The most iconic image of last week’s events is that of “the Q shaman.” He wears a furry horned hat, his arms are snaked with cryptic cellular tattoos, his face is painted the colours of the American flag that he brandishes in his right hand and he is rear guarded by MAGA-hatted footmen. Eternally stamped into the history books, he has every right to look smug. But this image also reveals the victory of something that has influenced political discussion for years—the spread of internet lies.
The Q shaman—now identified as Jake Angeli—got his name from the far-right online conspiracy theory QAnon, which alleges that Trump is fighting a “deep-state cabal” of paedophiles and human traffickers. Angeli’s views have been shared on Twitter. His rants about “deep underground bases where they have highly top-secret technology” and are “creating infinite energy and anti-gravity” to produce a “New World Order” could be dismissed as the ramblings of a maniac—except that now people like Angeli have infiltrated the heart of American democracy.
The Trump supporters who besieged the Capitol genuinely believe that the Democrats had stolen the election, in spite of the fact that even Trump’s own former attorney general, William Barr, has stated that there is no evidence of major election fraud.
What caused such irrational fervour? One undeniable factor is Trump’s own Twitter account. Ignoring the warnings of those who said it would lead to violence, Trump unabashedly tweeted baseless claims of voter fraud to an audience all too willing to lap it up. Hundreds of thousands liked and retweeted, countless sycophantic comments followed and, according to a YouGov poll, 80% of his base believed him. What ensued were riots, the trashing of one of America’s most sacred buildings, the deaths of five people and a threat to US democracy. Wednesday’s astonishing scenes were the culmination of a slow metamorphosis from political allegiance to cultish mania.
It would be easy for the left to feel smugly immune to succumbing to falsehoods. But the Black Lives Matter protests also exploited online deceit, albeit in a more nuanced way. The issue there was not so much lack of evidence as the false conclusions that some of the cherry-picked evidence suggested.
Following the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white policeman, social media and news sites circulated statistics suggesting that a black person is up to six times more likely to be killed by the police than a white person. This led some to conclude that the police force is an auxiliary of a white supremacist system and poses a pressing threat to black lives. Indeed, the Black Lives Matter movement states that black people are “systematically targeted” and bestselling author Ibram X. Kendi has recently tweeted that the “police routinely kill black people.” A closer look at the statistics paints a different picture. According to the Washington Post, in the US 55 unarmed people were killed by the police in 2019, 14 of whom were black and 25 white. Therefore, the chance of an unarmed black person being killed by the police is 0.0000003%. A black person is five times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be killed by a police officer.
While Kendi’s claim is fallacious, disparity between the treatment of black and white people by the police certainly exists. There is a rational need for reform of the way police interact with the black community. We know that police are 20% more likely to use force in their interactions with black people. We also know that the American judicial system is more likely to give black people longer sentences for the same crimes. Of course, some of those waving placards were protesting these disparities. But a large proportion of protestors and rioters were surely motivated by the false perception that the police were targeting and killing people based on the colour of their skin.
Our susceptibility to false information should come as a surprise to no one. As Netflix’s The Social Dilemma has shown, fake news travels six times faster than real news. But why exactly is such fake news so readily believed?
Some studies blame ever-increasing political polarisation. One study has shown that Americans have become far more hostile towards people who support the opposite party. Asked to rank their feelings towards their political opponents on a scale of 0–100, with 0 being “very cold or unfavourable” and 100 being “very warm or favourable,” the mean score in 1990 was around 46. In 2015, it was 23. We used to merely disagree with those on the other side. Now we hate them.
With such hatred comes the willingness to believe lies about the out-group. In one study, a group of people were presented with two photos, one of Obama’s inauguration and one of Trump’s, and were asked to say which had the most attendees. In the photos, Obama’s inauguration is clearly full almost to capacity, while the photo of Trump’s shows large white patches of emptiness. But, blinkered by tribalism, 15% of Trump voters still asserted that his inauguration was better attended.
Social media has significantly increased polarisation. As Jonathan Haidt, Jaron Lanier and A. C. Grayling have been warning for years, social media companies profile their unwitting users and use the information to feed them political news congruent with their beliefs, thus cocooning us in our own Platonic caves and creating echo chambers.
So what has Silicon Valley done to combat polarisation in light of the growing political turmoil?
Twitter locked the president out of his account after he doubled down on claims of voter fraud even as his followers ransacked the Capitol building. It suspended him completely a few days later.
This is part of a larger trend in which social media companies have been forced to take responsibility for the content posted on their platforms. Facebook disables around 17 million fake accounts every day; YouTube removed 11.4 million videos in the last quarter of 2020; TikTok deleted 105 million videos in the first half of 2020; and Twitter removed 2.9 million tweets in the second half of 2019. But all this has sparked debate over who gets to decide what is true, who has the right to online speech and how much power we want to confer on private businesses to determine who and what is read.
Problems with this approach have already arisen. You do not have to be a Trump devotee to discern a bias in which users Twitter decides to flag as sharing “disputed claims,” nor do you have to be an Antifa zealot to notice the abundance of conspiracy-backed vitriol all over Facebook.
Libertarians claim that the removal of speech is an assault on the marketplace of ideas. I sympathise with their concern that Twitter’s removal of Trump sets a worrying precedent for impoverishing the diversity of political speech on the platform. It is also disconcerting to witness the ease with which some commentators call for those with whom they disagree to be banned from a platform that has become so integral to the dissemination of information that to be removed is tantamount to being silenced. However, extreme cases must be handled properly. Trump is the most powerful man in the world and his lies instigated what happened at the Capitol. Trump’s social media ban could turn out to be extremely dangerous in the long run because it may lead people to view Trump as a free speech martyr. But for now, at least, banning Trump seems to have been the right call.
While social media companies may be curbing the spread of false information, there is still the issue of the tribe-creating algorithms that facilitate it. Facebook’s representatives claim that they are working on solving this. Twitter has been a little less clear—perhaps because, as Bruno Maçães puts it, “Twitter could easily conclude that the whole site incites violence and ban itself.”
Such is the impact social media has had on our lives that—whether we like it or not—the future of our society now hinges on the decision-makers of Silicon Valley and the regulations our governments decide to impose on them.