I’m someone who’s active in politics; it’s no secret. I’m also, unapologetically, a bit of a social media junkie. Due to the amalgamation of both of these things, an immense portion of the news I consume comes from Twitter. It’s a brilliant, and efficient, way of getting instant updates on what’s going on in the country and around the world. Many would agree that social media has been a game changer for many sectors, but the field of politics, in particular, has been fundamentally changed by it. In theory, social media is a great tool for politicians, enabling them to better connect with constituents, to release statements, and to share graphics and photos. For consultants, staffers and general political hacks, it’s certainly handy when it comes to gathering information and picking up trends. Why am I talking about social media, you ask? In this day and age, particularly at a time when we’re confined to our homes, it’s by far the easiest way to spread information. Let’s focus for a moment on Twitter, and who actually uses it. According to Twitter’s own analytics, over two-thirds of its users are under thirty, and over 40% are between the ages of 18 and 29 - my own demographic. With that kind of data, there is no doubt that use of this type of platform is among the easiest methods of influencing young people. However, I firmly believe that while my generation is far from stupid, we have a tendency not to think particularly deeply about what we see, nor to question it. Such is the danger of social media, and the role it plays in the modern world.
I’ve noticed something; something that’s worsening as time goes by. We’re all vulnerable to the consumption of misleading information, and I include myself in that. It’s a crisis in itself. But what we face is even worse than that. I’m talking about a deliberate assault on truth. Here’s how it works. Someone, in this case a political figure or party, makes a claim on a matter, and uploads it to social media. In many cases, they’ll have a significant following. Then comes the engagement. The likes and retweets flow in, maximising the post’s reach. So, what’s the problem? The problem is that the claim isn’t backed up by facts or evidence, and a little research would prove it to be false. But if that content is consistent with your political positions, you’re not going to seek out more information, are you? You’d have no problem sharing it. Then, the domino effect: the claim is shared far and wide on Twitter, Instagram and other platforms. Everyone you know has jumped on the bandwagon. Eventually, this false claim has been shared so often that it becomes the truth in many people’s minds. It becomes almost impossible to argue against.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who represented New York in the United States Senate, once noted that, “Everyone is entitled to his opinion, but not to his own facts.” But now, we’re faced with a rather peculiar dilemma. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from fiction at a first glance.
There are numerous examples. Donald Trump infamously claimed that his inauguration crowd size was “the biggest”. He sent his Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, to defend this claim, despite photographic and statistical evidence that proved it to be utterly false and, in fact, very far from the truth.
A story that broke nearly forty years ago in the United States, which stated falsehoods about the causes of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, was promoted by the Soviet KGB and continues to appear today.
In an Irish political context, the intricacies of our system may make it easy for opposition TDs to claim that the government ‘voted’ a certain way; a way that may outrage the masses, but suddenly seems far less outrageous once context is applied. That is a form of disinformation.
We have been exposed to disturbing amounts of disinformation during this pandemic, relating to COVID-19, potential cures and the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine. That, however, plays into the much larger issue of medical scepticism and the presentation of false claims as facts. The reality is that vaccines do not cause autism, and that we are not experiencing a “plandemic”. Those truths are backed up by medical and scientific facts, and that’s all there is to it.
Make no mistake: “fake news” and its spread are by no means confined to the United States, despite widespread media bias and their former president’s lack of interest in speaking the truth. In another significant case, we saw it in the run-up to the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom. Lies written in bold on the side of a bus. It’s a global phenomenon, and it’s taking shape in Europe, including here in Ireland. It’s happening in more places, and more often, than we might think.
We have genuine reason to fear disinformation. If spread widely, it can threaten democracy. It can threaten our environment. It can threaten public health. It can threaten our lives. That is why the onus is on all of us to always speak up; to present facts in response to fiction. To defend the truth. That goes for all of us: the public, those in the media, and those who run social media platforms. It’s critical that we make efforts to change direction before it is too late to do so.
Luke Corkery is a second year student of International Relations at Dublin City University.