In contemporary society, there has been an explosion of propaganda due to the rise of social media. Fake news has become prevalent in our daily lives due to our constant engagement with social media. The fabric of democracy has been tampered with and undermined due to a boom of fake news articles. With the overload of fake news, it can be hard to distinguish between what it is true and what is false. The way we consume news has altered our thought processes and has made us more vulnerable to the possibility of ideological manipulation. Before the growth of the internet, it was easier to pinpoint the accuracy of news stories. Since print media was the main source of information available to the general public, it was less complicated to verify the authenticity of a story. Also, if newspapers were printing false information, they could be held accountable. A level of trust existed between the consumers and producers of news. Media has always been considered the fourth pillar of democracy but with the advent of social media platforms that have prevailed in today’s world, it has been harder for the public to differentiate between truthful news and propaganda. Fake news presents a danger to the functioning of democracy, where propaganda can be used to suppress or inflame social conflict. Fake news has been used as an instrument to manipulate the decisions of the public when it comes to important matters that can shape the future of different societies. This can be seen on social media where “echo chambers” or “filter bubbles” have been created, where users become subjected to information that only suits their particular viewpoint and they do not listen to contrary opinions.
With the growth of social media, users have become more dependent on it and citizens do not rely on established news sources. This is because social media has entirely changed the way that we consume news. From reading articles that contain verifiable information, there has been a shift to news that is not fact-checked and is reductive. For example, instead of watching a politician’s entire speech on the television, social media ensures that users only hear a soundbite. This is harmful as these short videos are edited to suit the narrative of a certain political group or party and can have a large influence on viewers. Since the general public does not have the time to delve deeper into the origins of a story due to the constraints of work and other societal pressures, people resort to relying on social media platforms to authenticate the veracity of a story. In other words, consumers tend to believe whatever they see on these platforms since they think the content has already undergone a process of filtration. It is hard to blame the user, since social media companies are expected to ensure that the content being uploaded on their websites is filtered to some degree. Since people who use these sites are expected to follow strict community guidelines, they expect there to be a standard of regulation for the content they are viewing. The most popular social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are rife with misinformation. This is despite these companies regularly making claims that they have procedures in place to filter and remove false content from their sites. Algorithms are created that are supposed to differentiate between real and fake news but human intervention is also important. These companies usually have different teams of workers, whose sole purpose is to stop the spread of misinformation but in many cases there has been widespread failure on the part of these tech companies to regulate content. This has proven dangerous in the past where fake news has been shared online, then reposted by other users in what is termed as the “multiplicative effect”. A social media post containing false information has the ability to reach as many eyes as reputable media enterprises such as CNN or the New York Times, if not more. A recent study showed that around 62 percent of Americans adults get their news from social media.
The spread of propaganda on social media has had dangerous implications for result elections in the past. In the 2016 United States presidential elections, it was alleged that there may have been Russian interference. There were reports which insinuated that Facebook may have been used as a platform to spread misinformation. These accounts promoted fake stories about Donald Trump and discredited, rival candidate, Hilary Clinton. There were paid Facebook advertisements that were designed to create tension between Americans and promote fake news. These advertisements spread information about fake protests and were able to incite hatred and spark outrage.
Cambridge Analytica was a company that specialised in using data from social media to target users, based on their preferences. They acquired data of about 87 million Facebook users, without their consent. Facebook was embroiled in controversy for their role in allowing user data to be harvested. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, was called to testify before Congress and the company received a multi-billion dollar fine, as a result of their role in the scandal.
When the credibility of users cannot be verified, it is dangerous for them to be allowed to spread information, especially when their posts can be used to incite hatred and violence. A large majority of the population are still unable to use the internet properly so cannot differentiate between real and fake news. These problems have also arisen in countries like Sri Lanka and the Philippines, where Facebook has been used in the spread of propaganda.
In non-English speaking countries, fake news is propagated even more since social media companies have teams in place that do not speak the required language, it becomes more difficult for them to filter out fake news that is not posted in English. Therefore, the onus is on these social media companies to be more responsible in their approach to tackling fake news, when they enter foreign markets.
On the other hand, people may question where the line should be drawn between fake news and free speech. The issue of censorship arises from this. Should social media companies add more regulation? Or should they allow consumers to sift through news themselves and make their own decisions? Recently, Facebook has come under scrutiny for their role in the censorship of a controversial expose on Joe Biden’s son, during the 2020 US presidential elections. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, admitted to censoring any related news to the story, while appearing on a podcast. He stated that, his company was directed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to suppress the story, in order to avoid election misinformation. This has angered many Republicans, as they believe this was a concerted effort to sway the election in Joe Biden’s favour.
In conclusion, the debate between censorship and freedom of speech remains but most people feel that there should be more regulation of information on social media so that hate speech and propaganda are not allowed to dictate or influence consumers.