In a recent video, Barack Obama warned voters about “fake news,” telling us “to be more vigilant with what we trust from the internet.” He ends with a piece of advice: “stay woke, bitches.” If you think that’s unlikely, you’d be right. It looks and sounds exactly like Obama, but it’s not. How is this possible?
The video, which is not entirely safe for work, is actually a “PSA [Public Service Announcement] for the Internet Age,” produced for BuzzFeed. It highlights the dangers of new technology which can make it seem as though people we know and trust are saying things they’re not.
At about the same time this video was released, the Electoral Commission released their report on last year’s general election. Among a slew of facts and recommendations, the Commission advises that election campaigning rules that affect social media should be reviewed. I think they’re right, but as the BuzzFeed video demonstrates, it’s unlikely that any changes will affect the more concerning ways that social media, and online activity more generally, influence voter behaviour.
Our election laws say that it’s an offence to publish anything likely to influence a voter on election day itself, including posts on social media. However, 47 percent of votes last year were cast before election day; an anomaly the Commission is right to point out.
The danger, though, is that when we focus on procedural issues like these we lose sight of bigger technological and behavioural trends. There are good reasons to think that social media encourages outrage and partisanship, behaviour that’s unhealthy for democracy even if it’s not specifically directed at voting decisions.
There’s also the increased use of social media to target voters with messages tailored to their particular prejudices. As one local journalist has said, messages that are so niche and so targeted effectively escape public scrutiny. We’re already seeing worrying evidence of private companies and foreign governments attempting to manipulate election results through Facebook and other platforms.
So while we can review and improve how we regulate social media, we’d be better off paying less attention to it, not more. The traditional media—professional journalists and editors—remain just as important for democracy as ever. But with newsrooms under huge pressure as their sources of revenue dry up, we may need to put our money where our mouths are and purchase the subscriptions required to sustain media organisations into the future.
We should also invest the time in getting to know our politicians. Go to election debates, and to your local MP’s office. Ask her or him about priorities, commitments, and values. Decide whether or not you’ll vote for them based on how they answer and how they act face to face, not on the basis of a manufactured image online.
In fact, recognising the current challenges with social media could lead to a revival of town hall-style democracy, standing shoulder to shoulder with our neighbours. That would be the best way to stay, not woke, but awake to the dangers of online propaganda.