Social Media as a political battleground

One of the first major changes in the digital sphere in 2018 was a drastic overhaul of Facebook’s algorithms affecting what content people saw in their feed. It was a move away from pages and sponsored content, it was a move away from the commercial arm of the business, back towards its roots by placing the emphasis on content created by friends and family. It is not a commercially intelligent move, the morning after the announcement saw Facebook lose 5% of its stock value as a result, but it is a socially responsible move that has followed a series of updates and tweaks designed to tackle the power and influence that Facebook has over its users. Snapchat has also made similar moves to limit commercial presence on their platform.

British society, along with most other western cultures have become increasingly dependent on social media, and not just for its original purpose of connecting with loved ones; A recent report by Ofcom showed that an astonishing 99% of 16-24-year-olds used Facebook on at least a weekly basis, and 78% of the United Kingdom’s citizens have a Facebook account, in the USA the statistics are similar, with 214 million users in the States (source: www.statista.com), which totals 66.2% of the total population. Social Media has become an integral part of western society and we are beginning to see the true extent of the power Social Media has on our lives and how vulnerable it makes us.
It makes us vulnerable because it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction online; it allows anyone to have the potential to control a powerful platform with the ability to reach millions of people across the world for little or no expenditure. A recent study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that 51% of Social Media users use social media platforms as a source of news, in the UK 33% of people use social media as their primary or first news source when using a smartphone or a tablet and an incredible 48% of Americans go to social media as their first source of information. This allows anyone to have the power to sway the opinions and knowledge of millions of people, with little fact checking taking place. 59% of all links shared on social media were never clicked on by the person sharing them, meaning that almost two-thirds of the information appearing in your timeline has purely been taken at face value before it was presented to you.

This has led to the “fake news” phenomenon that President Trump so often Tweets about. The idiom that “a lie is halfway around the world before the truth even has time to put its shoes on” has never held truer in the light of the digital age. James Caan, the highly successful recruitment entrepreneur made famous by the TV show Dragon’s Den, has a huge social media reach, as a LinkedIn Influencer he has over 1m followers on that platform, making him ahead of former US President Barack Obama and former British Prime Minister David Cameron. On Twitter, he has 178,000 followers and recently became a centerpiece in the spreading of fake news.

Back in December 2017, following the UK Government’s announcement that the UK Passport was to change to blue following the UK’s exit from the European Union, Mr Caan tweeted:

“A country that would spend £500m to change the colour of a passport while children sleep on the streets is a country whose priorities are wholly out of whack.”

This tweet was then retweeted 30,000 times within 24 hours, meaning it will have easily reached millions of people across the United Kingdom and abroad. Millions of people saw this simple piece of information that was highly critical of the UK Government, the problem was though, it wasn’t true. The next day, after a lot of public outcry from Conservative MPs and other well-informed people, Caan Tweeted a correction.

“Good news. Having researched the cost of providing new passports it appears the £500m for the colour is fake news. However, that doesn’t detract from my intention that together as a society we need to prioritise tackling issues such as poverty and homelessness.”
Everyone makes mistakes, but the problem that comes with social media is that the correction was only retweeted 652 times, a tiny fraction of the people who saw the lie were then able to see the correction, meaning that millions of people will still be believing that the lie uttered from a reputable source is true. This is just one example of the impact social media can have on the political balance of power in society and whilst in the grand scheme of things, this one event in itself may be rather minor, these occurrences are happening daily, hourly and the warriors of the truth are struggling to hold back this tide of fake news.

Some politicians are leveraging the power of social media to their advantage though. Social Media, especially Twitter became a key campaigning tool for Donald Trump during the 2016 Presidential Election campaign, he spent substantially less money than Hillary Clinton on his campaign, but he used his social media reach to place himself in front of millions of American voters for free. In the year leading up to the election, Trump tweeted 4993 times and his tweets would regularly reach 10,000 retweets or more, since winning the Presidency he has slowed down considerably, but still managed 2461 Tweets in the 12 months following his successful campaign.

Even here in the United Kingdom, when Donald Tweets, the entire country listens, he will set the conversation topic of millions of people across the globe with a single tweet. He regularly uses his platform to call out fake news, having used the term 167 times in that same 12 month period but he also uses his platform to announce key policy decision much, I imagine, to the bane of his Communications Director.
This huge influence that Donald Trump has means that he can do what few politicians can and that is speak directly to his electorate without intervention or censoring by spin doctors or the media; he is able to present unfiltered information to the public almost instantaneously.
However, Donald Trump is not the only one who can use this immense power, in fact, the US President has previously fallen afoul of promoting less savoury accounts.

