How Smartphones & Social Media Affect Society
DataReportal’s 2021 Global Digital Insights summary tells us the following: World Population: 7.83 billion; Unique Mobile Phone Users: 5.22 billion; Internet Users 4.66 Billion, Active Social Media Users: 4.2 billion.
One of the biggest threats of our age is fake news. And according to Statista, when it comes to the spread of Fake News, social media is the main culprit. Although social media has been the least trusted news source globally since 2016, their study revealed that over 50 percent of responding internet users in 24 different countries still access social networks to get their news.
Younger consumers are often at greater risk of exposure to fake news than older generations by sheer virtue of their higher social media usage. Unfortunately, either knowingly (disinformation) or unknowingly (misinformation), many consumers see fake news and pass it on to someone else, putting even the savviest news audiences at risk.
Do privacy and security exist on the internet?
Founded in 1941, Freedom House is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation based in Washington, D.C., that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights. In February 2015 it reported that the UK’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled that the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) had acted unlawfully in accessing information on millions of individuals collected by its U.S. partner, the National Security Agency (NSA), before the GCHQ practices were made public. This decision marked the first time the tribunal has ruled against GCHQ, MI5, and MI6, the three British intelligence agencies it is entrusted to oversee.
Then in June 2015 Freedom House reported that Robert Hanigan, the then new director of Britain’s electronic eavesdropping agency GCHQ, had referred to U.S. technology companies such as Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp as “command-and-control networks…for terrorists and criminals” and called for greater cooperation between companies and security agencies. When a no-nonsense outfit like GCHQ makes such a statement it’s surely a caveat the rest of us should take note of.
Messaging service WhatsApp was founded by Brian Acton and Jan Koum, former employees of Yahoo! In January 2009 after purchasing an iPhone they realised that to take their idea further, they would need an iPhone developer, and found Russian developer Igor Solomennikov. Fast forward to February 2014 when Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19.3 Billion. Only days later WhatsApp caused considerable anger by imposing compulsory new terms of service on its users that make it easier for Facebook to make money from WhatsApp’s 2 billion users. It’s worth remembering that Facebook makes its money by mining its users’ data.
By 2015 WhatsApp had become the world’s most popular messaging application and has become the primary means of internet communication in multiple locations, including Latin America, the Indian subcontinent, and large parts of Europe and Africa. WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption which most people assume is 100% safe. But as cybersecurity expert Zak Doffman wrote in Forbes in May 2021, this technology is not a silver bullet that can guarantee you absolute privacy by itself. For example to be fully secure, users should remove WhatsApp from any cloud backups and set up two factor authentication within the App. This is because WhatsApp can only be in one place at a time, so even if WhatsApp or hackers set up a copy of your account, you’ll know because the App will log you out.
Cybercrime and illegal activities on social media and the internet
Cybercrime or computer crime is the use of a computer to further illegal ends. It has grown in importance as the computer has become central to commerce, entertainment, and government.
Excepting for cybercrimes, all the following criminal activities existed before the internet but the internet has created more and greater opportunities for criminals: cyberterrorism, cyberwarfare, all kinds of fraud including benefit and immigration fraud, trafficking in child pornography, trafficking of women for prostitution and slavery, theft of intellectual property (e.g. music, film and video games), identity and document theft, sale of illegal drugs, sale of unprescribed legal drugs, sale of weapons, violations of privacy, money laundering and counterfeiting, theft of credit cards, theft of money from bank accounts, spam, hacking, ransomware attacks, denial of service (DoS) attacks (often linked to blackmail and sabotage).
Manipulating social media to undermine democracy
In Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom on the Net annual survey, they reported that: Online content manipulation contributed to a seventh consecutive year of overall decline in internet freedom, along with a rise in disruptions to mobile internet service and increases in physical and technical attacks on human rights defenders and independent media.
Just as bad news travels faster than good, on social media, lies spread faster than truth. This fact was confirmed in a team report led by Professor Sinan Aral of MIT Sloan: “Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information… it took the truth about six times as long as falsehood to reach 1,500 people”. The researchers also found it wasn’t just bots spreading the lies, it was mainly people.
