How social media contribute to political landslides like Brexit and the election of Donald Trump

Many explanations have been given over the past few weeks and months for the popularity of Trump in the US presidential elections and the potentially disastrous result of former British PM Cameron’s referendum, which we all know as Brexit. Both of the campaigns running up to the results we now know were characterised by half-truths and downright lies.

One thing the results of people’s voting behaviour in both these cases has in common is that both have proven to be profoundly divisive. Politics have always been a game of broken promises and claims that proved to be wrong or exaggerated, but this time the information coming from the winners often belonged and belong to the realm of phantasy. Brexit won’t be as straightforward and simple as Theresa May and her Brexiteers want it to be. It will be an arduous process with legal and practical obstacles.

And Trump’s promise to build a wall on the border with Mexico and let the country pay for it: who in their right mind believes this will ever happen? Where is the person with average intelligence and basic school education? Are the people who voted for the Brexiteers in the UK and Trump in the US of a more stupid kind than the rest of us? There are reasons why they might be.

Technology analysts immediately pointed a finger at Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook. Apparently, Facebook listed fake news on its pages during Trump’s campaign. Despite the efforts of Zuckerberg to downplay Facebook’s role in the election, Buzzfeed News reports that top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined 1.

The problem isn’t limited to Facebook, but exists on all social media. Google announced it would do more to prevent fake news sites from making money through advertising. Admitting the problem exists at all will be hard for Facebook as its business model relies on people sharing content regardless of where it came from, whether there’s any truth in it or if it’s actually sane 2. But there’s no denying, after Donald Trump’s digital director Brad Parscale said: “Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing. Twitter for Mr. Trump and Facebook for fundraising.” 3

Social media turns people into gullible idiots

We can of course blame the Facebook and Twitter owners for not taking up any responsibility with regards to what their users set out to do on their platforms. We could even question the business model on which these platforms have been built. You let users roam free, do as they like and charge advertisers. That business model itself is flawed in the sense that it makes it impossible for the platform owner to restrict their users’ freedom to act as they see fit.

The users are the other party what increasingly looks like a farce. The average Internet user has always been ignorant of risks associated with digital services, communication and commerce. The obsession with wanting to have everything on the Internet for free comes with several risks, of which only one is blatantly visible: privacy. However, there are hidden threats as well. One of these is the ability to turn off being challenged in your opinions.

In the real world we have a hard time escaping opinions that we disagree with — we aren’t living in a bubble. In a digital world, we can create our own bubble. There’s hardly any place left where we can’t isolate ourselves from the world outside. We plug our ears to listen to music and “soundbites” on a smartphone, we read ultra-short (and therefore often meaningless) text snippets on our tablet or we connect via our desktop computer to our “Friends”. These digital technologies have become the centre of our universe, the first method to get in touch with others — even email has never been that successful.

It’s a well-known fact that in the social media era, people flock to “places” where they meet the like-minded4. Most people do not have the inquisitive mind of a scientist or a journalist. As a consequence, social media is actually making them stupid5. Worse yet, social media has the effect of stifling debate. It makes people more akin to comply with the mainstream opinions of their “Friends”, according to a report published by researchers at Pew Research Center and Rutgers University 6. The researchers also found that those who use social media regularly are more reluctant to express dissenting views in the offline world.

The 21st Century cult

No longer challenged in their views, ideas and opinions, many people start to think they are the bearers of “The Truth”. Just like a sect, they form a sort of focus groups with members who isolate themselves from dissenting opinions, their family and friends.

Social media reinforce a single line of thoughts, a conditioning of the mind that the group can’t be wrong because everyone else thinks and says the same. Social media would have been Hitler’s wet dream — everything can be orchestrated from behind a keyboard, in total silence if you wish. Just you and your carefully chosen words to rule the minds of others who have problems understanding the issues and problems of an increasingly complex world.

That doesn’t mean everybody is falling for the arguments. Only about half of the voters in the UK as well as the US turned out to believe the lies and the fake news. Which takes us back to the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter. The very fact that social media makes people dumb should be reason enough for these businesses to ensure that fake stories are clearly labeled as such. It could prevent millions of users whose minds can be kneaded as dough to fall for the fake arguments 7.

  1. See the complete Buzzfeed story.
  2. See this story on The Guardian.
  3. See Wired.
  4. See RT News January 7, 2016
  5. See Iyad Rahwan, Dmytro Krasnoshtan, Azim Shariff, and Jean-François Bonnefon. “Analytical reasoning task reveals limits of social learning in networks.” J. R. Soc. Interface April 6, 2014 11 93 20131211; DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2013.1211 1742-5662Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2014-02-social-networking-stupid.html
  6. See: http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/08/26/social-media-and-the-spiral-of-silence/
  7. See also: The Verge
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