samedi 8 décembre 2018

Toxic internet has left us disillusioned | Chatham House (+ Traduction Google)

Fake news, targeted ads and poisonous tweets are distorting opinion around the world. 

Elena Cresci, a millennial, expresses her loss of faith in social media and asks where it is leading

I am a millennial, which means a few things are certain: firstly, someone will have rolled their eyes and muttered something about snowflakes after reading that first line; and, secondly, my coming-of-age coincided with the widespread development of the internet. Unlike the younger end of Generation Z, I remember both a time without it and a time when it felt like it opened up all kinds of doors and opportunities.

Social media boomed as my generation hit young adulthood, with websites where you could be anything you wanted to be and affect real-life change at the tap of a button. You could start any campaign you wanted and anyone could join. True democracy was at our fingertips, or so the story went.

At least, that’s how it was supposed to go. Maybe it is because I am pushing 30 having passed barely any of the adulthood milestones my parents had achieved by my age, while also watching what seems to be the end of the world as we know it. At the same time, I am not sure how great the internet is any more. We are living in really strange times, both online and offline.

Much of this colours how I now feel about social media and the art of the political campaign. In the days when The Guardian liveblogged every day about the Arab Spring, it felt like Twitter and its ilk were the key to young people engaging wholeheartedly in political campaigns. And it was something you saw every day, as people in power were called to account through the power of the  smartphone.

In the more cynical days of 2018, that period of  optimism feels like a dream. Everything now appears off kilter. Social media doesn’t feel like the answer to society’s ills any more. Sometimes I wonder if it has caused some of those ills. How did we get here?

I have always been a journalist rather than a campaigner but, like a lot of idealists who went to university, I had my moments as a student.

My university days coincided with the 2010 marches against tuition fees, yet somehow the most memorable student campaign was against cuts to Swansea University’s modern languages department.

It was pretty old school − we had placards, we were quite close to organizing a sit-in and there was definitely a megaphone involved. But it was underpinned by a lot of social media chatter. This mostly involved us tweeting to a small audience at an already small campus where everyone knew everyone. I and a few friends ran a blog which received a few hundred hits a week, but we felt like it was making a difference.

This was around the 2010 general election, which everyone kept saying was going to be Britain’s first internet election. Two years earlier, Barack Obama had won on a campaign of hope which mobilized his ability to talk to voters directly via social media. The 2010 election wasn’t quite that – partly because no British politician could muster the same charisma as Obama – but it felt like the potential was there.

In Swansea, we blogged, we tweeted, we uploaded videos to YouTube. The biggest protest, almost a sit-in, was organized through Facebook.

A lot of this has been lost by now. One of the tragedies of  the internet is that so much of it can be deleted so easily. Being an internet historian is tough because one day half the links don’t work any more. In any case, perhaps it is a case of rose-tinted glasses, but I felt a lot more optimistic about social media back then.

On a personal level, social media was how I managed to break into journalism and carve myself a career path. I didn’t have media friends in London, so I made them on Twitter and got in that way. Often, this is the same for campaigners – if people aren’t listening, they make a noise elsewhere.

In some ways, social media can act as a leveller. The mainstream media wasn’t, and often still isn’t, giving a platform to under-represented voices – so they found their own voice on social media.

If anything, it is much easier, practically speaking, to get involved than it was back when I was at university. In part, that is thanks to the overwhelming success of the smartphone. It is not just a tool to keep us connected to the rest of the world. If you are a young, enthusiastic campaigner, it’s your organizer, your contacts book and a way of documenting whatever is happening in front of you all in one.

We are not just talking about the click of a button any more, it’s the swipe of a thumb, a double tap away. The urge to film injustice is now second nature. All you need is a decent wi-fi connection and the opportunity.

One post on Twitter, seen by the right people, goes viral and ends up in the news. Smartphones significantly lower the barrier of entry to activism.

It is often disregarded as ‘hashtag activism’ and this is true: it is far too easy to say you are involved by retweeting a post rather than actually showing up to protest. Yet we have seen many times how a movement can gain momentum from a hashtag or a Facebook post alone.

