Dangers inherent to social media activism in a world full of ‘alternative facts’

Have you ever seen someone following up their comments on a picture on Instagram, or on say a Facebook post, with references? Yeah, I didn’t think so. What of US president Donald Trump -does he bother to back up his Twitter statements with facts, nah ah. *we all know that right?!

Yet not everyone thinks to question figures of authority/governments/political propaganda especially in social media environments where you don’t necessarily feel that you are communicating in a public space, rather you find yourself in one that meshes and blends with the personal; where opinions get the same 140 characters as proven facts on Twitter; or your feed shows targeted posts from people you generally agree with on Facebook.

So, in continuing my train of thought on pocket sized phone-accessible forms of digital activism, I’m exploring how social media (more specifically Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) form an environment for activism where one person’s opinion is given the same space as somebody else’s reliable information. And noting that when opinions are given equal weight and attention as facts, ‘alternative facts’ can spread just as easily and fast (if not faster) as factual accounts.

Social media contents create their own narratives here in a way, narratives where the power of people’s opinions should not be overlooked. They may serve to manipulate an uninformed ‘general public’, such as when the recent US elections were heavily influenced by Russia[1] possibly affecting processes of democracy. Or when used as counter-arguments to reliably sourced information such as when I recently read through comments on a tattooist friend of mine’s image on Instagram where alt-right opinions were repeatedly thrown as counter-arguments to what was clearly facts on the matter at hand.

So my inspiration for this post *rant* really came about in that comments section under a picture of a stick-n-poke tattoo sketch of a pair of Timberland boots. And then it was revisited yesterday, as I was casually scrolling through my  Facebook-feed and stumbled upon two consecutive posts, both in their own ways arguing and illustrating the very important difference between opinions and facts..

First I came across a video from a page I don’t follow -you’ll have to click on “Twitter & glädje.”  to actually see it:

Twitter & glädje.

Komikern Ricky Gervais har tankar om social media och hur vi misskomunicerar.Här i en intervju med Jim Norton & Sam Roberts från podcasten Jim & Sam Show.Följ Jim och Sam på YouTube: www.YouTube.com/JimandSamShowRicky Gervais på Twitter: https://twitter.com/rickygervais?lang=svRicky Gervais hemsida: http://www.rickygervais.com/Musik: Kevin Mcloud ( http://incompetech.com/wordpress/ )Originalklippet hittar du här: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHe9I9aFrXs

Publicerat av Digitala Världen den 11 februari 2017

which coincidentally, was directly followed by a friend sharing this picture:

 

As previously mentioned by fellow #resist poster David, applying arguments from Erica Chenowich, liberation technology indeed has a darker side. In further drawing upon research by political scientist Anita Ghodes, Chenowich also finds that “governments are simply better at manipulating social media than activists”.[2] Painting a pretty grim picture of what pressures may come from what, and how, things are shared on social media. Activists may very well be the underdogs here. With so many matters related to development and/or social change largely depending on democratic governmental responses, it is hard not to question how much governments’ play their own parts in opinion-shaping  to manipulate the public in their favour. And how fruitful activism using social media can be in that type of personal/public-meshed media climate.

Now social media are arguably a great many things, but to place them into context briefly, I am using Graham Meikle’s definition that “social media are networked database platforms that combine public with personal communication”[3] and that have a multitude of cultural aspects that shape their use. For example, communication on social media follows certain patterns depending on which platform is being used. An important aspect of these patterns is that they have little to no cues on how, for instance, comments should be read.[4] I believe this absence of cues is important in cases of opinion vs. fact in particular. How are you supposed to know what is true on matters where you have little to no prior knowledge without any cues to their legitimacy?

Almost regardless of content, if you view political tweets in light of framing theory they tend to target certain issues and steer attention away from others, and the framing used can impact on the choices made by those who read them.[5]  And does digital activism become less impactful when the public views social media as arenas open to manipulation? (Fell free to add any thoughts on this in the comments below). So whilst your general person posting/sharing/tweeting isn’t necessarily doing so with a specific receiver in mind, what you read on social media may be a different story entirely. If you spout one untruth, it can be shared by anyone who finds it likely or agrees, probably it will be done less by those who do not. What does that mean in terms of rallying up people to support certain issues? Do the lack of interpretative cues equate to an overall lack of legitimacy, regardless of in relation to reliable information or alternative facts?

