First Month Reflections: UK General Election, Fake News and Social Media

By Siobhán: siobhan@equaliteach.co.uk

One interesting experience from my first month at EqualiTeach was listening to Year 8 students’ views on trustworthy sources of information and how false ideas can be spread online and in person.  These are some of the statements I heard from students in critical thinking workshops on June 7th and 8th, the week of the 2017 UK general election:

“on social media you can lose the original sources of stats and information and get caught up in the emotion of a post”

“there is a lot of fake news people post to try to persuade you of their point of view”

“newspapers exaggerate to get you to buy their papers”

“you would think you could trust your friends and family most, but they’re not necessarily experts”

“some websites are biased and hide it really well”

“if you’re not sure about something you should do some wider reading and make your mind up for yourself, not be peer pressured”

 

It was reassuring to hear how aware these students were of the need to not take headlines and clickbait stories on social media at face value, as well as the way individuals and groups can use selective information to appeal to readers’ emotions.

Indeed, a recent study by the Oxford Internet Institute has found that one in eight political stories shared on Twitter in the week running up to the 2017 UK general election was ‘junk news’, defined as “misleading, deceptive or incorrect information purporting to be real news about politics, economics or culture”[1].

On the morning of June 9th my Twitter feed was awash with election fever: people celebrating, commiserating, questioning, and speculating on the meaning of the results.  As I scrolled, pausing to follow various links to threads, articles, and videos about the future for the UK parliament, I stopped at a post by a British YouTuber and educator I follow and admire: “turn out for 18-24 year olds was 72%!!!?!?!”.  Scrolling down, I saw another post “I *am* SO proud of the 72% youth who went out to vote – MASSIVE step in the right direction!”.

As someone who works with young people, the idea that so many young people had taken this positive action and engaged in the election was exciting!  And such a big jump from 38% turnout in among 18-25 year olds in the 2010 election[2]!  I was already feeling delighted by this statistic.  However, with the wise words of the young people still fresh in my mind, I searched for the source of the 72% statistic but could not find it.  Later that day I asked a friend of mine if he had heard about the growth in youth turnout and he reminded me that ballot papers are anonymous, exit polls do not ask about voters’ ages, and surveys by age may only consult the most politically active people.Fake News

That day, former NUS president Malia Bouattia tweeted about the 72%, re-elected Labour MP David Lammy tweeted it, as did plenty of others including The Metro newspaper (over 250K followers) and entertainment and news site LadBible (1.9M followers).

On 20 June 2017 Ipsos MORI, a leading survey organisation, released their election survey results[3].  They make very clear on their website that the figures are estimates, writing “estimating turnout is one of the hardest challenges when relying solely on survey data”.  Their estimate is that voter turnout among 18-25 year olds was 54%.  Although this indicates increased engagement by young people since the 2015 election, it does not match up with the 72% suggested by some people on results day.  An article by the BBC has posited that a Huffington Post blogger Alex Cairns was the first to tweet about 72% youth turnout, which then rapidly spread, but that the figure was merely “an indication” based on conversation and his own research[4].

This experience of becoming emotionally invested in a piece of information I could not find verification for, and finding myself very tempted to share the information, got me thinking about confirmation bias, and the extent to which people are critical of not only posts they are suspicious of, but also posts that may back-up their instinct or beliefs.

A study by Michigan State University, funded by Google, surveyed 14,000 internet users from seven countries, including the UK.  The majority of respondents said they felt confident in their abilities to avoid false information.  Two-thirds used search engines at least once a day to find, check or navigate to information seen elsewhere.  However the study did not show how well-placed this feeling of confidence was[5].

A 2016 study “Echo Chambers on Facebook” showed that users sought out information that strengthened their preferred narrative and rejected information that went against it.  When deliberately false information was introduced into their feeds, users absorbed it and viewed it as credible when it conformed to their overarching view[6].  I was pleased to read about Facebook developing algorithms for filtering stories with false information or misleading headlines[7].  Even so, this study indicates the need to be ultra-aware of our own biases and the need to check new information before sharing it.

Personally, I ended my first month making a pledge to help myself become a more responsible online citizen:

Not assuming fake news only happens to other people:

re-committing to being a critical consumer of online content, questioning surprising stories, and paying particular attention to instances where I feel emotional about a story or headline!

Being open to correction:

following three fact-checking accounts: @FullFact, @FactCheck and @Snopes

Sharing positive stories and practical action, rather than divisive rhetoric:

being aware that liking or reacting to stories online spreads them among my network, just as actively as sharing them does. Since I value my diverse network of connections, I have recommitted to sharing stories of people working together, good news, and practical action people can take, rather than divisive or unhelpful stories.

[1] http://comprop.oii.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/89/2017/06/Junk-News-and-Bots-during-the-2017-UK-General-Election.pdf

[2] https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/how-britain-voted-2017-election?language_content_entity=en-uk

[3] https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/how-britain-voted-2017-election?language_content_entity=en-uk

[4] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2017-40220032

[5] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2960697

[6] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2795110

[7] http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/facebook-fake-news-feature-uk-election-2017-a7720506.html

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