The US election: Is this a watershed moment for social media populism?
Populism is built on the belief that a shadowy minority élite is suppressing the majority. Only one man (it’s almost always a man) can save the majority by winning power, draining the swamp, and restoring the rightful order.
So the argument goes.
That argument loses credence as the votes roll in and the majority votes for the other side.
In a predictably petulant response to this reality, Donald Trump has tried to sow doubt on the veracity of the US election results.
In response, Twitter has sown doubt on the veracity of his tweets.
Sure thing, Don. Now grab your wig and go.
Dealing with live video content is even more difficult for the fact-checkers. US news channels received praise for cutting away from Trump’s unstable statements this week, which may mark a significant shift in how the media reports on blatant lies. As in, they just won’t report them.
The challenge is heightened further on social media, where all manner of cranks are churning out lies at break-truth speed. On Facebook Live, the most popular streams this week were those that claimed Trump had won the election.
Twitter removed Steve Bannon’s profile, after he called for medieval violence against Anthony Fauci. The social network also says Trump will no longer receive special treatment once he leaves office. As it stands, Twitter is duty-bound to let him air his delusions, due to the importance of the office he holds.
There is an argument that this all plays into the hands of the populists. They thrive on an oft-imagined state of repression, which becomes material when they are booted off social networks.
But it starves these charlatans of their oxygen.
See, social networks are perfect breeding grounds for lie-strewn, populist ideas. They allow the “market” to decide what should be prominent, by letting people “vote” using clicks, likes, and shares.
Baseless lies appeal to subterranean currents that should really stay subterranean. Instead, these currents become the driving forces behind the news agenda, in a model that equates social media engagement with newsworthiness.
“The concept of social networks, broadly speaking, as amplifiers for idiots and crazy people is not what we intended.”
Social networks are never neutral. Every element of a social network must be designed, codified, and weighted in ways decided by the platform owners.
Both WhatsApp and Twitter have introduced features that make it a wee bit more difficult to share content before the sharer has actually read it.
For example, WhatsApp introduced a sharing limit, so users can only forward a news story to five group chats. Twitter nudges the user towards adding a comment before they blindly re-tweet an article.
These simple measures work. Yet they only make it a little more difficult to share the content.
Imagine if Facebook promoted nuanced analysis with references instead of tabloid scare stories. Or if, before sharing polemical content, the user also had to append a contrasting story to highlight the other side of the argument.
That sounds like a lot of effort, doesn’t it? People only want to post something quickly and get some likes.
Except they are no longer just posting cute pictures of animals. People are posting propaganda and sensationalist nonsense, with potentially damaging consequences. It shouldn’t be easy to do so.
If people can’t be bothered reading the article before sharing it, or if the requirement to add a comment deters them from putting it out there altogether, maybe they shouldn’t be sharing such strident political opinions in the first place.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but we are not dealing with the true nature of free speech in these examples. Instead we are dealing with the amplification of extremists, whether what they say is true or false, or whether the sharer has read the content or not.
This is not about balance, either. The attempt to be “balanced” is partially to blame for our current situation. The traditional news outlets have given air time to kooks of all stripes, to fend off accusations of bias.
It didn’t work; the populist position is that the élite is suppressing the people. They cannot drop that argument, even when they are broadcasting live to the nation.
There was a front-page piece in The Times this week about how the “radical Left” are the real losers of the US presidential election, in a declaration that redefines both “real” and “losers”. The writer (degree in PPE from Oxford, naturally) railed against the radical Left’s “control of much of the cultural, media and corporate establishment.”
Let me remind you: The author made these deranged proclamations from the front page of The Times.
This populist rhetoric can never be satisfied. It would be a contradiction in terms that would collapse the ideology entirely.
Even on the front page of the establishment newspaper, these types will claim they are being silenced by the very establishment that is currently promoting them, right in front of your eyes.
It’s a con. And it works. The very rich have figured out a way to get the poor to vote for the interests of the very rich. It all begins and ends with lies.
If the truth were profitable, they’d pivot to piety in a heartbeat. But the current media landscape has turned big lies into big business.
Calling out blatant falsehoods for what they are is a divisive approach at a time when no-one believes we need further division. While we work on long-term alternatives, this blunt instrument can still have an impact.
I truly hope that this week’s result is the beginning of a change in direction. The USP of outrageous lying was that it wins power; now that the populists have suffered a bruising defeat in the US, we can only hope that other countries follow suit.
The UK first, please.