With social media becoming a breeding ground for the spread of misinformation during the coronavirus crisis, leaders must step in and take action to protect the public, for the sake of both public health and the future of democracy, Bodhi Hardinge writes.
It appears that the world is heading toward a near-worst case scenario in the coming months for representative democracy. The combined disruptive nature of social media and a global pandemic is creating a pressure point that should lead policymakers to fear for the future of democratic institutions. In the same way there is an acknowledgement of the risk of this contagion to our way of life in the short-run, the destabilising effect of social media must be acknowledged in the long-run if democracy is to be defended.
This is indeed not just an Australian phenomenon, with continued Russian interference in American elections, even before a mention of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, harming democratic rights and institutions.
It is easy to assume this interference happens because people can somehow ‘cheat’ social media and break the system. This is not the case. These are not weaknesses in the structure of social media being exploited, but those with nefarious motives using its deliberate design, even in intended ways.
This ‘coup from above’ uses social media’s own internal logic against itself. The personalised news feed of every user leads to a stratification of thought across society based on an individual’s own engagement; the filter bubble. This is because users are shown content that is more engaging to them, but, unfortunately, that content does not need to be based in reality.
Moreover, this system of engagement is used by antagonists of democracy to push a pressure point, a weakness we appear to be blind to. Even in this state of heightened crisis, Russia is again exploiting democracy’s inability to stop misinformation.
State–sponsored misinformation of this scale is nothing new, which may in turn explain public apathy for action. However, this pandemic is proving to be a new front in the defence of democracy. Information in a crisis is key, the decentralised and fragmented nature of social media is quite clearly proving itself ill-equipped for crises. Panic buying, initially for toilet paper, which is predominately manufactured in Australia and in plentiful supply, can be partly explained by the prominence on social media of images of emptying shelves, creating artificial urgency that has since led to a very real shortage.
This panic is at least in some part due to misinformation of unprecedented scale. The antagonists of democracy can only take advantage of social media because its internal logic allows them to direct falsehoods, and create not only top-down, but also bottom-up misinformation, as with panic buying. This is a natural outcome of the directionless filter bubble.
Social media has contributed to this panic, materialising as a leading cause of, rather than the product of, mass anxiety. Many online groups, posts, and videos have been published stoking this panic, all contributing to escalating anxiety and misinformation within society. This is not sustainable.
Some may suggest that this is not a problem, because the proportion of the population that social media informs is still small. Such a statement is increasingly misleading. Social media is growing, and so is the capacity of antagonists to abuse democracy, as well as the ability for the public to inadvertently misinform itself.
Such a system tears away at democratic judgement and damages the ability to constructively participate in a democratic method of governance. At the heart of this crisis is tension between popular and representative democracy.
Alternatively, some may say that this is a non-issue because the impact of a toilet paper crisis is trivial, but there is little difference between the same irrational behaviour and misinformation that led to the toilet paper panic and countless other anti-social behaviours. If falsities can spread so easily about something so trivial, what will stop information about crucial responses, such as vaccination or social distancing, from facing the same problems?
In the next month or two, Australians’ actions will influence a generation. This is not just a moment for Australia, but a global moment. The outcome of this pandemic will be influential for many years to come. Whether Australia can mitigate the economic and health impacts of this pandemic is foremost linked to its ability to inform and change the behaviour of the population.
To meet the demands of this crisis, major changes are required. Minor notifications and links to the World Health Organization that only momentarily capture the attention of the user are woefully insufficient. The ‘attention economy’ is crucial language those leading the response must adapt into their expectations of social media.
It is apparent that significant volumes of attention must be allocated to informed and effective action against this pandemic. In this crisis, the user’s attention that social media seizes cannot be wasted on toilet paper conspiracies but must be steered to expert medical advice. In the same way that hate speech is banned on social media because it imposes a cost on others, policymakers should at the very least acknowledge the cost that medical misinformation will have in the coming months and take similar precautions.
This will have a visceral impact on families and communities across the world, including in Australia. Every argument against major changes to social media should be contrasted against the human and economic cost of misinformation. Australia must see this for the threat that it is and act accordingly.
Even if implementation is difficult, social media companies must find a way to make it possible. Governments around the world should have social media platforms internalise the cost of misinformation, by taking approaches with strong penalties on platforms that host it. This would also push the burden of implementation onto those who have the technical expertise. As a permanent solution, may be a distant goal, but the immediate pandemic crisis must make it a top priority.
Australia is on the brink of failing many people. As a society, it must implement immediate changes to stymie misinformation, both as a response to the pandemic crisis and for the sake of its representative democracy. There is still time to stop misinformation, better inform the public, and save lives.