BBC fake news study shows democracies must redo internal wiring to survive social media age.
Media headlines reporting research results often distort findings — substituting ‘newsworthiness’ for accuracy. The newsworthiness falls into two broad categories: “Whatever you thought you knew about this subject is completely wrong” or “research confirms what we knew to be right all along”. So, when a headline on BBC World this week announced that “a rising tide of nationalism in India is driving ordinary citizens to spread fake news”, we should wonder which of the two newsworthy categories it falls into.
Unless you’ve been blissfully living under a rock somewhere without internet, the BBC’s principal claims aren’t too surprising: A lot of fake news that is circulated seeks to promote pride in national identity; Right-wing networks are better organised to push such narratives; and finally, there is “overlap of fake news sources on Twitter and support networks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi”.
Now, your decision to believe and forward a particular tweet, image or text message depends on four things: What you believe must be true (conditioning and bias); what you’ve said about it in the past (history); what others in your groups are saying (social proof); and what someone you respect says (authority). Your “fast brain” processes all of this in less than a second, and your fingers do the forwarding immediately after. You don’t look for evidence, you don’t look for counter-claims, and very often, you don’t even reflect on what you’ve read and forwarded. In fact, you don’t use the “slow brain” at all, because you’ve scrolled down and moved on to the next message. Don’t feel bad. You are not alone. Most of us are like that.
The BBC finds a similar pattern in India, Nigeria and Kenya. If it extends its analysis, it will find that things are not much different in the United States, Britain and other Western democracies. That’s not all. It’ll find the same pattern in non-democracies too, not least in China. In fact, it was in China that we saw the first signs of online ultra-nationalist mobs influential enough to worry the leadership in Beijing in the Hu Jintao era. What was first observed in China 15 years ago has now enveloped the entire world. Beijing is trying to keep a lid on it by investing in a massive system of surveillance, control and coercion, but even the Son of Heaven is riding a tiger and knows it.
Back to India. Did you think that putting free instantaneous communications in the hands of half-a-billion free people will not have profound social, political and economic consequences? The smartphone revolution in India is a phenomenon on the scale of acquiring political freedom in 1947 and enshrining liberal democracy in 1950. Unlike those events, this one does not have a specific date, but is no less an epochal event in Indian and world history. Its effects might be even more profound — because of the pressures and possibilities it creates in terms how we organise our social and political structures.
I’ve long argued that the hierarchical state structures that we currently have are products of the Industrial Age, and will be incompatible with the demands of the flat, networked societies of the Information Age. Moreover, the legitimacy of democracy where every adult gets one vote each is premised on the human capacity for reason. Even before Facebook and Twitter were found to have been used to manipulate elections, voters were seldom found to be voting according to the democracy’s prospectus. Still, given that the pace of information flow was slower before the advent of social media, people could use their slow brains while deciding on their political choices. There’s little chance of that now. Democracies must reconfigure their internal wiring if they are to survive. Few countries are seriously thinking of a structural reform of their state and administration, but unless they do, they are creating conditions for the next wave of revolution.
What we know of Information Age politics so far is that the proliferation of social media has been accompanied by a global Right-shift. My hypothesis is that the Right-shift has been largely caused by social media because it amplifies the actions of our fast brains. Canny political parties and leaders, like the BJP and Narendra Modi, have leveraged the Right-shift to acquire and stay in power.
Ordinary populist politicians merely pander to majoritarian prejudices. Extraordinary ones deepen the perception of grievance, elevate the belief in what ought to be rightfully ours and let lots of ordinary people fill the gap with myths and fantasies that we have come to know as fake news. Sure, well-organised Right-wing networks are amorally exploiting social media for political advantage, but they would not get too far if ordinary people stopped forwarding the propaganda.
Does this mean that the internet, smartphones and social media have condemned us into an illiberal dystopia? Not quite. It does mean, though, that we have to fight for liberty, reason and rule of law. These are battles that people around the world are fighting, so we are hardly alone. It’s a new challenge for humanity because the biggest part of the battle is internal, where we have to teach ourselves to restrain and challenge our instincts.
There is an irony in fake news and untruths influencing India’s high politics when the national motto says “satyameva jayate”. Maybe what the motto means is not that truth will autonomously triumph on its own, but rather the Indian Republic calling upon citizens to make truth prevail.
Nitin Pai is director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy.