What are young people – our new generation of the future – supposed to think when the President of the United States – the supposed “leader of the free world” – lies or fabricates information virtually every day on Twitter, one of the world’s largest social media platforms with over 125 million daily users? For a man who racked up over 13,400 false or misleading claims (almost 22 a day), according to The Washington Post, during his first 1,000 days of office (primarily via Tweets), this may be a virtue. But it is a disgrace for much of the world. It also says very little for Twitter.
The Californian-based company, which is steadily losing users, claims to ban anyone who promotes hatred, racism, and terrorism, which I assume also means gun violence or attacks against freedom of the press. Yet all such themes are well-integrated into Trump’s daily abuse of the truth. So far, Twitter has not removed him from its listings. According to Twitter, “world leaders” are meant to abide by the rules as with anyone else; in reality, however, their Tweets are largely allowed free rein because they supposedly enter into the domain of “newsworthiness.”
Lies become the new ‘truth’
The end result is that Trump continues to lie, while politicians, despots and other cyber abusers from Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán are all using the same tactics to misrepresent the truth. The overall message is that if you shamefacedly lie enough, you can get away with it. Lies become the new ‘truth’. (See the Netflix film: “Get me Roger Stone”).
Similarly, Facebook, another cyber platform – but with 1.26 billion users – claims to be doing everything possible to prevent incitement of racism or hatred by engaging thousands of fact-checkers. Yet it continues to allow sponsored political advertising, some of it knowingly based on deception or outright lies. (See TED talk by British investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr on how Facebook undermines democracy).
When British director/comedian Baron Sasha Cohen last month lambasted Facebook during a keynote speech to the Anti-Defamation League, he was right on the mark for characterizing Facebook along with Twitter and Google, as caring more “about boosting their share price than sharing democracy.” He also accused them of practising “ideological imperialism” whereby a few billionaires can determine what information people are allowed to see – and without accountability.
Social media: undermining democracy
While these big tech companies have promoted far more division in the United States than any other propaganda machine ever invented (Goebbels would have been a fan), the promotion of Brexit leading up to the 2016 UK referendum was also heavily infused with disinformation and a blatant manipulating of the facts, including by firms such as Cambridge Analytica. (See Global Geneva article by William Dowell)
While Cambridge Analytica was finally dismantled as criminal, the dissemination of falsehoods continues. For a country purporting to be a democracy, Britain is allowing such propaganda to persist. (See BBC on social media manipulators) For example, one can only watch with dismay at the way many parliamentary members on both sides of the aisle seem to accept that the referendum on whether to Remain or Leave was legitimate, including the disenfranchising of citizens by denying anyone living overseas more than 15 years the right to vote. Switzerland, which allows every passport holder to cast a ballot no matter where they live, or for how long, earlier this year obliged organizers to re-hold a referendum because it was determined that voters had not been properly informed. (See Global Geneva article by Bruno Hauptmann) The new result proved to be a complete reversal of the initial plebiscite.
Young people: Twitter and Facebook are not on their radar
The good news is that young people, notably Millennials, are ignoring Twitter and Facebook. And even conventional ‘boomer’ users are turning away, or spending less time on their platforms. As a journalist, I use both professionally. However, I only use Twitter to tweet what I consider to be relevant Global Geneva stories. I never actually read or follow Tweets. I haven’t got the time.
And yet, what these cyber giants represent, including control over our lives, is frightening. Perhaps more than any other social media vehicle, Facebook actively promotes social and political division, including hatred, racism and bigotry. I am constantly threatening (myself) to delete my account. I consider it evil.
For the moment, however, I reluctantly remain. I have found it a useful tool to track down friends and colleagues around the world. I also use it for highlighting articles. Yet I suspect that its algorithms only allow a small percentage of my posts to reach my 3,000+ ‘Friends’ – most of whom I do not know personally.
Facebook: encouraging isolated communities – and making a fortune out of it
More specifically, Facebook hones in on the interests and gripes of individuals, whether human rights advocates, right-wing extremists or tropical fish breeders, catering to their profiles and making a hell of a lot of money through targeted advertising. The end result is that both Twitter and Facebook are making fortunes off our backs ranging from advertising and sponsorship to their own selling of data. So why should they kill the cyber goose if they can make billions?
But if young people are not attracted by Twitter or Facebook, where are they getting their information? And why should we be so concerned?
The reality is that they’re obsessed by Instagram and Whatsapp (both owned by Facebook), YouTube (owned by Google), SnapChat and other messaging services. And Google, for high school or university research. Given that Facebook and Google have largely cornered the market on these main providers (except for Snapchat), does it really matter that young people are switching, or ignoring them? Like cigarettes, the brand is irrelevant; all are lethal and all are proving just as detrimental to the well-being of our kids.
Google: Controlling access to information
Take Google with over 2.45 billion monthly active users. Virtually all under 20-year-olds I have questioned in recent months say that they use Google to gather information for high school or college essays. But how many actually go beyond Page One in their searches? Almost none.
When I point out that the first 5-6 items on Page One are sponsored (ie. paid-for placements) they look at me in amazement. Then I ask whether they know how the next 5-6 items have managed to make their way to positions just below, but still on Page One? They have no idea. And yet such placements depend on algorithms or indirect advertising and paid promotion. Many do not necessarily represent the best sources of information.
The same goes for Instagram and YouTube. Several students recently told me that they rely on Instagram for their information. But what sort of information? I ask with persistence.
