Inciting the mob in “defacto village square”

Almost a year has passed since the shock result of the US election and the murky depths of what might have potentially affected the outcome are still being unravelled in investigations.

Regardless of who the fall guys will be or the predictably shrill social media denials from Trump, there are wider questions to ask on just what role misinformation played in waylaying a leading democracy and if and how social media facilitated it. The issue is not to find a scapegoat in a constantly evolving and proliferating medium but to bring with it the lessons shaping our world for better or worse.

If the United States is a nation more brutally polarised on these partisan lines, the problem is the proliferation of unverifiable or false news feeds, of filter bubble worldviews is not confined there. The echo chamber of self-affirmation becomes even more distorting with false information and is rapidly becoming the preferred platform of hatred and fear in many other parts of the world. Kevin Roose from the  New York Times has investigated how social media, what Human Rights Watch researcher Cynthia Wong  has called “the defacto public square”, has played a significant role in inciting the persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar and cites comparable atrocities in India and Sudan.  

“Facebook is not directly responsible for violent conflict, of course, and viral misinformation is hardly unique to its services. Before social media, there were email hoaxes and urban legends passed from person to person. But the speed of Facebook's growth in the developing world has made it an especially potent force among first-time internet users, who may not be appropriately skeptical of what they see online.”

When it comes to scepticism we all believe what we want to believe and despite the wonders of access to a plethora of opinions at no point in history have we had old prejudices, myopic theories and enmities pandered to by what we want to hear.  Measured and scientific questioning has become more important than ever. But who is asking the questions?

Traditional media agonised long and hard over the role of media as the gatekeeper and whether they had the right to filter or dissect information. Social media has opened the flood gates, making traditional media irrelevant or obsolete in many cases but this much is still vital; knowing how to keep asking the questions.

On a much humbler scale and perhaps without the drama or excitement of international crisis, The Courier is still there bringing to Ballarat’s “village square” whatever platforms it uses, the same standards of verification and authority that make the difference between news and gossip or spin. It may not have all the answers but it knows it must keep asking the questions.​  If you think local papers, think again.