What things shape who we are? Our family is a good starting point unless you are unlucky enough to not have one. Although that statement in itself and the use of the word unlucky may annoy someone who has negative thoughts towards their family. Our genes, of course come from our family whether we like them or not and go a long way to determining who we are – male, female, good looking, plain, ugly, black, white and countless other things including tolerance for alcohol, sexual persuasion, and athletic ability etc… etc… although those last two also rely to a certain extent on your upbringing and other external factors from the “Nurture v Nature” debate which is far too complex to even paraphrase in this short post.
Photo by Surian Soosay
Many things make us who we are and build a sense of who we might become over time as we establish our own personal value system – good or bad. But these things are like sand and shift as our experiences recalibrate our minds to suit our environment and life stages. We often feel more freedom and openness to new ideas when we are young and sample what’s on offer like standing in front of an overstocked breakfast buffet with an empty plate. So by the time we move into our 30’s and 40’s we pretty much know what we do and don’t like; and if that runs counter to the values of our family or extended social circle we have usually learnt from the friction of experience to keep some opinions or impulses to ourselves. Until very recently the burgeoning pressure to conform to survive and perhaps prosper more comfortably within the society we choose to live in often meant that we went along with whatever our mainstream media and news outlets told us and trusted them to exercise a degree of integrity in exchange for our loyalty. Yes we accepted that there were certain leanings i.e: that the Guardian in the UK is left leaning in its views; the Independent holds the middle ground and the Daily Mail and the Telegraph lean ever more to the right to the point of pushing a casual xenophobia that is attractive to a high percentage of their aging readership.
The TV channels were similarly predictable particularly the BBC, which once tried hard to tread an impartial, middle ground because it is funded by a licence fee that everyone with a TV is legally obliged to pay. However, after some of the broadcasters key positions were filled by Conservative party cheerleaders some Brexit promoting MPs launched a noisy campaign questioning the institutions loyalty. For a while any news item that seemed even vaguely in favour of the ‘Remain’ (in the EU) side of the argument was labelled as almost treasonous. This could be regarded as laughable if not for the fact that the BBC, now far too often appears to be – despite its constitution expressly forbidding it – being used as a potent political mouth piece by the UK’s fragile minority government.
Things have changed and continue to change in the way we get the news and views that help us shape our opinions. It is hard to believe that social media only emerged in the last decade. The likes of Twitter and Facebook slipped into our consciousness almost undetected and in the beginning were treated with a degree of suspicion as nothing more than self indulgence or whimsy and the domain of computer geeks and advertisers. However, with the parallel emergence of a culture mesmerised by celebrity and the strange phenomenon of people becoming famous for simply being famous it was only a matter of time before people, who too often lived vicariously through soap opera characters would do the same with social media. Today people seem far less interested in the art of conversation or face to face debate and much more interested in how many likes or re-tweets they may get for a photo of their cat or breakfast or some flogged to death piece of advice or life hack cut and pasted from someone else’s account. Far too many people now equate personal validation with the number of friends or followers they acquire to the point that likes or re-tweets have become a kind of currency that affects the sense of well being or self-worth of far too many people. So is it any wonder that advertisers, pressure groups, politicians and governments have all fully embraced social media as a tool to not only make money but to also shape, shift or sometimes totally distort public opinion.
Fake news has always been around – when was the last time anyone trusted anything emanating from the Kremlin, especially a tweet saying: “we did not…” bomb that hospital in Syria, or deploy a military grade nerve agent – only they posses – on the streets of an English town. In the old days… pre 2017 when Fake News which seemed to come from nowhere was named the word or the year, we called these things what they are: lies or distortions. Of course this has not stopped earlier facts and events being retrospectively referred to as fake news. Of note in my own media universe were two huge events from 2016. The UK Brexit vote was only possible because of an avalanche of lies and distorted facts used to confuse, antagonise and sow fear for the mostly aging British public whose leave votes where crucial in triggering the economic catastrophe that is now playing out. That was nearly all fake news fed by politicians and right wing newspaper barons who are all set to gain financially or climb the greasy pole of political power. However, the other huge event of 2016 was the shock election of the cartoonishly incompetent and corrupt Donald Trump as the 45th President of America.
