Is the internet emboldening us to form unchecked, untrue opinions?
Just like any platform in politics, the rise of the internet at the turn of the 21st century and the creation of social media that followed it has brought a host of both costs and benefits to the landscape of our democracy. The innovations that we have seen in the past two decades have fundamentally changed politics for the foreseeable future – and may not be for the best.
From a political perspective, this is a revolution. Platforms like Facebook have created a medium for the transfer of political ideas from the click of a button. Gone are the days where political parties have to rely on door to door knocking and leafleting, where opinions could only be shared in the home or at the local pub. The flow of knowledge and politics is unrestrained.
But politics may not be going in the right direction. We see it explicitly with the rise of fake news – an issue which has taken up a large proportion of the political debate. Fake news websites can be set up easily and so many political actors can use these to write articles or breaking news stories that try to resemble reliable sources. Yet these fake news stories are always politically charged.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal was a wake-up call to the damage done by fake news and social media to the political system and the privacy of the individual. This came from a whistle-blower called Christopher Wylie who used to work at the company, who told The Observer how it compiled personal data of the millions of Facebook users which it sent to advertisers so that they could target certain groups of people with fake news that undermined Hillary Clinton and supported Donald Trump. It came as a massive blow to the trust between Facebook users and the company, as its users felt that their persona data was not kept securely by Facebook but instead was sold to companies in order to further a political agenda.
Domestic political actors are able to use fake news in order to promote a political agenda, as seen with the pizza-gate scandal where members of the alt-right and opponents of Hillary Clinton spread the conspiracy that Clinton and other high-ranking members of the Democratic party used a pizza shop in Washington D.C. as a base for a child sex ring. This may sound ludicrous to any rational person, but it shows the devastating real-life effects that fake news can have: in December 2016 a man opened fired at the restaurant in the hopes of finding the supposed child sex slaves.
We now find ourselves in a political environment whereby people are more inclined to simply read a news headline or a political piece that only takes them a few seconds, and from this they have already made their mind up over the issue.
Companies and political actors find that riling up and angering their audience is more likely to bring them clicks and in turn more money, as they know emotion is more likely to draw attention. So they create “clickbait” and short, blunt headlines that create an opinion in seconds over an issue which in reality can only be studied and understood after in-depth research. Issues of gender, race, sexuality and religion are summed up in less than ten words for us to quickly digest, and then without looking at the reliability of the source or doing any kind of research ourselves, we have already painted our misinformed opinion on the matter – misinformed opinions that can lead to violence.
It has turned politics into a business. Thanks to the internet, profit can be made from newspapers and political figures trying to create the most outrage from the most sensationalist headlines and stories so that they can get the most attention on their platform. Alt-Right YouTube figures like Paul Joseph Watson post videos with titles like “Kids brainwashed to hate white people” which have no source-based evidence to support, yet thanks to the video being shared amongst a young fanbase which already have strong right-wing views, the race baiting works perfectly to stir up outrage amongst them and reinforce their bigoted opinions – garnering more views. The internet and the platforms it hosts have allowed these extreme right-wing figures to become mainstream and so share their extremist views with a wider community, something which can only be detrimental to our society and political system as it causes more division and hate.
These problems of sensationalism and fake news have always been able to plague the media and political system in newspapers and television. But it is only now, with the new platform of the internet and social media, that these issues have come into the mainstream and started to take a dominating role in the outcome of elections and the strength of our democracy.