Probably the best known and most prolific liar by reputation is ex-President of the United States, Donald J. Trump. Although now banned by Twitter “due to the risk of further incitement of violence”, Trump left behind 88 million followers and some 16,000 now deleted Tweets while he was in office. He also created a legacy of distrust by spreading information that he knew to be false. Many of his most-liked tweets contained falsehoods, and his favourite and most frequently posted topic was “fake news” which according to Nate Rattner of CNBC in a broadcast on January 13th, 2021, Trump used to undermine correct information roughly 900 times.
“Trump’s primary use of Twitter has been to spread propaganda and manipulate public opinion,” said Sam Woolley, director for propaganda research at the University of Texas at Austin’s Centre for Media Engagement. “He used Twitter to delegitimize information or to delegitimize the positions of his opponents.” As we’ll see, this is exactly what countries like Russia do.
Perhaps the most egregious effect of lies on social media to date is the deaths of multitudes of people who might otherwise have survived Covid-19 had they not been persuaded to forgo a vaccination. But who persuaded them to ignore the science?
How the Covid-19 untruths took root
According to Associated Press News, rumours about Covid19 on Chinese social media began almost as soon as the disease itself. There were claims that a foreign adversary had released a bioweapon – Watch out for Americans! wrote one Weibo user. Just one year after the World Health Organisation warned of an epidemic of misinformation, this conspiracy theory had taken root, and lives on today.
A nine-month Associated Press investigation of state sponsored disinformation conducted in association with Atlantic Council’s Digital Research Lab, shows how a rumour that the U.S. created the Covid-19 virus was weaponized by the Chinese government. The analysis was based on a review of millions of social media postings and articles on Twitter, Facebook, VK, Weibo, WeChat, YouTube, Telegram and other platforms.
How Covid-19 untruths were spread
But in fact, Chinese officials were reacting to a narrative spread by QAnon groups, Fox News, ex-president Trump, and leading Republicans that the virus was manufactured by China. The Pew Research Centre found that just 3 months after the Covid-19 outbreak, one in three Americans believed it had been created in a lab and one in four that it had been intentionally engineered. In fact, the virus is thought to have occurred naturally and is of animal origin.
According to the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), their researchers have found that just 12 people are responsible for the bulk of the misleading claims and outright lies about Covid-19 vaccines that proliferate on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. “The ‘Disinformation Dozen‘ produce 65% of the shares of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the CCDH which identified the accounts.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a global crisis, with devastating health, social and economic impacts. Covid-19 can cause severe disease and death. It has unknown long-term consequences in people of all ages, including in otherwise healthy people. (European Medicines Agency).
According to Dr Anthony Fauci, Director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as at the end of November 2021 in the US, 62 million people remain unvaccinated, even though they are eligible for vaccination. Given that in scientific terms it’s completely incontrovertible that if you catch Covid-19 but have been vaccinated, your chances of a better outcome far outweigh those of people who’ve not been. So why would anyone risk it?
One possible (or even probable) explanation can be found in “Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoléon at Saint Helena” written from the private conversations Emmanuel, Comte de Las Cases had with Napoleon that were made into a book and later translated in English. Las Cases described meetings with sailors who expressed the highest admiration and good wishes for Napoleon. But Napoleon observed that the sailors did not really know him, and their intense feelings were based on imagination. He is quoted as having said, “Voilà le fanatisme! Oui, l’imagination gouverne le monde!”. In English, “See the effect of imagination? How powerful is its influence!”
We know that Covid-19 was deliberately politicised and turned into a wedge issue. We’ve seen above who spread the lies about Covid-19 and created the wedge – and now we see the shocking result of that. According to Washington based non-profit public policy organisation the Brookings Institution, in a survey of Americans from September 13-22, 72% of adults 18 and older had been vaccinated, including 71% of white Americans, 70% of Black Americans, and 73% of Hispanics. Contrast these converging figures with disparities based on politics: 90% of Democrats had been vaccinated, compared with 68% of Independents and just 58% of Republicans.
As Dr Fauci warned Margaret Brennan on Face the Nation on November 28th, 2021, “...if you damage science, you are doing something very detrimental to society… (that will be there) …long after I leave.”
Lies, propaganda and fake news
We live in an age where until recently, the world’s so-called ‘most powerful man’ was able to accuse the mainstream media of peddling fake news and was at least partly responsible for creating an environment of “alternative facts”. This is a world in which the people responsible for electing presidents are misled by their supposed leaders and instead accept what they read on social media as fact.