Trump came to power on the back of a tsunami of misinformation and falsehoods which were enhanced by the direct manipulation of the election process by Russia and other foreign supporters. This is not fake news as Trump has always claimed; but solid fact corroborated by the FBI the CIA and the secret services of many of America’s allies. So the world must wait for the Mueller Enquiry to deliver its verdict and the spanking Republicans are due to get in the mid-term elections before he and what remains of his fractured White House begin their slide from power. In the mean time he will continue to use the phrase fake news, almost on a daily basis to counter any complaints or criticism of his disastrous presidency. This increasingly paranoid behaviour feeds into the us against them narrative that he engendered for his base supporters from the very beginning, who comfort themselves with distractions, the deliberate omissions or downright lies spun out by staunchly Trump supporting outlets such as Fox News. It seems no matter how many new lows he sinks to with his divisive and at times seemingly unhinged behaviour his base continues to ignore facts in favour of clinging to the empty sound bite promises he made during his campaign: something vague about making America great again based on the protectionism of dead or dying industries and a metaphoric return to the values of the 1950’s where white people enjoyed prosperity while conveniently ignoring the institutional harassment of women or the deep injustice suffered by African Americans.
More than 60 years on race is still an issue that is never far from the surface in most parts of the world. In the UK race in the form of a fear of migrants – despite the tiny numbers who actually reach British shores – was used to great affect by the leave campaign in the Brexit campaign. However, despite most commentators and economists agreeing that a hard Brexit will be a train wreck for the UK economy and deeply divide society for years to come if you are a Brexit supporter who is active on social media and/or form opinions based on what you read in the news papers that bankrolled the leave vote you may still think that the huge act of national self harm that is Brexit is still worth the pain. It is no surprise that people will be drawn to news channels that echo their own views. However, what is little appreciated is how most of us have slowly but surely done the same with the messages we hear and share on social media. Yes to a certain degree companies such as facebook and twitter feed us news stories and other facts (fake or real) based on algorithms of our online behaviour. But by far the biggest influence on what we read comes from the people we decide to follow.
In these personal social media ghettoes we eventually build for ourselves we become increasingly prone to being less tolerant, mainly because few people are able to demand that we are more politically correct with our choices. Beyond the cute cat videos we tend to follow people we think are like us. But if we discover that they are not like us or they share an opposite political or ethical point of view we tend to unfollow/unfriend them or at the very least mute their messages. Until one day we realise with some self satisfaction that everyone seems to be singing the same tune that we sing and the news and information we receive on social media or via the news channels we watch mostly supports our opinions and values. Indeed, we sometimes become so fickle that it gets harder to understand how anyone can possibly justify having a diametrically opposite opinion to ourselves in anything. Armando Iannucci put it like this a few months ago:
“There’s this mob rule taking place on social media which is a disturbing thing to see. Social media can be great, especially for engaging people and getting a message out there. The other side is, if anyone says something different to you, rather than engage with them you just cut them off. Democracy is about different opinions coming together, trying to hammer out something that appeals to the most people. Today, if you say something I disagree with, I can block you. That’s how democracy breaks down.”
The anti democratic behaviour engendered by these news and information ghettoes that we create for ourselves plays not only into the hands of political extremist but also a growing proportion of governments of the far right or left with dictatorial tendencies. These people too often only thrive by oppressing minorities or creating a constant sense of crisis or conflict within their countries. In such situations the voices of reason and objectivity are far too often attacked by government controlled media who are quick to label it as unpatriotic or even treasonous.
Credit: Javier Martinez
All evidence points to social media having more of an impact in our lives in the years to come. So be careful not to lock yourself into your own personal social media ghetto. Yes you are bound to favour the messages and the voices supporting the things you believe in, but also try to tolerate at least a small proportion of people who hold different views to your own. I estimate 15% of the people I follow on Twitter are pro Brexit, pro Trump or are the voices of totalitarians or their sympathisers. Yes you will often see something that triggers your impulse to block that voice, but if you resist it you will at least become more informed and who knows, one day you may moderate or even change some of your own views. But if nothing else – you will at the very least get a better appreciation of the counter arguments or other points of view so that you can articulately challenge or support some of the important issues of our time with facts and not fake news.