by Kat Smith
“So, you won’t take down lies or you will take down lies? I think that’s just a pretty simple yes or no.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s grilling of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg may be pretty iconic on her part, but it’s undeniably concerning on his. Zuckerberg, the CEO of the most-used social media site in the world, consistently dances around questions about disinformation and political advertising. It is indeed a simple ‘yes or no’ question, and the fact he cannot confirm whether or not Facebook will take down lies is a major red flag.
Social media can be a democratic force for good in many ways: it opens up discussions between those with dissimilar views, allows us hold powerful people/organisations to account, and can give a voice to those who otherwise wouldn’t have one. But, in the run-up to the UK General Election in December and the US Presidential Election in 2020, it’s more important than ever to approach the content we consume with caution.
It’s become clear that political adverts have the potential to poison democracy by targeting the ‘influenceable’ and selling information that is, at times, questionable at best. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, we are beginning to understand the full extent of social media’s influence on voting. Cambridge Analytica worked for both the Trump presidential campaign and the Vote Leave campaign, harvesting the data of voters on Facebook for the purpose of creating targeted political advertisements. They are credited by many as having swung pivotal votes in both, with social media now considered one of the most crucial campaigning battlegrounds.
Advertising from political parties and lobbyists does not cover the full extent of the problematic relationship between social media and politics. Social media can become an echo-chamber even with our ad-blockers activated. For both left and right-wing users, it’s easy to exclusively engage with those whose views align with your own. Going off my Twitter feed, you would think that the entire world is liberal except for the occasional Tweet that slips through the metaphorical net in the form of a mocking quote-Tweet. Of course, I don’t want to see heavily right-wing content, but it’s easy to assume that no one holds those views when you don’t see them. I’m worried this makes people feel safe enough to not exercise their right to vote.
It’s important that this caution isn’t exclusively exercised with social media. We must relentlessly scrutinise all the sources of information, such as news publications, with which we engage. The choice of interviewees, sources and facts used can all paint a certain picture; the same story could be presented in different ways in the Telegraph and the Guardian respectively. The best we can do to ensure we have an informed vote is to keep questioning what we read, hear and watch.
The lines are still blurry between what is and isn’t permissible on social media platforms. But we have no choice but to combat disinformation and targeted advertising ourselves. Don’t allow your knowledge to be at the mercy of your Facebook timeline; understand policies and manifestos for yourself through research and engage with a range of news outlets. And most of all, make sure to vote on 12th December, no matter how many people on your Twitter feed support the same party as you.