Once we could depend on science to decide the real facts but today, the truth has more and more become a matter of opinion rather than verified fact.
Alternative facts was a phrase used by U.S. Counsellor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, during a Meet the Press interview on January 22, 2017, in which she defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s false statement about the attendance numbers of Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States. When pressed during the interview with Chuck Todd to explain why Spicer would “utter a provable falsehood”, Conway stated that Spicer was giving “alternative facts”. Todd responded, “Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”
Conway’s use of the “alternative fact” phrase for demonstrable falsehoods was widely mocked on social media and sharply criticized by senior journalists and media organisations. The phrase was extensively described as “Orwellian” particularly in reference to the term “doublethink”, a process of indoctrination in Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 whereby the subject is expected to simultaneously accept two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct, often in contravention of their own memories or sense of reality.
As Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist who studies the persistence and spread of misinformation told the BBC shortly after Trump’s inauguration, “on page one of any political science textbook it will say that democracy relies on people being informed about the issues so they can have a debate and make a decision. Having a large number of people in a society who are misinformed and have their own set of facts is absolutely devastating and extremely difficult to cope with.”
Alas today, much information has already been laundered before we even see it. There are state sponsored organisations in countries like Russia such as Fancy Bear, that exist purely to flood the information landscape with so much contradictory material that it totally obscures or buries the truth.
We’ve seen how in the US and China the truth about Covid-19 was manipulated, so let’s take a quick look at what other countries did with it.
According to the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point, Tehran initially concealed the virus from its population, lied about its gravity and consequences, and held large-scale public events that inadvertently spread the malady throughout the country and region. It was then forced to launch a global Covid-19 disinformation campaign to deflect attention from its own malpractice.
This should come as no surprise since the clerical regime’s reliance on disinformation is rooted in its ideology. The Islamic Republic is a revolutionary theocracy based on radicalized Shiism. Its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sees himself as God’s representative on Earth. Accordingly, he has a mission. Like other revolutionary states, the Islamic Republic has sought to export its creed to the broader Muslim world and confront what are depicted as satanic forces – the United States, Israel, and Western culture in general ¬ – that threaten Islam. Propagating these ‘big lies’ requires a persistent bending of reality to fit their narrative according to the Commission on Security and Cooperation (CCSE) in Europe.
In January, long before China began overtly spreading disinformation, Russian state media swept in to legitimise the theory that the U.S. engineered the Covid-19 virus as a weapon. As far back in September 2017, the world’s largest security-oriented intergovernmental organisation the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) wrote: Russian disinformation is a grave transnational threat, facilitating unacceptable aggression by Russia both at home and across the 57-nation OSCE region…Russia’s goal is: to sow fear, discord, and paralysis that undermines democratic institutions and weakens critical Western alliance’s such as NATO and the EU.
In July last year, BBC India reporter Shruti Menon wrote: Our analysis found that misinformation targeting Muslims spiked in the first week of April… (and), false claims about Muslims deliberately spreading the (Covid19) virus became viral. False claims were also widely spread on WhatsApp in India that eating vegetarian food and eliminating meat from your diet could prevent you getting Covid-19. As a result of this lie, and to add to the overall misery in India, meat sales plummeted by 80%.
In the third quarter of 2020, YouTube was the most popular social media platform in the Philippines with 97.2 percent of internet users accessing the platform according to Datareportal. Within the same period, Filipinos spent nearly four hours online on social media. In the Philippines alone, there were almost 74 million Facebook users as of 2019. Furthermore, it held nearly 93 percent of the country’s social media market share as of 2020. Filipinos rely on social media app as a primary source of news and a platform for product placement.
According to a recent Guardian newspaper article, Facebook has repeatedly allowed world leaders and politicians to use its platform to deceive the public or harass opponents despite it being alerted to evidence of the wrongdoing. The investigation shows how Facebook has allowed major abuses of its platform in poor, small and non-western countries in order to prioritise addressing abuses that attract media attention or affect the US and other wealthy countries.
What Happens When the Government Uses Facebook as a Weapon?
