Should we (still) ‘let social media run amok’?
Ah, Brexit. To be in London is to be confronted at all times, from all sides, from traditional and social media, with commentary, predictions and hand-wringing about what the future holds for this country: Will the vote even take place? If it does, will parliament vote to accept or reject the deal on the table? And if parliament rejects the deal that the prime minister struck with Brussels, will she resign? And if she resigns, will the government fall? And if the government falls, will there be a second referendum? And if, and if, and if… Paralyzing uncertainty. It’s as if the whole country is waiting for test results from the doctor.
Social media, and the fake news that spread across it, no doubt played a role in delivering the “Brexiteers” their surprise victory in the UK’s May 2016 referendum on EU membership. And so, as 2018 winds down, I can’t help but look back on the rather breezy public statement I made back in early January: ‘Let social media run amok. Everything it breaks, needed fixing.’ (The context was a New Years’ romp through a bunch of big topics with CBC Radio’s Anna Maria Tremonti on her flagship program,The Current.)
At the time, it felt like a profound thing to say (smile)—in the way that counter-intuitive statements often do feel. And it inevitably made headlines. But it was also just a hunch: a hypothesis that felt right, rather than a conclusion arrived at after careful and serious study.
I still stand by that January 2018 statement, even as the chaotic consequences of Brexit and other populist campaigns continue to mount. It still feels right to me. But it does need a much better defense than any I’ve offered so far. The book I’m writing right now with Alan Gamlen is (for me) an effort to backfill that brash statement with the missing research and specifics, so that the deeper whats that have broken and need fixing become plain. How to fix what’s broken would be nice, too. (But, like most academics, I’m skeptical that our messy social reality will submit to simple “how-to” solutions. Just between you and me—don’t tell my publisher—I’ll be satisfied if we can frame the problem of “post-truth politics” more clearly and in ways that help more of us to spend more time navigating these difficult waters together.)
A high-priced diagnosis of democracy
If the benefit of letting social media run amok is that doing so lays bare some chronic and unrevealed ills in democratic society, then we had best cherish those insights and act upon them. Because they come at a very high cost.
Opening cracks so wide, mere patches no longer suffice
‘It is clear that in the forthcoming EU (Brexit) referendum, immigration will be the defining issue…It is this issue, like no other, that exposes how, because we are inside the European Union, we are utterly powerless to put our national interest first.’
(Nigel Farage, August 2015)
Take, for example, the present struggles in Europe, North America and other ‘western’ democracies over migration. Social media has amplified them—and also exposed the societal cracks that made it, not just possible, but easy to do so.
I’ve been in touch lately with Gülin Çavuş, a journalist and the chief editor of Teyit.org, the Turkish fact-checking platform. Earlier this year, Gülin compiled the first proper database of false news stories in social media (whether told in text, photos or video) that pertain specifically to migrants and refugees. (She did so while on fellowship in France with the International Fact-Checking Network.)
I thought she and I would spend most of our correspondence digging into the complexities and nuances of “fake news.” (That’ll have to wait for my next letter.) Instead, we’ve so far spent most of our time talking about why people accept as true the fake messages that reach them—even the ones that are provably false. To summarize what I’ve learned from her work:
Telling a lie is quick and easy.
Telling that a lie is a lie is slow and difficult.
Telling people that a lie is a lie is quixotic.
The case that cracked a continent
Gülin focused her fake news gathering efforts upon German, French and Swedish social media from 2015 onward. All three countries were popular destination countries for migrants fleeing the collapse of Iraq and Syria during the European “refugee crisis” of 2015.
That crisis saw over one million asylum-seekers and refugees arrive at the borders of the European Union in 2015—in the south, by crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Greece and Italy; in the east, by crossing the Balkans to Croatia and Hungary. That compares to just 280,000 aid-seekers in 2015.
For governments inside the EU, the 4x increase in displaced persons at their “gates” presented genuine crises of policy and practice. At a policy level: how to balance their sovereignty rights (We get to decide who can be part of the “we”) against their treaty obligations to the European Union and to the wider international community. At a practical level: how to register and where to settle hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers—while also performing background checks to identify who these people are. Which are the sincere aid-seekers? Which are the radicalized fighters who helped ISIS commit atrocities against the sincere aid-seekers? (Greece in particular was overwhelmed by the tasks. Years of austerity budgets since the 2008 financial crisis had slashed the country’s capacity for border security and processing.)
A political opportunity
For political opponents of the EU and of its member governments, this dual humanitarian and governance crisis presented a giant opportunity to mobilize popular support for their anti-EU and anti-establishment campaigns. They understood that migration politics is a gateway drug that can get people hooked on whatever else they’re pushing.
The special power of migration politics to draw people into a political movement and get them hooked is why my co-author Alan talks about it as the ‘canary in the coal mine’ of democracy. If there’s a poison in the air, it will show up first with changes in how society talks about and behaves toward migrants. If there’s a crack in the present bargain that is holding a plural society together, then opponents of the present bargain will seize upon migration politics as the wedge to widen that crack.
That is exactly what Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party (UKIP), Marine Le Pen’s Front National (now rebranded as Rassemblement National), Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, and other political outsiders did in the unfolding aftermath of Europe’s 2015 refugee crisis. (This story has been written many times already; I won’t rewrite it here. For more, start with the relevant Wikipedia page. It’s vigorously maintained.)
Many commentators (and researchers) label people’s willingness to accept false stories in social media as “gullibility.” At Teyit.org, Gülin prefers “receptivity.” Gullibility focuses attention upon the recipient’s (lack of) critical thinking skills—and intelligence. Receptivity, in her view, focuses attention more helpfully upon the recipient’s social context.
There are probably many reasons why people are receptive to the scapegoating of migrants for their grievances. We explored three:
One idea that’s often floated, or hinted, in the op-ed pages is that anti-migrant rhetoric appeals to our tribal nature. We are, after all, social animals. Some political issues, like trade, feel technical. It’s hard to reach out and pull in new adherents by talking trade. Other issues, like health, feel personal. Talking healthcare can elicit strong support, even strong emotion, from people, but the messaging and the mobilization have an individualized character.
Migration politics feels tribal. It is by nature divisive—it’s about “us” and “them.” The messaging and the mobilization therefore have a collective character. That can be alluring and addictive. It taps a belonging need inside us that most other political issues don’t. (This ventures into an area—evolutionary psychology—that I don’t know much about, so I didn’t dig too far into it.)
Another reason for people’s receptivity to anti-migrant rhetoric is probably history—so much of which is a story of the struggles between “us” and “them.” Across the EU, member governments took diverging, sometimes opposite, actions in response to the 2015 refugee crisis. History is surely part of the reason why.
In Germany, Angela Merkel’s government announced in August 2015 that it would accept and process every one of the estimated 800,000 asylum claims that migrants presented to German authorities that year. (In making that announcement, she formally declined to insist upon Germany’s sovereignty rights under the Dublin Protocol, a 1990 European Union agreement under which would-be asylum-seekers to the EU are required to present their claims in the first EU country in which they set foot. Under the Protocol, Germany could have sent hundreds of thousands of would-be asylum-seekers back to Greece, Croatia, Hungary and other member-states along the southern and eastern borders of the bloc.) ‘Wir schaffen das — We will cope,’ Merkel said instead, while her popularity plummeted.
German politics plays out in the shadow of World War II; the Holocaust Memorial lies less than 500 metres from the German parliament. That shadow no doubt informed Merkel’s understanding of what this moment demanded of her government—namely, that Germany should place humanitarian duty above sovereignty rights.
Meanwhile, on the EU’s eastern border, Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, authorized police to use tear gas and water cannons to turn migrants away, announced the construction of razor-wire fences, and launched a recruitment drive for “border hunters” to police it with pistols, pepper spray, batons and handcuffs. His popularity, which had been waning in recent years (his government lost its parliamentary supermajority earlier that same year), rose sharply.