Far-right groups and activists have found their safe haven in the digital spaces, many of the more extreme groups, such as Britain First and the British National Party in the UK and the Nationalist Front in the US. Britain First has over 1.9m Facebook followers, in comparison, the party of Government in the UK has just 652,000 followers, and the main opposition party, the Labour Party has just over half the following that Britain First does, at 1 million followers.
These extreme groups usually hide behind a mask of patriotism, a staple of western society that so many of us hold dear, by posting images of veterans or national flags with simple call-to-actions such as “Share this if you love our soldiers!”. On face value, these organisations and groups appear to be nothing more than pages praising our great nations and their core values, the very values that often define occidental society. Many of those who will share their content and indirectly support these groups, will do so believing the pages intentions to be ones of pure altruism.

President Trump recently caused significant controversy in the UK when he retweeted a series of videos by Jayda Frasen, the Deputy Leader of Britain First, these videos were designed to sow anti-Islamic feelings despite the authenticity of these videos being highly questionable. At least one of these videos was proven to have nothing to do with Islam.
It is not just the far-right who are thriving online though, Antifa who was recently designated as a domestic terrorist organisation in the USA also have a strong online presence, with over 281,000 followers on Facebook for their main account, and a large number of followers spread across regional accounts on both Facebook and Twitter. Extreme groups have mastered the art of gaining influence and utilising that influence to their own agenda.

Taking into account at the beginning of this article I wrote that 51% of us use Social Media as a source of news, it is dangerously alarming that extremist views have such a powerful influence on our lives. Social Media has become a key political battleground and politicians of all flavours are starting to take advantage of this. I have already spoken about how Donald Trump very successfully utilised Social Media in the Presidential campaign, but here in the UK the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, came back from a predicted electoral annihilation largely because of the ability of his campaigning organisation, Momentum, to utilise the power of social media to sway public opinion.
Whilst the Conservatives campaigned traditionally, knocking on doors and posting leaflets, the Labour Party took to Social Media and other non-traditional social outlets. Their online content was seen by millions of people for the same price as leafleting a single constituency, the Conservatives may have had greater funds and infrastructure, but the Labour Party had social media. At the start of the six-week election campaign, the Conservatives were ahead by over 20% in all the polls, on polling day that result became just a 2.3% lead, which resulted in the Conservatives losing 13 seats to Labour gaining 30. In an election designed to strengthen the Government’s position, it left the UK with a hung parliament, something highly uncommon in the United Kingdom.
Brexit too saw a huge influence on social media, the Vote Leave campaign inadvertently attracted support from many of the aforementioned groups, amplifying their online campaigns dramatically and allowing them to reach people who traditionally did not vote. Vote Leave won the Brexit campaign by such a narrow margin that one would be a fool to say that social media did not play a significant role in the result.

There is also talk of nation states taking advantage of Social Media as a new battleground for cyber warfare. Russian Interference has been cited in both the US Presidential Campaign, in the UK Brexit campaign and in the Catalonian Referendum for Independence. Currently, the UK intelligence services and US intelligence services are investigating the deployment of Russian “bot accounts” that were designed to take advantage of social media algorithms to promote specific content, in order to influence public opinion and thus the result of the election.
The methods allegedly used by Russia though are very difficult to trace and are not just within the reach of nation states, anyone with an above average knowledge of software and algorithmic coding could acquire and utilise an extensive botnet capable of immense influence, capable of shaping elections, capable of choosing Presidents and Prime Ministers.

Social media has become an integral part of occidental society, many of us cannot imagine life without it and would consider ourselves dependent on having access to our online personas but this has opened up an immense vulnerability in the very fabric of western civilisation. Whenever a person or a group, a nation or a culture becomes dependent on a facet of our very perception of reality, there will always be those who will abuse these powerful platforms, as individuals we must be on guard against these influences, both external and internal. We must learn to be critical of every piece of information we receive.

As sovereign nations, we also must be on guard but the line becomes far blurrier when we look to our Governments to regulate the information that is presented to us, whilst it is the duty of our leaders to protect the fabric of our societies, we too must be wary of any Government that seeks to censor the information we receive, as all too easy we call fall into a dystopian nightmare.

Ultimately, the onus is on the corporations. On Facebook, on Twitter, on Google and all the other companies that have become interwoven with our society. Corporate Social Responsibility no longer applies to just occasionally acts of altruism but instead applies to tapering the influence these corporations have on our lives. These platforms have the power to shape the very fabric of our societies but they also have the power to preserve our identities. Facebook has started in the right direction in addressing this power vacuum, but there is more much to do before the new online battleground is truly defined.

Photo Credit: Sam Ancliff