I routinely hear about crazy stuff that is making the rounds on Facebook. Through people not so tied into conventional news and not working in the news business, I have received numerous updates from people I know in the real world about things they heard or saw on Facebook. My typical reaction is something like “What?!?! And people are believing that?!?” There is all kinds of nonsense being shared on Facebook, and reshared and reshared and reshared. This stuff concerns the covid-19 pandemic, political matters, and more.
It seems like a more extreme version than what we had in 2016, when my first article about a well known conspiracy theorist running for president was titled “Could The US Really Elect A Conspiracy Theorist?” Unfortunately, not only was the answer yes, but this president has used his platform to spread an enormous amount of disinformation and misinformation. There is nothing like it — nothing even close to it — in the history of American politics. And part of the probably is surely Facebook.
Conspiracy theories spread like wildfire on Facebook. I could see this was a problem just from personal experience (even though I don’t even use Facebook myself), to such an extent that I was driven to write this article. Then, as I Googled the topic, I found out that it’s been documented now that Facebook is really swinging into hardcore right-wing disinformation and misinformation now. Here are 4 stories from the past 5 months, each of which is worth a read:
- How Facebook Became the Social Media Home of the Right
- Why the Right Wing Has a Massive Advantage on Facebook
- Reports: Facebook Fires Employee Who Shared Proof of Right Wing Favoritism
- Right-wing media thrives on Facebook. Whether it rules is more complicated.
Some of the stuff in there is not news at all, but still notable challenges for society that no one seems to have a good answer to.
For example, one of the key matters is that social media amplifies emotional content, is an accelerant for visceral “fight or flight” type of content. What gets shared? Stuff that works people up. What gets seen more? Stuff that gets shared more.
Combine that with the fact that politics — and Republican politics especially — has long been about emotional messaging. Politics is not policy. Let that really sink in — politics is not policy. Politics is about messaging, branding, and emotions. Republicans, for as long as I’ve seen, have been better at tugging on strings of emotion — with little or no substance to back up the messages. It works, even as it’s mostly or even completely disconnected from government policy.
In fact, the public’s views on policy matters has heavily (in the 70–80% range) shifted to support of Democratic policies on several core matters, which has led to Republican messaging on social media and beyond warping the messaging further and further away from the substance, or outright lying. For example, Donald Trump’s administration is in court right now, with the Supreme Court set to hear a case a week after the election, because it is trying (again) to get the Supreme Court to declare the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) unconstitutional. This will finally give insurance companies the opportunity to again deny coverage to people who have pre-existing conditions. Protection for such people was a core part of Obamacare, and will be one of the main results if the now heavily conservative Supreme Court sides with Trump. At the same time, Trump has ads running that claim he’s protecting people with pre-existing conditions. It’s basically a complete lie. He signed an executive order that does nothing and means nothing while working for years to repeal the healthcare act that actually does protect people with pre-existing conditions.
I’m sure that is being amplified immensely on Facebook. But there’s much crazier stuff than that on there. There’s much, much crazier stuff. Yes, a bald-face lie is horrible and harmful for political discourse, but conspiratorial claims about public servants combined with sociopathic proposals lead to all kinds of crazy. Like a thorough plot as well as on-the-ground planning amongst several people to go and kidnap and/or assassinate the governor of the 10th most populous state in the USA. I’ve seen crazy claims about Anthony Fauci, one of the most respected, professional, and non-partisan medical professionals in the history of the United States, or even world.
We are living in tenuous times. Social media, and especially Facebook, has become a seeding ground for countless conspiratorial, misleading, harmful, and societally destructive claims. Social networks that were supposed to bring us together are massive verbal food fights. The people who engage the most emotionally and rile up followers the most effectively rise to the top of the crowd. The thoughtful, less biased people more eager and willing to pay attention to nuance, details, and full context are left to their small corners of the web with almost no influence.
The United States may vote out the most divisive president in American history in the coming days. We may reinstall a president who is attracted to good logic, uniting people with very different views, and bringing the nation forward in positivity. However, the underlying social civil war on the internet, fueled by numerous conspiracy theories and breakdowns of information (including the basic facts), is a part of Trumpism that isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it may get much worse.
I don’t have a solution for society. However, there is a clear solution for individuals — get off social media! We have an occasional writer on staff who deleted his Twitter account a couple months ago, and his Facebook account before then. He said it was a wonderful decision and highly recommends it. His days are much improved, now that they are more removed from the social civil wars on Twitter and Facebook. He doesn’t have to spend so much time fact checking claims made in 100 words or less because he isn’t bombarded with post after post after post spreading such misinformation.
I am addicted. But I think I will soon log out of my accounts and use my time more wisely and productively. Wish me luck.
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