In a brief twelve years, Social Media denizens Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, (and now including LinkedIn and Instagram), have spread beyond the realm of teens and celebs and leaped into business, politics, and international affairs.
With the help of bots, fake accounts, and political rhetoric (sometimes fuelled by intemperate thinking), Internet media influence everything from election outcomes and public policy reforms to societal change.
Twitter is playing a starring role, as it appears to be the choice of venue for world leaders to communicate their thoughts and opinions.
Take, for example, Canada’s August 5, 2018 tweet criticizing Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. The immediate backlash from the Gulf kingdom is ongoing at the time of this writing, but the situation is both disturbing and riveting.
More tweets are not the solution.
Out of sight of social media’s undiscriminating eye, Michael Stephens of the Royal United Services in Britain said, in part, “The United Kingdom is working very hard behind the scenes to try to cool this problem down. This is not something that needs to play out on Twitter. At the end of the day, enough damage has been done in public.”
Roderick Bell, a diplomat and former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia says: “You know the old rule of counting to 10 before you put something to paper, or in this case, cyberspace? You know, it’s not a bad idea.”
That advice could also work for readers, commenters, and re-tweeters.
Tweets become “public messages” on Twitter’s un-moderated world stage and are interpreted, commented on, and re-tweeted, not only without any considered discourse between the parties involved but also with a dubious influence on a broad unfiltered audience.
And then there are the bots.
Twitter is also sometimes manipulated by political propaganda bots, which are different from Twitter bots – harmless self-proclaimed automated or semi-automated programs that can tweet, re-tweet, and post content, and which are allowed by Twitter.
Propaganda bots, however, pretend to be humans and post inflammatory political comments. These fake bot accounts tweet and or re-tweet false information and polarizing content and frequently seek to incite violence or civil unrest.
There are fewer bots since the last US election though.
In May, June, and July of 2018 Twitter suspended more than 70 million fake and bot accounts while Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s security team reported to US Congress that they had “found extensive evidence supporting the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia had engaged in an extensive and well-coordinated campaign to influence the presidential election.” [i]
Facebook estimates that “as many as 126 million people may have seen material in their news feeds that originated from Russian operatives – material crafted to mimic American commentary on politics and social matters such as immigration, African American activism and the rising prominence of Muslims in the United States.”[ii]
Social media wasn’t always such a minefield.
Politicians have used Social Media since 2008 to dialog with constituents and spread political information and opinions with some success and respectful exchange – except for trolls – there have always been trolls.
Russian-based propaganda bots though, that’s a huge concern.
It’s not just the bots and trolls though; it’s also us.
Internet media platforms can manipulate the content we see and thus our perceptions. Too often high interest, contentious, or dramatic material is broadcast, minimally digested, then retweeted or shared without checking the facts or considering the source. The volume of sharing – going viral is an example – creates the flavour of the day, the topic that hits the “moments” section of Twitter’s newsworthy menu selection then begins to gain even more interest and momentum.
The well-known phrase “jumping on the bandwagon” probably illustrates the phenomenon most readily; however, academics studying the ebb and flow of social media influence call it “majority illusion.” Google that one; we’ve included a link at the end.
Social Media is here to stay, but let the buyer beware.
The sheer volume of Social Media users worldwide is astounding.
And still growing.
In 2017, there were 2.46 billion social media users around the globe. By 2019 it is estimated there will be around 2.77 billion people worldwide scrolling through social media sites on smartphones, tablets, and PCs.
That’s quite an audience.
In Canada alone, there are 22.69 million social network users, and 94% of them have at least one social media account. Facebook is the most popular among Canadians; 84% have a Facebook account.
Social Media is now essential to us.
Our innate human desire for communication and connectivity drives the popularity of social media platforms, but those platforms are also successful marketing tools for business professionals. Social media’s influence on consumers is performing even better now than that old gold standard, television ads. [iii]
There’s something for everyone.
There are many forms of social media engagement. A variety of platforms allow us to share gaming, photos, music, and video. Social media allows people with causes (health concerns, arts communities, fundraisers) to form support groups and special interest forums.
As responsible consumers enjoying and benefiting from a plethora of platforms, we must be aware. We must be vigilant about how we read, write, and disseminate information.
Don’t feed the trolls and watch for fraud, bots, cyberbullying, and hate groups. Be discerning, and don’t believe everything you read. Fact check before you share.