions of what is deemed acceptable or believable.

These phenomena have combined to create an environment in which “fake news”, mistruths and rumour flourish alongside more rigorously vetted news from the traditional newspapers.

Fake news travels faster than the truth

A groundbreaking new study published in Science has shown for the first time that falsehoods and fake news travel further and faster through social media than the truth.

The first of its kind study analyzed every major contested news story in English across the span of Twitter’s existence—some 126,000 stories, tweeted by 3 million users, over more than 10 years—and finds that the truth simply cannot compete with hoax and rumor.

Fake news and false rumors reach more people, penetrate deeper into the social network, and spread much faster than true stories.

“It seems to be pretty clear [from our study] that false information outperforms true information,” said Soroush Vosoughi, the data scientist from MIT that led the study. He postulates that this “is not just because of bots. It might have something to do with human nature.”

A key takeaway from the article is that content that arouses a strong emotional response spreads further, faster, more deeply and more broadly on Twitter. And its the false information that is more surprising and that is typically negative that grabs our attention and cause us to want to share it – we evolved to be attentive to novel and negative threats.

And these observations play into the hands of those trying to manipulate the media for their own political ends – think about the furore over the alleged interference in the US elections by Russian agents.

Or perhaps consider the role that organisations such as Cambridge Analytica and SCL Elections are alleged to have played in the Brexit vote and the US Presidential elections.

Reporters from The Observer, The Guardian and Channel 4 allege they have obtained evidence that Cambridge Analytica has accessed millions of Facebook accounts without consent and then used that data to target and manipulate political opinion.

Time to pull out the proverbial aluminium foil hats?

Whatever the outcome, it seems that social media is no longer the force for democratising the media that it was at first perceived to be. Instead its tendency to amplify fake news at the expense of the truth puts our entire worldview at risk.

If corporations can indeed use social platforms to psychologically manipulate people and populations it puts any system of democratic government at significant risk.

It just might be time to pull out the proverbial aluminium foil hats before our new overlords emerge from the shadows…

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