Finally, I’d like to point out a small but significant exception to the trendsof ‘sharing what you like’ dynamics -which is the @realDonaldTrump re-tweets. His tweets are seemingly shared in equal, if not greater, measure by those who do not agree with him, for example:

 

[1] http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/11/16/how-social-media-helps-dictators/

[2] ibid.

[3] Meikler, G. Social Media: communication, sharing and visibility, Routledge New York. 2016, p.6

[4] ibid, p.19

[5] Parmless, J.H; Bichard, S.L ‘Tweets on the campaign trail’ Politics and the Twitter Revolution. How Tweets Influence the Relationship between Political Leaders and the Public. Plymouth: Lexington Books. 2013, pp.168-9Save

4 Comments

  1. David Francisco

    I agree with you Emma. Social media can be very speculative and problematic inasmuch as alternative facts and fake news are being accounted as true. Whatever Trump says is expected to be true. Whatever Bernie Sanders says is expected to be true. Whatever CNN publishes is expected to be true. Whatever Marine Le Pen denounces is expected to be true. Whatever people say on their Twitter or Facebook is also expected to be true. Social media has become a platform for “fabricated stores”. As stated by former U.S. President Barack Obama in Germany last year, we live: “in an age where there’s so much active misinformation, and it’s packaged very well, and it looks the same when you see it on a Facebook page or you turn on your television, where some overzealousness on the part of a US official is equated with constant and severe repression elsewhere, if everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won’t know what to protect”. In the words of Mark Graham and William H. Dutton (2014): “The Internet’s increasing centrality to everyday life and work has raised many questions over its implications for the production and consumption of news (ch. 8). Do we have to believe in everything we read? Do we have to mistrust everything we read? Is journalism lost forever?

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  3. Christie

    Hi Emma,

    You raise some really interesting and valid points, and I really like the personal tone you’ve used in this post. You make the content very digestible, particularly with your inclusion of humour.

    I often see posts on social media (on Facebook in particular) that present a quote or fact superimposed on an image. Usually these relate to social issues like conservation, but they can also just be about celebrities. Often these are shared or liked by thousands of people, yet the source of the quote/fact is undisclosed. That’s usually because they’re fake, created to support the agenda of whoever made the image, yet people rarely question these posts that are presented as truth. These posts often evoke widespread empathy or anger (or another response based on the nature of the content) – all based on a lie. I think the “social” nature of social media often results in people forgetting to question the source and credibility of the content they see.

    In regards to your point about people commenting on posts with personal opinions presented as facts, I see this frequently on posts by Australian writer Clementine Ford. She writes for publications about feminism and other women’s rights issues, and I often see people commenting on her articles and social media posts in disagreement with something she has written about, presenting a counter argument as a fact, with no link/reference to support their argument. This is usually just because they think she is a “whinging, angry feminist” and for no other valid reason do they want to contest her writing.

    To add to this, I also find that people often display certain behaviours on social media that they would not in real life. For example, I often see people engaging in (usually heated) conversations with strangers and resorting to racism, sexism, swearing etc, but these people would unlikely respond in this way in real life – probably because on social media, they can hide behind their computer. This too happens on Clementine Ford’s posts!

    Cheers,
    Christie

    1. Emma

      Hi Christie, thanks for your comment! I read Clem Ford a lot too, especially on fb. She is a friend of a friend of mine’s in Australia. And I agree, oftentimes filters are all gone and people comment with such a strong sense of entitlement as to what they might feel about an issue. I think it is very much found in situations where some aspect of someone’s person(ality) feels threatened, and I think often this idea of a “threat” just boils down to ignorance or being unaware of ‘the Other’s’ perspective(s). Thanks again 🙂

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