I’m a bad student of Hungarian history, but I do wonder how the Hungarian people’s collective memory of life under the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918) and then as a satellite of the Soviet Union (up until 1989) informs their migration politics today. In both those empires, Hungarians were often treated as second-class citizens. I imagine that, in a country that has only enjoyed the free exploration and expression of national identity for three decades, the fear of “losing control again” to outsiders still plays powerfully. I likewise wonder how earlier times (when, for centuries, people in what is now Hungary stared distrustfully eastward at the Islamic Ottoman Empire—and at times lived under Ottoman rule), still inform their present-day attitudes toward Islam and Muslims.
The European Union is a recent character in European history (Hungary joined only in 2004). The unanticipated arrival of a million newcomers to the borders of the bloc in 2015 exposed how different the bloc’s collective imaginings remain.
A third reason for people’s receptivity to anti-migrant rhetoric lies in how we all stereotype migrant issues in everyday political discourse—probably without even realizing it.
Last year, the Irish sociologist (also poet and guitarist) Eoin Devereux published a fascinating article—a blistering critique, really, by academic standards—on how not only “social media” and “far right” political parties, but also “mainstream media” and mainstream politicians frame the debates surrounding migrants and migration in ways that muck up the real issues. Or, in the academic lingo of his paper:
Mainstream media coverage…has tended to reproduce hegemonic understandings of migration that have done little to inform the public about the many complexities involved…The abject failure by the media industries to explain migration in more critical and nuanced terms has a direct bearing on public knowledge and public responses to these issues.
Eoin points out, for example, how:
- News reports ‘emphasize how the movement of people will inevitably have a negative impact on “us” in the developed West and are conspicuously silent on the geopolitical and economic reasons why people are forced to flee from their homelands in the first place.’ (In other words: migrants’ own journeys, stories and voices are largely absent from most mainstream discussion of migration.); and
- Asylum-seekers and refugees are ‘constructed as a threat to the illusory and constructed homogeneity of national and local communities.’ (In other words: “We” tend to overstate our own togetherness, which the arrival of “others” supposedly threatens.)
In a similar, 2018 critique of how European journalists covered the 2015 crisis, two Swiss academics, Vittoria Sacco and Valerie Gorin, observe that ‘the refugee we see in the media…always emerges as an essentially ambiguous figure, suspended between victimhood and malevolence.’ The refugee-as-victim is portrayed as the pained individual, or the suffering mass of unfortunates, lacking basic resources for survival and in need of our mercy. When, instead, the refugee stops being portrayed as a victim and instead is imbued with agency, we are then shown the refugee-as-evil-doer—imbued mainly with the capacity to do us harm, through greed or deception or malice or stealing our jobs away.
Vulnerable, or lethal. Submissive victim, or active terrorist. Mainstream discourse on migration is, for the most part, trapped in a simplistic dualism between charity and security that omits much of what makes migrants not just migrants, but human, too.
A healthier conception of refugees would be a more complex one. It would ‘portray refugees themselves as political, social and historical actors, entitled to speak about their reasons for leaving and their aspirations for arriving.’ That richer picture, in turn, might have made it a bit harder for politicians like Nigel Farage to paint them as a demon horde with no more than a few tweets and photographs.
The Post-Truth Reconstruction
Tribal tendencies. Historical grievances. Simplistic and exploitable stereotypes. Democracies have carried with them into the social media age a receptivity for ideas and attitudes that are fundamentally at-odds with the universalizing ideals upon which post-World War II institutions (like the European Union) were built.
That is why social media is dangerous. That is why Gülin’s job, telling people that a lie is a lie is quixotic. Utopian. Romantic. Idealistic. To overturn “fake news” demands so much more than fact-checking. So much more than educating society with critical thinking skills. It demands…
…but that’ll be my next letter.
Brave voyages, all,