Whether you’re voting for a new US President or you’re deciding to be part of the EU, in 2016 something new happened. Social media giants allowed a “Wild West” to be created in the digital world. Unregulated and targeted adverts to be pushed hard into the psyche of the voting public.
Yes, Facebook must shoulder some of the blame. Only now are they fighting against “Fake News”, but it’s too late. The decisions have already been made. Referendums and elections have been decided based on false information and on extended coverage of certain politicians because it generates clicks.
Here in the UK, the trust in printed media has hit rock bottom. A recent EU report showed that the UK press is rated 33rd out of 33 European countries for “Trust in Printed Media”. Not only that, but people aren’t buying the traditional printed newspapers. Currently The Sun is the most popular printed paper, but look at the circulation figures..
From over 9 million copies in 2003 to less than 4 million in 2016. Now, as of March 2018, the circulation is less than 1.5 million. Readers are going online, and despite some paywalls working, the majority of traditional mainstream newspapers are struggling to earn revenue. Instead of long, investigative pieces, a smaller amount of reporters now lift stories from the web, concentrating on stories which will produce clicks rather than those which will make you think. A new breed of “content creators” like SWNS produce “engaging content” which “drive huge daily audiences to newspapers, magazines, websites, mobile devices and social network feeds”.
Fearless, hard-hitting and investigative journalism is expensive. It takes a long time. Modern newspapers just want clickable and shareable content. They want traffic. To hell with anything else. Traffic, for any website, is essential. It’s like coal for steam engines. Like oil for your car engine. Without it, adverts don’t earn revenue and you don’t get any money.
Some might say that fact-checking has taken a back seat in this process too, and – as I’ve written about before – people have turned to social media for their news instead. An implicit “trust” from news shared by friends online has made more of an impact with people. Even the government have now realised this…
People are increasingly finding out about what is happening in the country, local communities and the world through social media – rather than through traditional forms of communication such as television, print media or the radio.
People were also less likely to question information shared on social media because most trust their friends and family.
Those perfectly packaged political messages, the ones that your trusted friends and family shared, were all originally created by a very clever marketing expert. It was then laser-focused at a specific subset of Facebook and Twitter users where the impact would be the largest. The marketing people then just sit back as the message mushrooms across Facebook Friends, Instagram, Twitter and elsewhere, getting “Liked” and commented on. A self-perpetuating advert, which nobody realises is an advert, getting pushed around the internet …on and on.. and on..
During the Brexit push in the EU referendum, any possible repercussions weren’t mentioned. Facebook didn’t need to be unbiased. It didn’t have to adhere to the rules and regulations that applied to TV and radio news. Electoral adverts didn’t look like adverts and weren’t identified as such. Some campaigns overspent, whilst other targeted tweets and shares weren’t even recorded. Shares and Likes were influenced, statements and claims weren’t vetted, it was a free-for-all. Smartphones and social media sites made it easy for disinformation and control to be applied all too easily from outside sources. No fact checking. No filter.
The excuse that “we’re just a platform” was rolled out by social media companies. People freely posted about how they were voting Leave to “Stop foreigners coming in” and how economic immigrants were “taking our benefits”. They’re not in the canteen at work. They won’t get disapproving looks from the boss. They’re behind the digital screen and they can say what they want. No comebacks.
Meanwhile, traditional media saw a massive opportunity. For years, traditional politicians had come and gone with boring regularity. They blended into one very dull patchwork of fairly ordinary civil servants. But suddenly, Nigel Farage appeared and he somehow connected with the working man. Boris Johnson was nothing like a normal politician either. A big red bus would turn up, with a message on the side that we could all seemingly agree with. A man would get out and drink some beer with the locals, he wouldn’t take the normal politically correct stance with issues either, oh no, he’d say it like it is. Meanwhile, over in the USA, some orange businessman was ripping up the rulebook too. Politics suddenly leapt off the page, and news organisations all around the world knew that it would generate clicks.
So stage two began. More clicks were generated with each seemingly outlandish comment. Revenue went up. The next day, more extravagant and unconventional campaigning resulted in yet more coverage. The campaigners loved it. The newspapers loved it. The advertisers loved it. We read it.
