As President Obama told the BBC last week, a sad fact of modern life is ‘truth decay’: on social media, facts increasingly no longer seem to matter. As a result, political divisions have flourished: after all, if you’re seeing a social media feed that is completely different to that of your own neighbour, separated by the infamous social media ‘filter bubbles’, how on Earth are you supposed to have an informed discussion about the future of the country?
This is also known as homophily: the phenomenon where we surround ourselves with media content that fits our own world views. In his book Republic.com 2.0 Professor Cass R. Sunstein (who ran the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs during the Obama administration) describes how we ‘retreat into a comfortable and customized media cocoon’. This feeds into what Tommy Shane, from First Draft News, calls psychological vulnerabilities: ‘cognitive dissonance’ is when you react negatively to information that contradicts your beliefs; and ‘confirmation bias’ is the tendency to more readily believe information that confirms your existing beliefs. ‘Motivated reasoning’ is when we put use our cognitive skills to justify believing what we want to, rather than aim to seek out the truth.
The US Presidential election has seen these problems play out at a monstrous scale. A Survey USA poll commissioned by Avaaz found that in October 2020, 85% of registered US voters were exposed to disinformation stating that ‘mail-in voting will lead to voter fraud’. 35% believed it to be true, and 68% of those who saw it did so on Facebook. False claims of mass-scale mail-in fraud from high-profile public figures (for which, it is crucial to highlight, no evidence has been provided) continue to be shared on public-facing platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and are amplified in the private echo-chambers of Facebook Groups, Messenger, WhatsApp and Parler. The ‘Stop The Steal’ group, which Facebook took down for promoting violence, only to see offspring groups multiply, is a notorious example.
It shouldn’t come as such a shock, therefore, that in November 70% of US Republicans don’t believe the 2020 election was free and fair, according to research from POLITICO and Morning Consult. All this when the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has stated the 2020 election was ‘the most secure in American history’.
In the UK, even during the worst of the Brexit debate (especially post-referendum) it was never contested that 52% of the electorate had voted to leave the EU. Our most recent election, in the winter of 2019, saw a significant uptake in postal ballots – yet the losing parties didn’t argue they had been tampered with. But we may not be so lucky in future. Speaking to the Daily Express, Nina Schick, author of Deepfakes: The Upcoming Infocalypse warned that AI-generated videos of public figures, like celebrities or politicians, have become increasingly easier to make. This poses an imminent threat to liberal democracy – if we ‘have no objective sense of what’s real and what’s not’, we may find ourselves in a situation of constant public distrust echoing that across the pond.
In the same BBC interview, Barack Obama outlined the need for ‘a combination of regulation and standards within industries to get us back to the point where we at least recognise a common set of facts before we start arguing about what we should do about those facts’. Our Conservative Government is working to that effect, in two areas of legislation: there is the Online Harms Bill, which will impose a duty of care for social media companies towards their users to protect them against harmful content; and at the same time Minister for the Constitution Chloe Smith MP is overseeing a much-needed tweaking of campaign ad rules, where new ‘digital imprints’ will allow voters to see who is behind online political ads, so that they can ‘assess the credibility of campaign messages and make an informed choice of the arguments presented’. This is an important step to bring our electoral laws up to date for the digital age. But social media affordances, i.e. what platforms are built to allow you to do and what you use them for (which can often differ), change so fast – deepfakes and closed echo-chamber groups being prime examples – that it may not be the last.
The core Conservative message on this is that above all, we trust our fellow citizens that they will always make the right choice at the ballot box. They deserve a clear picture of the facts, arguments and policy proposals, especially on their smartphones as they head down to the local polling station.