The truth about Brexit didn’t stand a chance in the online bubble
A political system which abandons facts and a media ecosystem which does not filter for truth asks too much of people
In the quaint steam age of Mark Twain it was the case, as the writer allegedly noted, that: A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. Owing to significant changes in the media landscape since 1900, the same lie can now circumnavigate the globe, get a million followers on Snapchat and reverse 60 years of political progress while the truth is snoozing in a Xanax-induced coma, eyeshade on, earplugs in.
Modern truth is not just outpaced by fiction, it can be bypassed altogether as part of a sound political strategy or as a central requirement of a media business plan. In an illuminating exchange with the Guardian last week, Arron Banks, the wealthy donor partly responsible for the Brexit campaign, explained leaves media strategy thus: The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact, fact, fact. It just doesnt work. You have got to connect with people emotionally. Its the Trump success.
The Washington DC strategy company Goddard Gunster told the Brexit organisers that the facts dont work, which was, somewhat ironically in this case, the truth.
Politics however is just exploiting an information ecosystem designed for the dissemination of material which gives us feelings rather than information. The British press has always enjoyed an ambivalent relationship with facts: Freddie Starr did not eat a hamster, the Sun did not win the 1992 election, the NHS is not going to get 350m from Brexit.
There was a rumour, in the early 2000s, that the open web was going to provide a giant corrective to the frequent untruths we had become used to receiving from mainstream media and others.
Wikipedia is still usually far more accurate at any given time than the Encyclopedia Britannica. However, social networks, such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, have sought to improve the bumpy experience of open web technologies and have created increasingly sealed environments, where users can experience or obtain almost anything without leaving their respective enclaves.
Just as Banks was delivering his damning verdict on truth in political campaigning, Facebook announced a tweak to its news feed algorithm. Two years ago this would have been a meaningless piece of news.
Now, as a rising number of people find things out first from their social feed – and for the majority, this means Facebook – changing those channels has a larger effect.
After an active campaign to persuade publishers to use their platform more, Facebook saw engagement numbers drop and became concerned that news was flooding its users timelines; and therefore it boosted the idea that friends and family links and recommendations would now be the central organising principle for the platform.
This seems nothing more than a mild prophylactic against the world joining Tom Watson on Snapchat, but it raises the same kinds of questions raised by Bankss chilling assertion that facts dont matter in political campaigns.
We saw in Sarah Vines email the astonishing degree to which media titans like Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre are perceived to hold influence, when in fact Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter et al are the de facto organisers of much of the information we receive and discuss. Tweaking an algorithm to favour family and friends is the engineering equivalent of people have had enough of experts, in that it acknowledges that how people feel is a better driver of activity than what people think. For Facebook, and other social platforms, it is also good business. Facebook does not see itself as responsible for the information diet of the world, even though this is exactly what it is becoming.
Remain supporters expressed astonishment (mostly to each other on Facebook) that they never heard from leave campaigners, posing again the perennial unanswered question of whether we are ever more living in a filter bubble.
When Mark Zuckerberg was asked by his own employees if they should act to prevent certain Donald Trump stories gaining traction his answer was absolutely not. Does this prove he is already a better custodian of democratic process than Murdoch or does it make him civically negligent?
If we tolerate a political system which abandons facts and a media ecosystem which does not filter for truth, then this places a heavy burden on users to actively gather and interrogate information from all sides – to understand how they might be affected by the consequences of actions, and to know the origin of information and the integrity of the channels through which it reaches them. For this we are definitely better together.