Winnowing truth from fantasy: Social media ‘facts’ a toxic influence

Last Thursday, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was unflinching on Facebook. She described Mark Zuckerberg’s behemoth as “accomplices for misleading the American people with money from God knows where”.

Winnowing truth from fantasy: Social media ‘facts’ a toxic influence

Last Thursday, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was unflinching on Facebook. She described Mark Zuckerberg’s behemoth as “accomplices for misleading the American people with money from God knows where”. She joined an ever-growing cohort arguing that the company isn’t doing enough to root out lies published on its platform. Their “business model is strictly to make money”, she said. “They don’t care about truth ... they have said that even if it is not true they will print it.” Unsurprisingly, and correctly, she called that “shameful”. Unsurprisingly, her views were echoed the next day by White House hopeful Joe Biden: “I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan. I think he’s a real problem ... He knows better.” New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez consolidated that message and warned that America’s 2020 presidential election will be influenced by paid-for false claims spread through the social media platform.

Zuckerberg, in a self-serving and disingenuous response, said: “In a democracy, it’s really important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying, so they can make their own judgments.” Not even his employees were convinced by his plamás as 200 of them challenged him to reconsider as “free speech and paid speech are not the same”. Zuckerberg wants the world to believe that Facebook facilitates fair debate when, in reality, you can say whatever you like as you, or your backer, pay Facebook’s advertising rates.

It is be tempting, but dangerously careless, to imagine that these forces are not at play as we prepare to elect a parliament. We have a pertinent example of how social media can, almost unknowingly lead — or distort — discourse. The row over the RIC and DMP is almost completely a child of social media. Those platforms energised the debate in a new, highly politicised way. This is confirmed by the fact that an earlier RIC/DMP commemoration, when the Garda Memorial Garden was opened in 2010, went almost unnoticed. It is impossible, too, to argue that Brexit might have been endorsed but for social media campaigning, much of which was dishonest. We, and our neighbours across the Irish Sea, have it seems, swapped Perfidious Albion for Perfidious Algorithms.

Zuckerberg’s wealth is estimated at €67bn, a little shy of our Government’s 2018 revenues of €82.0bn. Hence, he may not be overly focused on our election as it will not make the tiniest impression on Facebook’s balance sheet — wherever it is based this year. Irish political parties spent approximately €45,442 on Facebook since March. Weekend opinion polls, however, may force an increase in that. A Sunday Times poll put Fianna Fáil 12 points ahead of Fine Gael. It also put Sinn Féin at 19%, a single point behind Leo Varadkar’s party.

That spend, unlike spending on virtually every other platform, can facilitate the wildest fantasies or the darkest drum beating. That spend, often anonymous, can deceive voters as easily as it can convince. This is the anti-democratic world Zuckerberg and his allies facilitate so it is more than important to not only consider today’s political arguments but to be aware of how those arguments came to our attention.

Choppy, increasingly murky waters indeed.

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