The internet held the promise of an interconnected global village that facilitated cooperation and dialogue through authentic information sharing. But the interaction between our inherent human tendencies and social media platforms has produced an epidemic of misinformation, hoaxes and hate-mongering that threatens this vision.
Social media is increasingly influencing the way we consume news. Research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in 26 countries shows that more than half of those sampled use social media as a news source.
This trend comes at a cost as social media is not known for its accuracy, or the advancement of challenging and diverse perspectives. Filter bubbles, created through personalised and algorithmic news feeds, reinforce this.
Unrestricted access to information is a cornerstone of a vibrant democracy. But if this information is inaccurate, biased or falsified, the fundamental freedom of informed choice is denied. In essence government accountability, social justice and equality are severely compromised. Thus social media, as the most effective purveyor of fake news and conspiracies, poses a serious threat to democracy.
Rise of fake news
In the wake of political upheavals – the US presidential race and Brexit are good examples – there has been a surge in fake news, conspiracies and pseudoscience discourses on social media platforms.
In South Africa 2016 was an annus horribilis for the governing African National Congress (ANC) and President Jacob Zuma. A pervasive conspiracist narrative about a sinister “third force” meddling in the nation’s affairs hogged the headlines. Fighting for his political life, Zuma blamed Western intelligence for allegedly stirring up criticism of him.
These and other events have seen “post-truth” emerge as the Oxford Dictionary international word of 2016. The term refers to the irrationality that prevails when appeals to emotions and personal beliefs, rather than hard evidence, are more powerful in forming political opinions.
There is now a burgeoning “cottage industry” of websites that invent fake stories. Analysis byBuzzfeed of the recent US election pointed to the prevalence of fake and hyper-partisan content on Facebook pages and websites.
The attraction to this fake news isn’t surprising. Research suggests that the public is also more likely to indulge in conspiracy theorising during periods of insecurity and discontent.
Threat to democracy
With the rising tide of populism we have seen popular mistrust, and even rejection, of the political establishment and mainstream media. In a climate of “us vs them” researchers find that people, especially conspiracists, are attracted to alternative news sources. They are motivated by the desire to avoid the perceived manipulation by mainstream media and become susceptible to fake news.
In Africa, conspiracy making occurs across the political divide. It is used by regimes to entrench power, or by the opposition to erode it.
Zimbabwe is a prime example. Conspiracy theories have been part of 92-year-old Robert Mugabe’s presidency in the almost 37 years of his rule. He has muzzled the country’s media and railed against Western powers for conspiring to unseat him and destroy the economy. Conspiracies about plots to assassinate him abound.
In South Africa conspiracy theories proliferate from the constant crises around embattled Zuma and the ANC. A constant refrain has been that the media conspire with third parties to discredit the ANC and mislead the public.
Conspiracy theories: narratives on steroids
Stories and storytelling are an inextricable part of human consciousness. It is through stories that we interpret the world, imagine other possibilities and adopt other perspectives.
In this way humans are hardwired for conspiracy stories that contradict official accounts of events or factual evidence. As such conspiracists are not unhinged or paranoid. They “cut across gender, age, race, income, political affiliation, educational level and occupational status”. No individual or group is immune from conspiratorial thinking. And if a group believes one conspiracy, it is likely to believe others.
Conspiracy theories – described as “narrative on steroids” – offer enticing clickbait opportunities for the human brain on social media platforms. The typical fictitious plot describes the sinister machinations of powerful groups or organisations that work in secret against the public good.
The danger of such narratives is exemplified by the bizarre US “Pizzagate” saga. A gunman fired an assault weapon in a pizza shop acting on fabricated social media claims that it was the site of a child sex abuse ring that involved Hillary Clinton.
Research shows that narratives have powerful traction online when they feed into a conspiratorial worldview that affirms a rejection of official explanations. Such stories consciously, or unconsciously, induce emotional contagion – communal emotions of hate, anger and fear – that are further amplified.
Why technology can’t save us from ourselves
Is the post-truth climate and the concomitant surge in falsehoods and conspiracy theories a spasm in history, or does it reflect a seismic political shift? The jury is still out. But social media as a news source – without the fact-checking and the editorial filters of responsible journalism – is a growing trend.
It would seem logical that a “digital virus” of insidious mistruths and half-truths created by the use of technology would, and should, be cured by technology. Some technological correctives have in fact presented themselves. Facebook, for example, has announced it will use fact-checking services to flag fake stories as “disputed”.
But technology cannot be the panacea when the intense and overwhelming social media space presents a perilous mismatch with our innate human capacities and tendencies. This human-digital interface makes social media the most effective and dangerous enabler of human irrationality, distorted perceptions, and conspiratorial thinking ever invented.