Despite every effort to stop the spread of misinformation on social media, it just never seems to go away. The most insidious part of this is that most people don’t realize how it happens every day, on a regular basis, right underneath their noses. Whether you are using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok, countless algorithms and bots are studying you behind the scenes, just looking for a way to message you with a little daily misinfo.
The BBC experiment: Fake news and fake Americans
To highlight exactly how this happens, BBC reporter Marianna Spring recently launched a social media experiment. She created five different political profiles – a very conservate voter, a very liberal voter, a populist conservative, an apolitical independent, and a moderate Democrat – on social media. Then, starting in August 2022, she studied how these social media profiles led to them being deluged with misinformation. For each of these profiles, she did not leave comments and did not interact with other friends, so the algorithms had no way to measure engagement or other clues as to behavior or ideology. All they had was basic information.
So what do you think happened? Each social media profile became inundated with misinformation and disinformation. For example, the “very liberal” persona (known as Emma) started to get messaging about lesbian and LGBTQ+ issues, women’s issues, and social-cultural issues related to her assumed belief structure. Thus, Emma also received information about abortion rights. It turns out that all the traits and background profile information required by the social media sites became a form of “bait.” As soon as the algorithms and bots identified her as a very liberal individual, that left her open to messaging from Democrats and the Far Left.
Impact on U.S. politics
As the BBC reporter concluded, this social media phenomenon obviously has enormous consequences for political debate in the United States. If all you see, day in and day out, is the same messaging on the same topics, this will only start to harden your belief structure. Moreover, it will make you much more likely to believe that anyone who does not share your same beliefs is somehow way off the political spectrum. You might start to view these people as “extremists.”
Then, if you are fed a steady diet of news items featuring these “extremists,” you might begin to believe they are really “domestic terrorists.” That, of course, would leave you very likely to buy into the argument that these “domestic terrorists” should be relentlessly hunted down, punished, and removed forever from social media. (Not like this has not already happened…)
So, you can already see how dangerous this is for democracy. It has a very polarizing impact on political speech, and it makes it very difficult to reach consensus on any issue. How could you possibly ever compromise, for example, with a bunch of “racists” and “extremists” and “terrorists”? It would be like agreeing to hang out at an ISIS training camp for the weekend to discuss your next big event.
At the end of the day, what makes this situation so concerning is that it can lead to real world violence. Almost anyone can agree that what happened on January 6 was not good for American democracy. Peaceful protests are one thing, but a rampaging of U.S. government buildings is another thing entirely. Is there a link between January 6 and social media? Most likely, yes.
If we don’t want similar types of events to happen in the future, then we need to be much more aware of what is happening on social media, and how our opinions and value systems are being shaped online. If we all live in closed-off political silos, where we can’t even bear to hear what the other side is saying, then we need to face the consequences. As Thomas Jefferson once opined, in a democracy, the people get the democracy they deserve.