According to a report by Lauren Etter in Bloomberg Business Week on 7th December 2017, since being elected in May 2016, Duterte has turned Facebook into a weapon. The same Facebook personalities who fought dirty to see Duterte win were brought inside the Malacañang Palace. From there they are methodically taking down opponents, including a prominent senator and human-rights activist who became the target of vicious online attacks and was ultimately jailed on a drug charge. It’s social media in the age of “patriotic trolling” in the Philippines, where the government is waging a campaign to destroy a critic—with a little help from Facebook itself.
In October 2018, just over a week before the Brazilian presidential election that would cement Jair Bolsonaro’s rise to power, Brazil’s newspaper of record Folha de S.Paulo published an exposé on his campaign’s allegedly illegal use of WhatsApp to spread false news stories about his opponent Fernando Haddad. The author of this story, the award-winning journalist Patrícia Campos Mello, woke up the next day to a barrage of online threats against herself and her family. The attacks never stopped: As she writes in her book A máquina do ódio (The Hate Machine), to this day she remains the target of what is possibly the largest online harassment campaign against a single person in Brazil.
According to the CEU Democracy Institute, disinformation in Hungary has become a huge problem. People see propaganda in tabloids, on television screens, in newspapers, on the radio, on the internet, and social media. Most Hungarians who rely on these sources for their news will get a distorted picture of the world.
In Poland last August, the headline of an article for the Centre for New American Security, written by Nina Jankowicz read: The changes that have overtaken the Polish political and media climate since 2015 and especially during the 2020 election campaign represent a trend across several Western democracies, including the United States, of governments willing to employ the tools and tactics of disinformation on domestic populations for political advancement.
A 2017 Oxford University Computational Propaganda Research Project by Robert Gorwa on the Polish information environment describes how a single communications firm: created more than 40 thousand unique identities, each with multiple accounts on various social media platforms and portals, a unique IP address, and even its own personality, forming a universe of several hundred thousand specific fake accounts that have been used in Polish politics and multiple elections.
Disinformation and misinformation – a vexing question
I could literally fill dozens of pages with the problems of disinformation (or dezinformatsiya, to use the Russian word from which it sprang). Whilst misinformation is the result of people spreading false or out of context information as fact (regardless of any intent to deceive), disinformation is the deliberate spread of information that is intentionally false and designed to mislead.
This raises and extremely important question. How are the governments of otherwise benign western democracies supposed to lead their people when a good percentage of them are living in a “post-truth” parallel universe of created or “alternative facts”?
There are no easy answers to the above question. For a start the expression ‘post-truth’ implies that there was a time when politicians did tell the truth. But a quick recollection of UK government stated “facts” such as: ‘Iraq has weapons of mass destruction’ or ‘the UK sends £350 million a week to the EU’, quickly destroys that argument. Governments the world over have always told lies.
However, in the UK at least, contrary to anecdote and according to a Bauer Media survey, at least there is a ray of hope. According to Stephan Lewandowsky more people in the UK now believe that scientists are telling the truth than they did 10 years ago (65% in 1997 to 80% in 2017).
We live in an era of unbridled personal greed, coupled with a decline in the behaviour of those in public life. One solution to all this is better behaviour and more enlightened leadership on the part of those who would lead us. It could start by those leaders setting a good example for the rest of us to follow. Alas, this idea seems not to have occurred to them.
Despite continually exhorting the rest of us to reduce our carbon omissions, at the start of Cop26, no fewer than 272 private jets were recorded landing at Scottish airports in the first 8 days of the conference. According to Transport and Environment, Europe’s leading NGO, private jets produce between 5 and 14 times as many carbon emissions per passenger as flying by scheduled airliner. Of course, the topic of ending the tax-free status of aviation fuel did not even arise at the conference. It seems the super wealthy live by different rules from the rest of us.
The main take away from this research is to get you to pause before you believe anything you see on the internet or social media – the latter being the primary engine for the spread of both misinformation and disinformation. Our best weapon against incorrect information is to reduce our reliance on these platforms – and learn how to think critically.
Finally, all the problems identified in my article “How Social Media and Smartphones Affect You Personally” also bleed into society. These problems include: the effects of smartphone use on memory, attention span and sleep, digital amnesia and dependence, isolation, FOMO, narcissism & self-absorption, depression, anxiety, isolation, cyber-bullying, social delusion, certainty & homophily, distraction, addiction, and the inability to cope, leading to interpersonal problems as the sufferer ignores real life relationships and work or school responsibilities.
To learn how to start thinking critically (and much else besides), please Click here…