The world is ablaze with fake news

February 15, 2023

Image created with photo by Mateus Henrique from Pexels

Archie (name changed) examines why young people are more vulnerable to online grooming and how to stay aware and safe

In its infancy social media inspired great optimism; creating platforms for new forms of expression and enabling collective action. However, more recently, social media, especially Twitter, is more likely to be viewed as a breeding ground for hate speech, fake news and conspiracy theories which can be very dangerous.

Fake news is often used by politicians, such as Donald Trump, to discredit any news that paints them in a unfavourable light. It is the deliberate use of false information, distortion or omission of facts to push an agenda.

Having studied the online echo chamber of Trump’s supporters, it seemed obvious to me that the attempted coup on the United States (US) government – on the 6th January 2021 – was coming. An echo chamber is a closed environment where misinformation can proliferate and distort people’s perspective. This can also be fuelled by confirmation bias; the tendency to favour information that reinforces existing beliefs.

American right-wing nationalists had been talking about and planning the attempted takeover of the Capitol Building (the seat of the US government) for a while on Twitter, with president Trump’s “Be there. Will be wild!” post becoming a catalyst for his supporters.

Many of the tweets that led to this were based on hate speech and fakes news purported by Trump. He said the election had been rigged by the Democrats (the opposition to Trump’s Republican party) and stolen from him. Many people involved in the attempted coup were young Americans who had been groomed and incited through these lies on social media.

Posts supporting Trump, his lies and other disinformation, made me feel very uncomfortable and fearful. I remember seeing some trumped-up tweets by his supporters calling for the targeting of specific lawmakers, most of whom were non-white. It’s scary and unsettling to see this in our modern era.

With many of us spending at least five hours a day online, young people will inevitably stumble across hateful narratives and false information

With young people exploring new things, pushing boundaries and discovering more about their identity and sense of belonging, they’re more at risk of being coerced by radicals. With many of us spending at least five hours a day online, we inevitably stumble across hateful narratives and false information.

As we have less life experience we are more impressionable. It’s so easy to believe something you read online to be true. I have discovered that many people who are verified on Twitter (with two ‘blue ticks’) are tweeting disinformation. An example is Kanye West’s recent antisemitic posts on Twitter and Instagram.

Anytime I see a post or tweet with clear misinformation, such as ones claiming the US election had been rigged, or any other fake news or hate speech, I make sure to report it to Twitter. It’s easy to do: click on the three dots at the top right of the tweet and, on the drop-down menu, select ‘report tweet’. You can then choose the reason why you are reporting it.

Also, I have found out through my research that if you see online extremist material or content that supports or glorifies terrorism, you can report it using an anonymous online form here.

We’re living in times where technology and social media have developed with unprecedented rapidity and legislation has struggled to keep up. It could be beneficial if there was a summation of terms and conditions on social media platforms, so that the terms can be more attractive to read.

To avoid fake news, I make sure to fact check anything I see on social media which I find dubious. There are many ways to do this. To check information about a post claiming something about someone, always go to the account of the person targeted to see if they have replied to the post.

Young LGBTQ+ people are more than twice as likely to experience hate speech online compared with those who identify as heterosexual

This enables you to see their side of the story and many times they will attach proof to their post to show that the claims made are false. Often, there will be multiple news articles, by broadsheet newspapers about the given subject, enabling you to acquire the correct information.

Sometimes, fake news and hate speech can be spread, targeting the demographic of which you are a part. According to a recent Digital Youth Index study, young LGBTQ+ people are more than twice as likely to experience hate speech online compared with those who identify as heterosexual. This can be extremely distressing and traumatic.

Recently the Respect for Marriage Act, which recognised the validity of same-sex and interracial civil marriages in the US was passed. Many Republican lawmakers voted against it and made harmful tweets, speeches and comments. Republican lawmaker, Vicky Hartzler broke down in tears during her speech in congress claiming the bill was misguided and dangerous. She retweeted posts calling it the (Dis)respect for marriage bill.

Whilst I am more immune to this kind of hate speech and don’t let it affect me, it can be very harmful for younger LGBTQ+ audiences. When you experience anything like this, even from a lawmaker, report the post, block the author and speak to a relative or friend. Don’t bottle-up your feelings.

The world has recently been set ablaze with misinformation, hate speech and conspiracy theories with the unrestricted rise of social media. Whilst this unprecedented human interconnectedness can do so much good, it can also be used to groom and weaponise younger people.

Unfortunately, I think it will be a hard fight to combat all this fake news and disinformation until there are laws to significantly control them. In the meantime, we can keep our wits about us and our minds open and alert.

Please share this article to raise awareness!

Barnet Council offers comprehensive advice for staying safe online.

Part of Exposure’s Extreme Caution campaign, enabling young people to tackle online grooming and hate, supported by Young Barnet Foundation. Due to the sensitive nature of this project author names have been anonymised.

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