Author: Jack Latimore
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Jack Latimore is a Goori journalist and researcher from the Birpai nation. He writes on Indigenous affairs, politics, culture, technology, media, and journalism. He tweets from @LatimoreJack.
The frenzy this past week over the Facebook “filter-bubble” has been a crucial case of media introspection.The reaction follows the spectacularly unexpected election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, but has been prominent on the radar of media observers since at least Brexit, when a majority of UK citizens voted to leave the European Union. These results are considered extraordinary because in both cases supposedly sophisticated polling methodologies and the elite political commentariate never saw it coming. The scenario is no different in Australia, where the elevation of four One Nation candidates to the senate in the July federal election took far too many media “Insiders” by surprise.
The propagation of fake news sits at the centre of all the current criticism and comes after it was discovered that a profusion of outright false information was shared widely via the platform. As revealed by the media-tech outlet Buzzfeed, over 100 pro-Trump political news sites sprung up towards the back end of the US presidential campaign, all of them originating in Macedonia and designed principally for financial gain via US display advertising. The fictional stories these opportunistic sites produced appealed directly to candidate Trump’s vehement “alt-right” supporters with the rationale that those particular social media users would share the articles far and wide, and often. Every time somebody interacted, or “clicked” on a story, an infinitesimal payment was generated and deposited into a Macedonian bank account, and in their weak economy, the sum of those near imperceptible earnings apparently amounted to some decent lucre.
Facebook then attempted to absolve itself from responsibility for the unchecked and unfiltered distribution of fake news content, based on a disingenuous argument that it is not, in fact, a media company . This, despite a recent industry report revealing that 62 per cent of US adults get their news from Facebook, and the fact that the company had previously fired an office full of human editors tasked with monitoring the news feed and replaced them with a computer algorithm.
Alluding to the fake news problem at a pro-Democrat rally prior to the election result, US President Barak Obama said: “And people, if they just repeat attacks enough, and outright lies over and over again, as long as it’s on Facebook and people can see it, as long as its on social media, people start believing it. And it creates this dust cloud of nonsense.”
In journalistic terms, the “dust cloud of nonsense” Obama refers to is known as “confirmation bias” and it is as rampant in an Australian context as it is in the US and UK.
Since the advent of Facebook in Australia circa 2007, we’ve had five changes to the prime ministership, not to mention repeated shuffling of the leadership of the opposition. Media pundits argue that the disquiet is symptomatic of the affect of social media upon the electorate, pointing both to the challenges that a fragmented media audience presents to effective political communication and to the difficulties pollsters have in getting an accurate read on the hectic, hyper-partisan online sphere: one moment Rudd or Abbott is trending up, the next minute they’re considered party poison. This results in populist driven decisions within the party, which leads to populist policy making, and consequently populist legislation.
While we’re yet to experience the production and viral-like distribution of the kind of fake news currently being referred to, there has, since around 2012, been a proliferation of contesting, politically-charged Facebook group pages responsible for the production of misleading information, distortions of reality and “untruths”. Any Australian with a Facebook account and a passing interest in politics would be aware of the presence in that sphere of pages like Kim Vuga’s Stop The Mosque Gladstone; Malcolm Turnbull Exposed — More Liberal Lies and Champagne Cliches; Tony Abbott — Worst PM in Australian History; I hate Christopher Pyne!; Labor Party Exposed, Bill Shorten — The Worst Opposition Leader in History; Aussies Against Racism; United Patriots Front; Say No to Racism; and Campaign Against Racism and Fascism. Many of these pages boast tens of thousands of subscribers. They too are the kinds of echo chambers implicated in the proliferation of misleading information, or fake news.
Adding to the alarm is that most social media users are perfectly aware that they’re ensconced in a bubble, and prefer it that way. It is a wilful ignorance. Conflicting perspectives, regardless of their substance, are flatly rejected or simply blocked. Self-affirmation is the objective. And in a climate of socioeconomic disenfranchisement and political disaffection, that participation imparts a measure of agency. This is the much vaunted democratising affordance of social media; and a cruel irony, considering the so-called “Free West” is soon to be led by a multi-billionaire with discernibly fascistic policies, and the rise and rise here in Australia of the nationalist, post-truth One Nation movement.
Blackfellas aren’t exempt from the predicament either. The issue of constitutional reform to recognise First Nations people springs most immediately to mind. Surprisingly for middle White Australia, the issue is a divisive one within the Indigenous public sphere. The reasons for this are complex. Principle among them for many grassroots Blackfellas is the lack of voice afforded by the media to dissenting voices, while the government sponsored publicity campaign known as Recognise received all the mainstream media focus as well as tens of millions of dollars to facilitate a Yes vote in some undetermined, but nevertheless impending referendum. That disregard prompted Aboriginal administrated oppositional groups to form on social media platforms, and chiefly Facebook, under banners such as Vote ‘NO’ To Constitutional Change, Say NO to Constitutional Recognition, Anti Recognise Campaign, and Australians against Aboriginal Racism and Forced Land Acquisition.
In the rush to amplify a dissenting voice and gain “traction” with likeminded users, these groups published sensationalist, eye-catching posts. Basic information distributed in that campaign is inaccurate, and is still too often referred to by opponents to the elusive, unfixed proposition of constitutional recognition.
For example, the legal concept of “Recognizance” was repeatedly utilised via placard-memes and re-occurring textual posts to dissuade users from supporting recognition. It still features heavily in many responses that contribute to long comment threads on the subject. The problem is that “Recognizance” as a legal concept only applies to Criminal Law. It has no application in Constitutional Law and therefore does not void any claims — past, present or future — Aboriginal people make against the Crown. Nor does it cede lands or First Nations sovereignty as is too often asserted by subscribers to these groups. This kind of misinformed, or deliberately misleading information, works against everybody’s best interests by undermining critical citizenship.
Australia’s mainstream media is also culpable, particularly a number of senior commentators, senior editors and executive editors working within Newscorp’s the australian national newspaper. Their current assault on the Racial Discrimination Act, for example, is riddled with inaccuracies and alarmist half-truths: more construction than rigorous reporting. It is said that lobbying from vested interests such as the Institute of Public Affairs — a public policy think tank who seek to advance an unfettered libertarian agenda — has heavily seasoned the reportage and commentary published in the australian. And with the Newscorp company behind over 80 per cent of Australia’s media, the broader public’s capacity for independent, deliberative thinking could also be considered to be jeopardised.
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