“I don’t know. Instagram information?” one suggested to me.
Determining what is credible – and what is not
Then come all the videos, postings, articles, links and other information sources promoted en masse via online messaging. Few really know whether what they are reading – or seeing – is credible. But it’s posted by their friends, so it must be okay. Without doubt, many of the videos you can see on YouTube or Vimeo are fine. But what about those which are fabricated and passed off as credible? And which ones are carefully designed to misinform?
As part of Global Geneva’s Youth Writes programme, we are finding that few young people have any idea how real journalism functions. Nor do they grasp that anything read or viewed online, whether as part of a blog, a video posting or a purportedly ‘true’ story, is not necessarily correct. This is where trusted journalism can play a significant role in helping young people better understand what is out there and why they need to be more than vigilant in deciding whether they can believe it or not.
Of course, it’s not easy. Not even for well-informed adults. Young people are coming under incessant pressures from their peers – but also insidiously – commercial marketing to base one’s existence on social media, particularly mobile phones. This is causing major problems.
Smart phones are bad for your health
For one, the constant squinting at small screens is now proving ruinous to young people’s eyesight. Many also complain that obsessive phone use is leading to depression – even suicidal tendencies – with users feeling left out or shunned if they do not respond to constant social messaging.
Last month, a London King’s College report based on 41 studies from Asia, Europe and America noted that nearly a quarter (23 per cent) of over 40,000 smart phone users (17-19 years-old) have developed addictive behaviour by becoming ‘panicky’ or ‘upset’ if denied constant access. The study maintained that such addiction was having serious consequences on the mental health. It was also affecting sleep and school work, including reading and writing abilities.
Reading capabilities have diminished in countries such as Switzerland
The latest 2018 OECD PISA (Programme for International Assessment) results, which suggest a serious deterioration in reading skills, note that over 10 million students (one in 10 students in the canvassed OECD region of 79 high and middle income countries) could not command even the most basic reading abilities. Nor could they determine whether a text is fact or opinion. It added that over 95 per cent of students now have access to the Internet spending three hours or more online a day. Switzerland was one of those countries that has shown a striking decline in reading and now stands at 28th. This only underlines justified concerns with the way social media are increasingly fuelling opinion while undermining factual insight.
Similarly, in our discussions with high school teachers and college professors, we have discovered increasing concern that more and more high school students are graduating unable to write properly. They are also far less culturally aware; many have a shockingly poor sense of history, geography and the Arts. Teachers believe that the constant use and abuse of mobile phones coupled with questionable social media are a major cause of this dysfunctionality. Parents, too, tell us that they have no idea what to do.
This is reflected in our conversations with representatives from international Chambers of Commerce from Geneva to Bangkok. Many point out that young people seeking to succeed in business would be far better served by cultivating more appropriate and worldly aware cultural backgrounds, particularly if they are planning to operate overseas. As one British corporate CEO recently pointed out to me: “We want people to know what’s going on in the world, including how to deal with counterparts whether in China, Saudi Arabia or New York. I want to see them reading The Economist or the FT, but also the local press. This is important. I want to know that they read books, are ready to learn another language, go to museums, know something about art… Social media messaging does not represent a credible news source.”
Another expressed concern is that much of the information disseminated online is not even retained. Users tend to skim through content rather than actually read. As Pew Foundation and other research sources have shown, people retain information up to 40 per cent more effectively when read on paper in a newspaper or magazine than online. The same goes for writing by hand. That’s how the brain functions. We’re beginning to see a return to note taking with yellow legal pads and sitting down with a book or a magazine. Based on our focus groups, young people are more willing to read articles properly in our print edition than online. Millennials are also ignoring social media advertising – they find it annoying – obliging some cyber companies to start reverting to print platforms, a surprising new trend. Young people are not “rediscovering” print but rather “discovering” it.
So this is where we are today. Clearly, some young people are media savvy. They rely on their teachers, their parents, their friends and respected role models for pointers on where to obtain information. But most do not understand the need for credible ‘sources’. In many ways, we are churning out a new form of illiteracy. And yet, most of us – whether teachers or parents – remain perplexed. How can you counter the cyber gods? Or mobile phones?
The French, of course, have now banned mobile and smart phones from schools. This is probably good, but it’s not going to resolve the problem. Social media are here to stay with all their cyber hazards. Participants at a November, 2019 Cyber Security Conference at the World Economic Forum in Geneva warned that we must now start engaging young people, particularly in schools, by alerting them to the threats of cyber abuse. And how to avert them. This has become a huge social responsibility.
So we need to focus on what matters. Maybe it’s time the United Nations Human Rights Agency (UNHCHR) finally creates a major section dealing with cyber abuse and not be afraid to condemn the Facebooks of this world. We need to make young people more aware of the dangers of cyber subversion and to how function in a more balanced, informed and, above all, critical manner. We need to bring quality journalism into schools in order to demonstrate the importance of properly reported information. But, most important, not to rely on one source, but several – or more.
This means encouraging young people to decide which media they are willing to grant their trust, perhaps selecting three or four options. These could be BBC, Al Jazeera, New York Times, Le Monde, Guardian, The Economist, Daily Mail, Globe and Mail, Tribune de Geneve…That’s up to them. But we need to help them. If we don’t, then we will be condemning entire new generations to literary mediocrity and social ignorance. And it will be our fault.
Edward Girardet, a foreign correspondent and author, is editor of Global Geneva magazine and director of the Youth Writes programme.