Ten years ago, the concept of Social Media being used to influence political outcomes and spread division was largely unthinkable. Indeed, Social Media a decade ago was simply a growing and exciting new way to connect with people, stay in touch with friends and, to the delight of teenagers and bored employees everywhere, play games. In the modern era, platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are integral to the social and political state of the world. From breaking news alerts to the grandiose confusing tweets of certain world leaders, it is central to the spread of information, debate and the persuasion of electorates. It is also the most dangerous threat to our democracy and the most unregulated form of information in the world; a fact that the controversy surrounding the “Leeds Hospital” scandal has proved.
The development of Social Media for political engagement has led to it’s development as a tool of political manipulation. The major platforms, notably Facebook, profit from allowing for the “pushing” of content that is neither fact-checked or source-checked. Based on its data algorithms, this allows users to push content and ideas to target groups through social media, without needing to verify their source or provide proof of their claims. Similarly, there are no restrictions on account creation – all it takes is an email address and a name – meaning that any number of accounts can be entirely fabricated and held by an individual or group. Whilst this has benefited advertising and commercial interest greatly, who can user social media algorithms to reach target demographics much more effectively, the political implication is severe.
No story encapsulates the risk of unregulated social media and content targeting more than the controversy surrounding Leeds General Infirmary. The event in question refers to a photo circulating of a four-year-old boy with suspected pneumonia who, due to short staffing and a lack of beds in Leeds General Infirmary, was forced to sleep on a pile of coats on the floor of the waiting room. As the image circulated, uproar grew over the lack of provision available by the NHS, restricted due to systemic budget cuts and failure to retain nurses. Indeed, Leeds General Infirmary have confirmed the photo in question was true, and have apologised to the boy’s family for the lack of provision available.
There are many caveats to this story that make it so significant. From Boris Johnson pocketing a reporter’s phone as they showed him the photo, to the proven falsehood of a “senior Conservative source” regarding the now disproved punching of Matt Hancock’s aide at the hospital, the scope and continuing curiosity of events make it hard to cover all aspects in 1500 words. However, the aspect that is most significant, and in no uncertain terms to our democracy, relates to the spreading of disinformation by unidentified “Bot Farms” and social media firms on major social media platforms. First appearing on one individual social media account – the user of which, who will not be named due to their personal concerns for safety – the following message was shared:
“Very interesting. A good friend of mine is a senior nursing sister at Leeds Hospital – the boy shown on the floor by the media was in fact put there by his mother”
The post then goes on to detail how the photo had been apparently fabricated, before describing it as “another Momentum propaganda story”. Whilst the details are concerning, they are also false – there exists no “Leeds Hospital”, the photo had been corroborated by Leeds General Infirmary itself, and the user in question claimed hacking having stated no affiliation to anyone in the medical profession or, indeed, the city of Leeds.
Within a matter of hours, hundreds of Social Media accounts had shared the message, in various online groups and locations seemingly designed to maximise impact. As shown by Marc Owen Jones, one target of the “March Cambridgeshire Free Discussion group” – a Facebook group with over 37,000 members – created significant engagement and disgust at the proposed fabrication of the photo. The beauty of a disinformation campaign, from an objective perspective that overlooks the egregious and disgusting campaign to vilify a young child in hospital, is that it only takes a few successful placements of the story for the lie to go viral. Indeed, most of the sharing and dissemination of the story after the initial period came from real accounts and verified users; notably conservative figures, a telegraph columnist and former international cricketer.
Now, the problem of political misinformation is not one that is brand new to politics. From the recent controversy surrounding CCHQ and its false branding as “@FactCheckUK”, to the actions of Cambridge Analytica, Social Media has become to political organisations a means of misleading, persuading and dividing electorates. It is entirely unregulated, and in fact facilitated by social media platforms themselves. Therefore, as two senior politicians put forward in April 2019, “We cannot allow these harmful behaviours to and content to undermine the significant benefits that the digital revolution can offer”.
These are the words of Sajid Javid and Jeremy Wright, formerly home secretary and culture secretary respectively, in their “Online Harms” white paper. The document, available here, was commissioned during the final months of Theresa May’s premiership. It outlines the dangers to society and politics that unregulated social media poses, both domestic and international, before recommending the introduction of regulatory frameworks and bodies to prevent the spread of harmful or misleading content, and actions that threaten the public safety or interest. Whilst the exact details of their proposal have been condemned by some as Draconian censorship, the White Paper itself represented a concerted addressing of the dangers of unregulated social media to British society, politics and Democracy.
So where is the regulatory body and the white paper in the wake of the “Leeds Hospital” Scandal? Eight months after the publication of the White paper, it is nowhere to be seen in parliamentary discourse. Whilst perhaps the December election might explain this, the political landscape has not been in it’s favour either. Dominic Cummings, a veritable Tsar of Online disinformation and Social media manipulation, is now senior adviser to the Prime Minister. The PM in question spreads misinformation at an alarming rate, ranging from his former journalistic controversies to contradictions over the future trade relationship with Northern Ireland after Brexit. Sajid Javid, co-presenter of the White paper itself, now sits as Chancellor in a Government who’s political wing falsely branded itself as a fact checking service to spread political propaganda. No regulation exists; instead the governing party of the United Kingdom actively utilises the platform for disinformation and political manipulation for its own interests.
It is a point that needs repeating. Social Media offers a platform through which private interests can push disinformation, manipulate opinion and erode democracy. The governing party of the United Kingdom, having published a report and white paper on the dangers of this to our nation, have elected instead to use it to undermine their political opponents and deflect from their own shortcomings. The proclivity of the non-discerning user to believe their Twitter feed, and suspect their trust in media outlets, means that many will refuse to believe the truth of a young boy forced to sleep on coats due to the overstretching of a systemically reduced national health service.
The need for regulation has never been clearer. Social Media is one of the great developments of the digital age; facilitating the advent of new forms of communication, self-expression and connection. It is also the greatest threat to democratic institutions and political trust in the unfortunate post-truth era. Without regulation and restriction on Social Media platforms that facilitate disinformation, Politicians and private interest groups will continue down the past of post-truth and online manipulation to divide and conquer the electorate. Whilst the White Paper may not be the right course of action, it represents the right response to this.
If the trend of growth and digitisation continues, Social Media will not only become the central source of information in society, but it will also be filled with bots, fake information and private interests seeking to manipulate opinion and truth. Without regulation, we face a near-Orwellian threat to our lives; our democracy, our freedom of information and, perhaps, freedom of thought is at stake.