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How social media disguised the rise of the right

This year, the world was shaken by the shock successes of Brexit and Donald Trump – so why didn’t we see them coming?

Last week, America appointed its new president-elect in the form of divisive billionaire Donald Trump. This is a man who, in leaked footage, stated that his fame somehow permits him to “grab women by the pussy”, has previously threatened to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, and seems to believe that all illegal Mexican immigrants are rapists. Trump’s right-hand man, vice-president Mike Pence, is equally controversial – over the years, he has argued that research to prevent HIV should be defunded and the money should instead be invested into gay conversion therapy, that Planned Parenthood should be abolished and that discrimination based on personal religious freedom should be institutionalised.

When I first heard news of Trump’s victory, I was shocked. A few months ago, when I first heard the news that the UK had voted to leave the European Union, I was shocked. Then I started to wonder – how could I have possibly been so blind to the fact that the majority of both these countries didn’t agree with my own liberal views? In my mind, a vote for Trump or Brexit was a vote for campaigns fuelled by discrimination and smear tactics; incidentally, my friends and followers online seemed to share the same views and, for those reasons, I remained in a naive bubble soon shattered by reality.

The role of news media has changed significantly over the last decade – a recent study shows that only 20 per cent of Americans get their news directly from print newspapers, while around 40 per cent get theirs through social media. Another study showed similar patterns in the United Kingdom: in June this year, Reuters reported that 28 per cent of 18-24-year-olds cited social media as their main source of news and that “36 per cent of people preferred news to be selected for them by algorithms compared with 30 per cent who relied on editors or journalists”. Realistically, the report should come as no surprise: so many of us idly scroll through social media in our spare time, primarily consuming the articles published by the publications we have chosen to ‘like’.

“We’re spending our time on our smartphones scrolling through an endless echo chamber, imbibing statuses and articles which reflect rather than challenge our views”

What this means, however, is that our social media accounts become like an echo chamber, or an online safe space. We interact and connect with friends that largely share our views and, in many cases, I’ve seen friends online ruthlessly block any contacts that posted pro-Trump or pro-Brexit arguments. In a way, this does make sense – we want to be reassured by the content we see, not distressed or angered. It can also have a positive effect on our mental health by allowing us to be continually reassured and to foster friendships and relationships with like-minded people.

This resulting ‘safe space’ isn’t accidental. Facebook knows that we want our social media accounts to reinforce rather than challenge our views, and has adjusted its processes accordingly. Earlier this year, for example, the site moved away from a chronological news feed and moved instead towards an algorithm-based feed which ranks posts in order of how appealing they are. Site founder Mark Zuckerberg has spoken previously about his intentions to make Facebook the ultimate “personalised newspaper”.

However, there are persistent problems with factual accuracy. Namely, the ubiquitous fake news that keeps appearing on the site, which has forced Zuckerberg to publicly defend the platform. Accusations were made that the site’s algorithms were disproportionately sharing articles expressing liberal views, which, in turn, could be seen as an attempt to sway the recent presidential election. “Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes,” explained Zuckerberg. “The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics.” He then explained the complexities of ensuring the efficacy of algorithms before adding that the site was working to combat the hoaxes – but it is still a work-in-progress.

It may be a stretch to argue that Facebook is deliberately attempting to influence the views of its users, and Zuckerberg has been vocal about the fact that it’s a tech site and not a media site. However, our reliance on social media is arguably making us all naive to the fact that our views aren’t necessarily shared by a majority. We’re spending our time on our smartphones scrolling through an endless echo chamber, imbibing statuses and articles which reflect rather than challenge our views. 

Now, more than ever, we need to be aware of the real implications of a Trump presidency and the threat to freedom it presents for women, queer people and racial minorities. Our views need to be challenged in order for strong, eloquent responses to be formed. We need to be using our voices for change and actively campaigning for acceptance. The 21st century can be loosely characterised by a mental health epidemic – rates of depression and anxiety are through the roof, and these increased rates of mental illness can be easily linked to a hyperactive culture of over-consumption. In this dark new era, we need to take more care, sharpen up, and look at how and why we got to this point in the first place. Perhaps it’s time that we all took a break from our social media feeds and started look elsewhere for our content fix: scouring for other, more reliable information that might heal our divisions rather than widen them.