Anyone who happens to be a member of that facsimile family known as Facebook will be aware it has a multitude of purposes depending who’s using it; for me, its use is almost exclusively as a method of communication in the form of messaging friends and acquaintances who not only live in different parts of the country, but (in some cases) different parts of the world. It’s quicker than a letter and cheaper than a phone-call, so I can’t complain. Some people I know use it as a virtual speakerphone, asking a question out loud and provoking replies from others who are also seemingly on permanent standby to receive incoming messages at any hour of the day. Then there are others I know who – bereft of a shit-filter – employ it as a platform for their nauseating narcissism, announcing to anyone in the area that their period has begun or that their children are the greatest gift ever to be bestowed upon the planet. Then again, being a little more generous, one might conclude some users are simply lonely and need someone to talk to or require an endorsement that they’re important – something they maybe don’t get in the real world.
There’s a certain mindset where FB posts are concerned too; anything that challenges the narrow consensus the medium has established will be met with stony silence and an absent of ‘likes’. There’s very much a typical FB post guaranteed a predictably euphoric response, usually one that taps into whatever is trending and picks the ‘right’ (i.e. communally agreed) side in an argument. The newsfeed section, which contains the posts of those listed as one’s FB friends, is chock-full of crap most of the time and informs you – in case you weren’t paying attention – that one of your FB sisters has made ‘100 friends’ in 2017 so far! Friend, like love, is a word I myself use sparingly; its overuse on Facebook tends to devalue it somewhat, but it’s all part of the community conspiracy to make users believe we’re all in it together.
The newsfeed section also contains endless sponsored posts, which are either ads cynically capitalising on a ‘like’ from some point in the past (dressed-up to look deceptively chummy) or petitions similarly geared towards previous tastes. Most of these I personally scroll past in the same way I don’t pay attention to billboards on the street; you can’t avoid them, so you ignore them. It would appear the Facebook overlords do too.
Before, during and after last year’s US Presidential Election campaign, it has been claimed 80,000 of these sponsored posts infiltrated the newsfeed of FB users who were eligible to vote; some posed as genuine accounts and were supposedly designed to influence floating voters. 126 million American FB users were exposed to them, and it’s alleged they emanated from a company linked to the Kremlin. Did they seriously influence voting, though? Only if the trolls aimed their sneaky missives at the same kind of uneducated people who voted Leave in the EU Referendum, as helpfully pointed out by Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman, perhaps.
This information has been released by the Dark Lord Zuckerberg’s corporation ahead of a Senate hearing into possible Russian interference in the 2016 campaign as Facebook, along with Google and Twitter, sends its lawyers to Washington. As for the two other online big-guns, Google says Russian trolls uploaded over a thousand ‘political videos’ to YouTube via 18 different channels; meanwhile, Twitter suspended 2,752 accounts it claims were traced to the Internet Research Agency in Russia, responsible for over 130,000 tweets between September and November last year. However, I think a little scepticism is required where the claims of both are concerned.
In many cases, Twitter accounts can be suspended for the most innocuous of reasons – usually if they don’t tow a certain premeditated line, particularly on specific issues of a political, religious or ‘social justice’ bent – and there are glaring inconsistencies as to what one can and can’t get away with saying that support this truism. Similarly, recent clampdowns on YT videos that don’t adhere to unwritten rules on the same sort of subjects suggest dubious, unnecessary censorship if the poster expresses opinions that don’t chime with the online consensus. When it comes to Facebook, the guilty accounts named and shamed undoubtedly had an agenda, but if that agenda was pro-Trump, how was it any different from traditional Republican media mouthpieces that have been broadcasting such an agenda for years?
The occasionally…er…unrestrained nature of social media in comparison to television or the press distinguishes it from both and means opinions are more raw and less polished than the established outlets of an older vintage. Therefore, Fox News aside, any FB account leaning towards the right will inevitably play upon the beliefs that fuel the right and will do so in a visceral manner that TV, mindful of its sponsors and advertisers, will shy away from. As when MPs over here momentarily exit their cocoons during a campaign and are shocked to find the hustings contain angry members of the public that Westminster keeps them away from, some of the voices that speak on social media are loud, uncompromising and often ugly; but as politicians now avoid public meetings that haven’t been choreographed and crammed with the party faithful, where else can the electorate make themselves heard?
Some of the FB accounts alleged to have stemmed from Russian trolls were in the guise of beloved left causes like Black Lives Matter, whereas another that purported to promote Women’s History Month was widely retweeted before its platform was large enough to begin spinning yarns that the Clinton campaign had received KKK money. This was the point when it began to look a little suspect; and while I’ve no doubt that many of the accused accounts were probably the work of mischievous trolls, we need to be careful lumping the authentic in with the fake just because the authentic might come from a political perspective that contradicts the given one online.
© The Editor