#BlackLivesMatter has brought focus to the issue of police brutality in the United States; #MeToo encouraged women around the world to share their stories of sexual assault following the Weinstein revelations. We have seen some of the biggest protests in Britain since the march against the Iraq war – against Trump, in favour of the European Union – being organized and coordinated on Facebook.

Inevitably, political parties want to cash in on this politically engaged group of young, internet-savvy people. Take the most recent general election. There was a lot of breathless coverage of how the political parties, most notably the Conservatives, were going to utilize Facebook advertisements. In the 2017 election, they spent a combined £3.2 million on them – almost double the amount spent in 2015.

Yet away from the official social media campaigns, something else was bubbling up. It is best summed up by an offhand tweet the morning after the vote, when it became clear Theresa May would not command the majority she had hoped for when she called the election. It was something along the lines of: ‘The Conservatives paid for Facebook ads, people were making memes for Labour for free.’

Now, I would not go so far as to say it was the memes wot won it for Jeremy Corbyn in 2017. For one thing, he didn’t win, while Theresa May just didn’t get the gains the polls and pundits suggested she might. The popularity of Corbyn memes – from his being the ‘absolute boy’ to videos of him eating Pringles going viral – showed that you don’t need to spend millions of pounds on Facebook advertising if young people think you are suitable meme fodder.

There is a video of Corbyn, taken from Labour’s Snapchat feed after the general election, in which he enthusiastically says: ‘Hi, how you doing? We’re back, and we’re ready for it all over again.’ I have seen that video dozens of times on non-political pages with varying captions such as ‘When you walk back into the sesh after throwing up’. Usually, politicians are the butt of jokes, but all the Corbyn memes of 2017 seemed to add to his popularity among young people. Of course, you can’t talk about Facebook advertisements without considering the campaign for Brexit. And you can’t talk about that without taking Cambridge Analytica into account. It showed how easy it was for  social media to be hijacked and how vulnerable we now are, having given so much of our personal information to companies in Silicon Valley. But it is also a story about how a consultancy, by vastly over-stating its abilites, took advantage of how little some of the people in charge of campaigns know about the internet.

That is the thing about the internet – from the anonymous forum days to its more mainstream version today. You can never really be sure that what you are seeing is true. That hugely controversial pro-Trump Twitter account could actually be part of a Russian disinformation campaign. Or, equally, it could be a bored teenager trying to annoy as many people as possible.

I have spent half of my, still fairly short, career debunking fakery online – I’m just not surprised any more. When I was growing up online, I learnt early on not to believe everything you read on the internet: does anyone else remember the Bonsai cats hoax? I still can’t believe that a simular formula, used in 2000 to spread a viral petition claiming kittens were being forced to grow up in jars, is now being used for political campaigns ... but that’s 2018 for you.

Equally, it feels difficult to have an adult conversation about social media campaigning when the metrics used to gauge success online feel just as ripe for fakery.

 Entire departments were conjured up at media companies on the basis of Facebook’s supposedly booming video views, except it turned out those views didn’t really mean anything. When Facebook tweaked the viewing count to make it more realistic, those views tanked and entire departments were rendered useless.

It is possible to hijack pretty much any of the numbers we use to value our social profiles –  whether it is buying followers or YouTube views.

That is worth bearing that in mind when it comes to social media campaigning. How can we even be sure how engaging something is when half of the metrics we use to gauge success on social media are either unreliable or open to manipulation?

This is where, I hope, the next generation can be smarter. By the time they are pushing 30, if we haven’t managed to destroy the climate, they will have seen everything: expensive political Facebook ads, memes and fakery. With any luck, they can learn from our mistakes.

They already seem to be a bit more wary about what they post online. We have seen a rise in the popularity of social media apps where posts delete themselves after 24 hours, the idea being that you have the space to be a dumbass without those posts coming back to haunt you when you are applying for a job. That said, I would not be surprised if we saw a YouTube prankster become an MP at some point in the future. The point is that none of this is going away.

The question isn’t about how social media engages young people in politics and campaigns any more – it’s about how they tackle the mess they’ll be forced to inherit.

AUTHOR: Elena Cresci is a freelance journalist

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