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Trump shines a light on social media’s warts

Donald Trump has a love/hate relationship with social media, specifically Twitter: He loves to spread hate on the platform.

In that, he’s hardly alone.

Already a dubious phenomenon, the ironically named social media sites – led by the likes of Facebook, Twitter and a thousand variants of Instagram and Pinterest – had descended into little more than partisan flame wars, blatant marketing and outright propaganda before the rise of Trump. They’ve only become worse since then.

Through the COVID-19 crisis and, now, the protests against systemic racism, Trump has used Twitter to spread falsehoods and flame partisan and racial divides in the country he’s supposed to be leading. Twitter’s recent moves to fact-check Trump’s posts – the company flagged his lies about voting by mail, but continues to skip over defamatory statements – led the nominal president to threaten to investigate and clamp down on social media giants he claims are anti-conservative.

Leaving aside the inaccuracy of Trump’s claim of bias, there is an argument to be made that online forums should be stripped of current protections not afforded to other publishers. Traditional publishers such as this very newspaper are responsible for the words that appear, with legal responsibility for defamatory statements. They also face repercussions for false or misleading claims. Not so social media companies, though if they’d been treated as publishers from the start, they never would have become the bastions of lies, hate and fake news (the real kind) they are today.

How fitting would it be, therefore, if Donald Trump helped fuel the long overdue decline of social media?

Coupled with the undermining of privacy – embraced by governments not the least bit eager to protect their citizens – the sorry state of affairs vis-à-vis social media companies should leave no one upset if they all suddenly went away tomorrow. Such would be a reason to rejoice, in fact.

There’s very little social about such sites, at least in the conventional human sense of the word. The occasional use is one thing – though the sites, along with the ubiquitous Google, are mining data, joined by the likes of the NSA – but there are many people, many of them young, who spend too much time and give too little thought to the consequences.

More than just too much information, poor judgment and bullying, such time spent online has societal implications. In the case of Trump, the Russians and electioneering, the dangers go well beyond the vestiges of Cold War sentiments.

Hacking, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts, online bots and a host of other technologies are increasingly part of an arsenal to sway public opinion on a massive scale, all based on psychological research being done by the same people investing in technology companies and the likes of right-wing websites such as Breitbart, with all its now-well-known connections to the Trump campaign.

Such companies are developing increasingly sophisticated tools for gathering up large swathes of online data – the things you post and like on Facebook, for instance – in order to both predict your behaviour and to sway it. This goes beyond targeted advertising, which is itself somewhat problematic.

Hailed as democratizing the flow of information – two-way and decentralized, just the opposite of what we’ve seen historically – the Internet has massively reshaped the way we live and do business, for instance. It’s also become a bonanza for the disseminators of propaganda and collectors of data intent on stripping away our privacy for their own gain, financial and/or political.

We’re complicit in that, flocking to sites like Facebook, where we’re laying ourselves bare to the world.

Worse still, the medium is being used by governments, political parties, lobbyists, astro-turfing organizations and terrorist organizations alike to mislead – i.e. lie to and subject to propaganda – the public everywhere. Chinese and Russian internal censorship, external hacking and misinformation are just the most obvious tip of the proverbial iceberg.

“Governments and non-state actors and individuals are creating and spreading narratives that have nothing to do with reality. Those false and misleading narratives undermine democracy and the ability of free people to make intelligent choices. The audience is anyone with access to a computer or a smartphone – about four billion people. The players in this conflict are assisted by the big social media platforms, which benefit just as much from the sharing of content that is false as content that is true. Popularity is the measure they care about, not accuracy or truthfulness,” writes Richard Stengel in last fall’s Information Wars: How We Lost The Global Battle Against Disinformation & What We Can Do About It, a journalist who recounts his time in the U.S. State Department.

“[T]oday, spreading lies has never been easier. On social media, there are no barriers to entry and there are no gatekeepers. There is no fact-checking, no editors, no publishers; you are your own publisher. Anyone can sign up for Facebook or Twitter and create any number of personas, which is what troll armies do. These trolls use the same behavioral and information tools supplied by Facebook and Google and Twitter to put poison on those platforms and reach a targeted, receptive audience. And it’s just as easy to share something false as something that’s factual.”

Attempts at manufacturing consent are nothing new, as documented by the meticulous work of Noam Chomsky and others, long marginalized by the traditional media that has become strictly corporatist. The media have become more lapdog than watchdog. Rather than taking on power, it becomes an apologist for it, a role now being adopted by the likes of Google and Facebook.

The traditional view of the media speaking truth to power, holding leaders accountable, has certainly been undermined by a variety of factors, including the concentration of corporate ownership. That’s being repeated in the electronic age.

The Internet provided something of a workaround for groups of all ideologies that felt left out of mainstream news coverage. Now, with increased filtering – aka censorship – an agenda is yet again being pressed.

Clearly, there are all kinds of unsavoury information to be found online, some of it outright criminal. There are lies and libels left, right and center.

Reforms are needed, but not for any reasons cited by the serially offending Tweeter in Chief.

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