People making stuff up on the internet is nothing new. Nor is politicians and newspapers telling lies to win votes—or rich businesspeople and media moguls interfering in politics.
But the idea that these things might affect the general election is treated as news.
Joel Golby in the Guardian newspaper last week claimed, “The theme for the big bad election of 2019 is leaning towards ‘theatrical misinformation’.”
He predicted a general election where fake news and lies spread around Twitter.
Even leading politicians and journalists make a show of themselves by appearing to get taken in by them.
Former Labour MP Mike Gapes got tricked into endorsing a spoof tactical voting website that recommends voting for Mike Gapes in every seat.
A similar argument suggests something more sinister is going on. Tory MP Damian Collins chairs parliament’s “fake news” committee.
He believes that during the election “shadowy campaign groups that support different interests, but are not officially connected to any one political party, will make themselves heard online”.
His report—published at the start of the year—warned that the internet “carries the insidious ability to distort, mislead and produce hatred and instability,” threatening democracy.
Perhaps he’s right. Last week his party edited a video to make a television interview with Labour’s Keir Starmer look worse than it was.
The weekend before Michael Gove got taken in—or did he?—by a seemingly fake Twitter account purporting to be an antisemitic Labour member.
To Gove, it didn’t matter whether the account was real or not. It gave him an opportunity to smear the Labour Party.
When the election began, a “tactical voting” website—Best for Britain—appeared, claiming to offer advice on how to elect “a majority of pro-Europeans”.
Strangely, it recommended voting for the Liberal Democrats over Labour in seats where they have very little chance of beating the Tories.
Much of this is really just about rich and powerful people finding new ways to influence how we think and vote. But then, so is much of the backlash to it.
Many of the current fears grew out of the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018.
Owned by right wing multi-billionaire Robert Mercer, Cambridge Analytica used the personal data of millions of Facebook users to target them with personalised political adverts. It sold its services to the Trump and Vote Leave campaigns.
Many supporters of the European Union now claim that Leave won because much of this advertising contained lies or “misinformation”.
Cambridge Analytica has since gone bust. But the new fear is that misinformation will once more be spread on social media—generated and paid for by shadowy interests—to influence this election.
Now there’s a drive—backed by “traditional” media outlets—to impose regulation on sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
It just so happens that this involves shutting down partisan news accounts and pages, and driving traffic towards “trusted” news sites such as their own.
It’s helpful too that this allows traditional outlets to promote their own form of lies and disinformation as legitimate. A recent BBC podcast saw political editor Laura Kuenssberg explain—badly—what “shitposting” is.
Nonsense memes and in-jokes shared knowingly on corners of social media are now the latest fake news threat.
BBC media editor Amol Rajan thinks shitposting is a threat to journalists who are “there to check things are right”.
“The second function of journalism after first of all informing people and citizens as to what is going on is to apply scrutiny to power,” he said.
“To say, hang on a second, is that necessarily true?”
This noble ideal bears little resemblance to the actual output of much of the news, which does more to amplify the voices and ideas of mainstream politicians than challenge them.
But it does offer a neat little explanation for what they think is going on.
Ordinary people’s heads have been filled with fake news, disinformation, targeted advertising, shitposts—and whatever other buzzwords you can come up with. This tricked them into voting for Brexit, or Jeremy Corbyn.
It’s a simplistic and patronising understanding of how ordinary people develop their thoughts and ideas. But for them it’s also a reassuring one. The truth is much more unpalatable.
Trust in the news has fallen. So has trust in mainstream politicians and the establishment.
That reflects a real bitterness in society that hasn’t just been planted in people’s heads.
It stems from the reality of their lives after not just a decade of austerity—but four decades of assaults on wages and living standards.
People are right to reject the politicians responsible for this—and the media outlets that justified it.
Shitposting has gone mainstream. Yet lying in the media is nothing new.
Scapegoating migrants or Muslims for example has traditionally been the job of established right wing newspapers and politicians from most parties.They laid the groundwork for many of the racist lies online.
All of the media—online or traditional print and broadcast—is owned and run by the rich and powerful. Rupert Murdoch is an obvious example.
That’s one of the most important reasons why many people hold right wing ideas that go against their own interests.
Sometimes media bias is overt—such as recent front pages attacking strikes during Christmas. Other times it’s subtler.
The way the media reports and talks about politics just naturally reflects the worldview of the people who own and run it.
It’s easy to accept these ideas as common sense because they seem to fit in with the way that society works.
The idea that we should all worry about whether businesses, bankers and financiers can keep making huge profits, is one example.
That politics is simply about the speeches, movements and plots of a handful of people in parliament is another.
Even so, the right wing media can’t always take people with it. Over a year after the Windrush scandal broke, it’s still raised as a warning to politicians who go “too far” in their scapegoating of migrants.
Having thoroughly believed most people would welcome a “hostile environment” for migrants, Tory politicians were forced onto the back foot when the cruel reality of what that meant was exposed.
More recently, a poll found that the majority of people—including Tory voters—support a policy of reducing carbon emissions to zero by 2030.
That’s despite scaremongering in the press about how necessary action on climate change will make our lives miserable, and its sneering treatment of Extinction Rebellion (XR) protesters.
Newspapers such as the Guardian might like to pretend they’re leading the way on bringing climate change to the fore. Really they’re just playing catch-up.
It was movements of ordinary people such as XR and the climate strikes who brought demands for radical action to the fore. More importantly, they’ve made that radical action seem possible.
There’s a lesson here. The ideas that people come into contact with, how they’re spread, and who’s responsible for it matter. So too does finding ways to get our own message across.
A flipside of the fears of online disinformation is the idea that the left can counter this with its own social media strategy.
The pro-Corbyn group Momentum is very proud of the number of people it reached with its videos and memes on Facebook at the last general election.
But these things don’t guarantee success.
In the European elections earlier this year the Brexit Party spent less on Facebook advertising than the Tories, Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Change UK. It beat them all.
What really matters isn’t what’s going on online—but what’s going on in our everyday lives.
The value of wages have fallen while rents, bills and the cost of living has gone up. We know that. We’re in the midst of a growing climate catastrophe. We know that too.
Muslims and migrants have faced years of scapegoating and attacks that have left us living in a more racist society. We know that.
We also know we can’t trust politicians or their media backers. What matters is what we can do to challenge them.