The Tories’ new National Security Communications Unit sounds like it belongs in a Cold War spy novel.
It’s got the same enemy—Russia—and uses similar jargon. But the action won’t take place in dingy safe houses or the streets of East Berlin—it’s on your own Facebook newsfeed.
The Tories’ new threat is “weaponised disinformation”—fake news.
So May took a swipe at Facebook at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week. She said social media platforms were being “used to facilitate child abuse, modern slavery or the spreading of terrorist and extremist content.”
For decades top Tories have covered up child abuse, tolerated sexual harassment and encouraged racism. They haven’t suddenly gained a conscience now.
Nor are they too bothered about truth in the media. Cabinet ministers enjoy a close relationship with Rupert Murdoch, owner of lying rag The Sun.
But there is a recognition that they’re losing the battle of ideas. The growing #MeToo movement against sexual harassment is one aspect of that. So is the widespread support for Jeremy Corbyn, which took mainstream politicians and pundits by surprise.
National newspapers are tied up in this too. Murdoch might have survived the phone hacking scandal, but trust in the media never fully recovered.
Tory and Labour politicians alike could once rely on major news outlets to broadly promote their neoliberal worldview.
Now that vision of society has failed, those media outlets have been caught out.
Trust in the news is falling. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism surveyed 70,000 people in 36 countries last year. In 28 countries, less than 50 percent of people trusted the news media.
In Britain trust had fallen by 7 percent since the same survey in 2016.
Some very rich and powerful people have excelled at exploiting this—particularly in the US where distrust was highest among right wingers.
The likes of data mining firm Cambridge Analytica and far right website Breitbart built their success on it. Analytica and Breitbart have thrived on social media. Personal data harvested from Facebook means they can target specific groups.
Echo chambers created by Facebook’s algorithms—designed to show users more of what they like—have amplified their voices.
Analytica plied its wares for Donald Trump’s election campaign and Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU.
It quietly takes the credit for both Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote.
And the old establishment media like to believe that too.
Major news companies have spent months complaining that social media is responsible for undermining trust in them.
They may have had some success. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced this month changes to the newsfeeds algorithms.
Facebook will now show people less news overall, but it will be “higher quality”. It will now rank sources based on which ones its readers know and “trust”.
Two questions will ask, “Do you recognise the following websites?” and “How much do you trust these domains?”
Smaller, more partisan sites will probably lose out from this—and the old news publishers may feel they’ve regained some control.
But the real causes of their problems haven’t gone away. It’ll take more than an algorithm to fix it.