Then, it happened. By a slim majority, Leave won the vote.
From here on in, my stance as a geeky reporter is in jeopardy. I could tell you my personal feelings on it. I could tell you that I think David Cameron only promised a referendum as a way to keep the Conservatives in power. I could tell you this sort of blinkered self-preservation still continues with Theresa May. But what would that achieve? What’s done is done.
None of this was about sovereignty or democracy. It was just about holding together a political party and keeping it in power.
Brexit has become the undefined being negotiated by the unprepared in order the get the unspecified for the uniformed.
Some will tell you that deliberate misinformation, the agitation of animosity and the abuse of ignorance will end up making the richest richer. Some will tell you that business owners are rejoicing Brexit because it’ll remove workers rights. It’ll re-write the basic employment laws that were introduced to protect workers and their work life balance.
Offshore financial schemes for the fat cats can now go on unchecked. The clever people will invest elsewhere. MPs that supported Brexit can feather their own nests with clever investments outside of Britain..
I’m sorry, I’m just too damned logical at times. We as a country are giving up over 60 very valuable international trade deals. However, instead newspaper headlines concentrate on the stories that’ll earn the most money. The stories that will generate the most clicks…
“We want the blue passports”
..we could have had those in the EU anyway..
“We can rip up all these EU rules!”
Will we? We didn’t resist while we were in the EU and we’re copying them all into our laws anyway.
You’ll also see headlines blaming the EU for not letting us have a good trade deal post-Brexit, despite our 40 year membership and the fact that the UK has more MEPs than most other countries. Oh but wait.. mentioning that last bit won’t get you clicks. It won’t set off the endorphins that make people angry, that make them add comments to online news stories, that make them return and return again.
The plain fact is that, in the last two years, the UK has gone from being one of the fastest-growing major economies in the world to the slowest. Businesses are halting their investment plans and doubts about the future are stopping decisions being made.
Heck, someone was on the radio comparing a Hard Brexit to the millennium bug. They said that there was lots of fear 18 years ago and nothing actually happened. Sadly, the difference was that nothing went wrong in 2000 because of years of precise planning. In 2019 we’ve got absolutely no plan. No idea. Taking back control? Who did you trust to do the steering exactly?
Even now, the mainstream media is struggling. Donald Trump can post a tweet in the morning which is completely untrue, but even though it’s swiftly corrected and questioned by other Twitter accounts, TV and radio news; we’re not listening. Trump has a direct feed to us. One that isn’t controlled or filtered. With less people watching, reading or believing traditional news, the smartphone is king. They’re not following other Twitter accounts that might question those claims. They’re not Facebook Friends with anyone who raises concerns.
They’re in the echo chamber.
So now we’re now stuck. We’ve let the hecklers on stage. They’re “shareable” and “clickable”. They earn money for the mainstream media. We’ve given the microphone to those who can say whatever they want. On a smartphone we don’t check the facts and we believe whatever “feels” or “looks” right. Whatever fits into our own beliefs.
Democracy has apparently spoken. Now people stubbornly demand that the “will of the people” be respected, even though the decision-making process was assisted.
Theresa May has become Sandra Bullock in Speed. We’re all in the back of the bus on our phones. We’re driving past huge signs warning that the army will need to feed us, that we must stockpile food, but Sandra just steers us away.
A man in a government lorry drives alongside us telling us about the huge job losses that will ensue. Meanwhile, on the back of a shiny BMW in front, an incredibly detailed EU report details the significant impact of continuing to drive, but sadly …it won’t generate clicks. It’s too long to fit into a tweet and you can’t make a funny meme with it, so nobody looks up.
A man with a megaphone shouts from another car. He tells us about airfields being used to park lorries as food rots and how businesses move their operations elsewhere… but we’re all in the bus, staring at our phones. We don’t believe it anymore. It’s not a carefully-crafted information snippet. It must be fake news.
Our phones tell us it’ll be OK. Our phones tell us it’s Project Fear, so we’re all shouting at Sandra to keep her foot flat on the gas.
We can make that jump………….. right?