Victoria Anderson: We must not sleepwalk into trusting fake news

Robots are setting the political agenda through social media disinformation campaigns and skewing election results. Thanks to social media, the future of western democracy is at stake

Just a few days ago a parliamentary Select Committee, chaired by Labour MP Yvette Cooper, challenged representatives from three of the social media giants – YouTube, Facebook and Twitter – on hate speech, indecent material and so-called ‘fake news’. Why, she wanted to know, did the companies not devote a greater proportion of their substantial resources to moderating their platforms? How could they ensure that those responsible for distributing potentially illegal material were brought to justice?

The reps sat before the panel like three shame-faced schoolboys. In the end they received nothing stronger than a stern telling off.

But this is a serious issue. Social media influence has been widely linked to the populist surges that have unsettled Western democracies. When sites like Facebook and YouTube were created over a decade ago, they were just a source of light entertainment, free at the point of access – a kind of NHS for cat pictures. By 2016, social networking sites had become one of the main ways for people to consume news.

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This hasn’t negated traditional news outlets, since TV and print media now also route through social media – where ratings are measured not only in likes and shares, but also in views which – in turn – translate to advertising revenue.

Social media collects, monitors and analyses our data, primarily for the purposes of targeting both commercial and political advertising. Social media shares data with government agencies; you might even remember that in 2014 Facebook made a public apology for undertaking secret psychological, mood-altering experiments on 700,000 unsuspecting users. For the most part we taciturnly accept such incursions as a “small price to pay” for all the perceived benefits offered by social media and the internet more widely – over a billion people use Facebook every single day and YouTube, a Google subsidiary, has 30 million visits daily.

But think about it: how often do you register with a new website using your Facebook credentials, or linking your PayPal account? Ever wonder how much collective data is generated by the linking of your various accounts and patterns of internet usage?

Computer-generated fake social media accounts (‘bots’) seem like real users. They are programmed to generate realistic comments, likes and shares just like real people.

The problem with internet governance – there is next-to-none, by the way – is that technology rapidly outstrips the slow legal processes that struggle to keep up and which are, for the most part, powerless.

In the past year, seismic shifts have occurred in our political landscapes – shifts which could literally destabilise western democracy – that may also be partially attributed to social media. Data researchers at Cambridge Analytica promise to help political organisations gain electoral advantage through complex psychographical analysis of potential voters gained via social media data-mining. The Anglo-American company has been implicated in the UK referendum and US election. It’s notable that Trump adviser Steve Bannon sits on their board.

Computer-generated fake social media accounts (‘bots’) seem like real users. They are programmed to generate realistic comments, likes and shares just like real people. Often they troll users with conflicting opinions, while attracting support from unwitting humans who agree with and even retweet the robot’s opinion.

This is actual propaganda, often emanating from unknown and unregulated internet sources

It is not known how many political bots are active at any one time, but one 2016 study showed that less than 10 per cent of 200 Brexit-themed accounts were actually controlled by a human. But bot accounts comprise only part of what appears to be an orchestrated campaign of political disinformation that has deluged social media, with the most well-known aspect of this being fake news. In the context of social media and electoral influence this is not just perceived media bias or even inaccurate reporting – no matter what certain politicians have to say on the matter.

It is actual propaganda, often emanating from unknown and unregulated internet sources, with the apparent aim of spreading disinformation, confusion, division and distrust. Who is behind this? Some suggest Russian influence should not be ruled out, others refute this. It could be mischievous basement-dwelling teenage hackers. Or it could be something more serious.

After concerns about possible manipulation of other European elections and the upsurge in populism, many shared a sigh of relief when far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders failed to win his bid for the country’s leadership. But we can’t relax our guard. We can’t assume we are no longer subject to political manipulation through social media and disreputable internet sources – and even bots – that strive to set the political agenda. This is not a time for us to sleepwalk.

Victoria Anderson is a Big Issue columnist, contributor to The Conversation and teaches journalism at Cardiff University

Main image: bombuscreative / iStock