This is an opinion piece in response to various social media exchanges I have observed recently and touches on fake news, online communication as well as roles and responsibilities in society.
We would all like to believe that the governments we elect will serve us with the best interests of our nations at heart, wherever we live in the world. However it isn’t enough to believe, we also have a responsibility to actively hold them to account to ensure they do, because governments are made of people, some who unfortunately do not have public service at the forefront of their motivations and may have stood for elected office or employed others for ulterior purposes.
Some of us have specific roles which are meant to help hold governments to account; this includes Journalists, Members of Parliament (in all parties including a government’s own party) as well as expert lead organisations/associations such as the British Medical Association (in the UK), Universities and business organisations among others. We may not always like the ways in which people in such roles operate and this is where we, as civically responsible individuals, can also do our part to hold those in official positions to account. We can do this by paying attention to what they are doing, keeping in touch with them (writing to our MPs and media organisations with questions or observations) and reading widely beyond the headline, not just trusting one source because it is what we have always done. Then, whenever the opportunity arises we vote for candidates based on what we have found out about them and their policies (checking their integrity and track record of public service in their field) rather than because we, our parents and grandparents have always voted for a particular political party, because parties evolve over time.
Many of the online platforms we use to keep in touch with family and friends are not neutral spaces because “technology connects us but it is not culturally neutral” (Gunawardena, 2014) and the data we allow those platforms to hold about ourselves is sometimes used in unethical ways to feed us personalised messages which are designed to persuade us to accept particular viewpoints as absolute truth, even though they might be biased because they don’t tell the whole story. This might be happening gradually over a long period of time to sway people towards a particular mindset for propaganda purposes. It is important to be aware of these manipulation issues and treat each message we see (shared by friends, acquaintances, colleagues, newspapers, sponsored advertisements or pages we follow) with some scepticism rather than accepting them at face value as entirely true, then discussing them honestly and respectfully with each other.
It is wise to ask the following questions about messages we see put out by the ‘media’ or ‘government’ or ‘members of parliament’ or ‘business’ or ‘the man in the street’:
- Why did they phrase it that way and does the message contain emotive language?
What is the real message they are trying to put across, i.e. what is the motivation behind the message?
Is it a message we want to believe, does it reinforce or challenge our usual dearly held beliefs?
Is it easier/more comfortable to agree with rather than challenge the message and can we challenge constructively and kindly?
- Who funds them or owns them?
Does the funder have extreme right or left wing views: extremes are often a danger to equity?
What does the person or organisation hope to achieve by sharing particular messages, might this result in them making more money?
Do they want to make people despair, give up or do as they are told?
Do they seek to cause division?
Do they want to incite people to do the opposite of what might be healthy or sensible?
Are they appealing for support from like-minded people or are they inviting comment from others who might disagree?
- Is the message factual or is there another perspective or some verifiable, reliable facts which counter the message?
Why is the message a problem or a challenge and how might it affect different people in a variety of situations?
How can we as ordinary people counter-act a dangerous message to diffuse rather than inflame a situation?
If we believe that a government has our best interests at heart, we still have to accept that others may believe or have verifiable evidence to prove the opposite is true or that the reality is more nuanced than polarised. Their roles might require them to point out the flaws in a particular action or directive, and might help to safeguard our rights and freedoms. If we want truth and democracy to flourish, we must uphold freedom of speech conducted in fair-minded, ethical and respectful ways, however we cannot expect that to happen without a lot of work on our part, it is always dangerous to be complacent and passively rely on others to do this for us. As the late Eleanor Roosevelt said “It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.” (United Nations Foundation, n.d.)
Gunawardena, C. N. (2014) ‘Globalization, culture, and online distance’. in Zawacki-Richter, O. and Anderson, T. (eds) Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda, Athabasca, Canada, Athabasca University Press, pp. 75–107. DOI 10.15215/AUPRESS/9781927356623.01. Available at www.aupress.ca/books/120233-online-distance-education/ (accessed 8 May 2020)
United Nations Foundation (n.d.) 10 Inspiring Eleanor Roosevelt Quotes. Available at https://unfoundation.org/blog/post/10-inspiring-eleanor-roosevelt-quotes/ (accessed 28 May 2020)
Fake News – Scrabble Tiles, Journolink Journolink, https://www.flickr.com/photos/157230341@N02/33661377268/ CC BY 2.0