The 2016 Election, Social Media, and Post-Truth

By Phil Youngblood

Phil YoungbloodAround this time of year in 2008, Facebook overtook MySpace in popularity, with nearly 60 million users visiting each site monthly.

Twitter, a relative newcomer, was already logging 300,000 tweets daily worldwide. Just before the U.S. primary elections that year, I conducted an analysis in class to see which candidates were using social media and for what apparent purposes. We discovered a few candidates had no social media presence and only one (our current president) made substantial use of videos.

By the end of 2012, 2.4 billion Internet users worldwide sent 145 billion e-mails (double 2008, though nearly 70 percent were spam), Facebook topped 1 billion active users monthly, and the number of tweets per day surpassed 175 million. The Pew Research Center conducted an analysis of candidates Obama vs. Romney (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RknwYl4YdEc) in June of that year on their use of social media. They discovered Obama’s team had posted four times the content, on twice as many sites, as his rival. Both predominantly talked about themselves rather than their rivals and linked back to their own sites where they could control the message.

As we near the end of 2016, 50 percent of the world can access the Internet, a remarkable increase over only 20 percent in 2008. We are sending 215 billion e-mails yearly, 1.2 billion people log onto Facebook daily (among 18-24-year-olds, it is 50 percent), and Twitter logs more than 500 million tweets per day. Hardly anyone would say e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter did not play a significant role in the 2016 election, and it seems just about everyone is analyzing the impact this had.

Perhaps the most obvious “lesson learned” from social media this election cycle was that once something is online, it is there forever. A corollary still being learned by many is that what you write or say online is not as private as many would like to think, and it is difficult to “take it back.” Perhaps that is why there appears to be so much “post-truth” (Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2016 – https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2016), that is, appeal to emotion and personal belief to overshadow incontrovertible or inconvenient facts. As more people look towards social media for their news (http://www.journalism.org/2016/07/07/pathways-to-news/), there is also a trend towards intentional manipulation and “fake news” that gives people what they want to hear rather than the truth.

Long ago when I was young and we got most of our news from printed sources and television, Walter Cronkite of CBS News, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year, was the “most trusted man in America” (from a national poll) and reputable newspapers and magazines prided themselves in vetting what they published (Cronkite once said, “In seeking truth you have to get to both sides of a story.”) Later on, private cable news networks could bias their news, and commentary on the news, how they saw fit. Today, half the world is connected and anyone can communicate directly to all of us, saying anything to everyone about anything, without any check on truthfulness, rationality, or even decency.

While we could rightly champion this development as creating the ultimate platform for freedom of speech and expression, with privilege comes responsibility. I would like to suggest leaders should lead by example and carefully weigh the impact of what they say on social media to avoid being misinterpreted by both followers and detractors who read or hear what they want to believe, and that the rest of us could exercise critical thinking and discrimination among sources of information, be wary of living within an “echo chamber” that merely confirms what we want to believe rather than seeking out and listening to both sides of a story, and thinking before we share or retweet something of dubious validity.

E-mail Youngblood, director of the Computer Information Systems (CIS) and Cybersecurity programs, at youngblo@uiwtx.edu

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