No one can doubt the monumental rise of social media as a growing news source across the globe. According to a 2016 survey from Pew Research Center, up to 62% of Americans get their news from social media. Websites like Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have become massive vehicles for information and are making it increasingly difficult for citizens to determine factual and credible information. What is more concerning, is the subtle use of picture-word association and clickbait titles specifically designed to draw a reaction from the audience. Social media companies inflate this problem by monetizing, or rather incentivizing, groups or companies for generating as much traffic or clicks they can. This, along with social media algorithms that tailor news to each users social or political preferences (echo chambers), creates a recipe for mischief that has real and damaging consequences for our nation.
If you spend only a couple minutes online you’ll find examples of what i’m talking about. This problem is not restricted to one political party alone but actually has seeped into the full spectrum of political bias. If you aren’t familiar with the type of posts i’m talking about, let me show you a few examples:
Direct suggestion post with clickbait title: Comment, Title, and Image
Comment: The objective was to convey drama and defeat by saying “Ouch!”
Image: The objective was to make Nancy Pelosi look distressed and insane, make Donald Trump look bold and strong. Suggesting clear partisan bias.
Title: The objective was to generate audience reaction and leave a cliffhanger to encourage further clicks.
Political Objective: Pro-Trump
This one is a pretty clear case of clickbait. There is no actual useful information being provided, there is clear partisan bias, and the post is solely intended to leverage political drama to generate traffic to allenbwest.com.
Allens comment “Ouch!”, paired with a high contrast emotional image, conveys a clear message of Pro-Trump support. Even if you do not click the article, just briefly seeing it on your newsfeed leaves an impression that Trump (Good person) is fighting against Nancy (Bad person) without providing any evidence to prove it. Not good.
Indirect suggestion post with clickbait title: Image
Comment: Advertise political debate
Image: Make Trump look frustrated or incompetent, make Hillary look happy and successful
Title: Advertise political debate
Political Objective: Pro-Hillary
This one is significantly more subtle, but is still quite revealing. This is a great example of how the choice of image can convey a different meaning to the text you are including. Again, There is no actual useful information being provided and the post is solely intended to leverage political drama to generate traffic to bbc.co.uk
BBC’s comment “It’s round two!” is actually rather innocent by itself, however once paired with the image below it conveys that Hillary (Good person) is fighting against Trump (Bad person). Again, even without clicking, just seeing this post on your feed leaves an impression that Trump is a bad person, and Hillary is a good person without any provided evidence to prove it. Not good.
One or two of these here and there are not an issue. When the information revolving around politics is primarily factual and informative, these types of deceptive messages are extremely easy to detect. However when this is the primary type of information we receive on a daily basis, we aren’t actually being informed of anything – but rather allow ourselves to be hijacked by nothing more than political flash cards.
That’s right, remember flash cards? They are a form of brain training using image-word association. You flash an image of something with a corresponding word on it. Once you do it enough times you begin to correspond those images with those words. It’s an extremely effective way of teaching.
While this type of teaching works for simple things, it is extremely dangerous to do with politics because substance and intent matters. When you use an image that looks threatening, you convey conflict. When you use an image that looks peaceful, you convey happiness. When you put those images together or apply captions, you suggest the reason for that conflict or happiness even if you don’t say it directly. Do it enough times and you begin to correspond those people with those ideas or words. This is actually how the media works now.
Using the flash card example of a fox shown above, what if we taught kids that foxes look like this? This innocent picture would suggest cute, cuddly, and peaceful. Caption it with something positive and you are conveying “Good”, caption it with something negative and you are conveying “Bad” or “Smug”.
However what if we taught kids that foxes look like this? This picture would suggest anger, hostility, dangerous, violent. Caption it with something positive and you are conveying “Good” or “Resistance”, caption it with something negative and you are conveying “Bad” or “Violent”
If we put them together it conveys a message that one is being aggressive towards the other. Caption it with something like “Local fox who just wants to enjoy the sun is met by violent protesters” or “Rich fox stole native lands, and local protesters are resisting” and you create a narrative.
See where i’m going with this?
If you apply this to politics, these two sets of images alone convey totally different meanings. Apply the caption of your choice and and you create a narrative.
You may think this is frivolous, but this is a very real and present danger. This type of advertising changed the entire political landscape in 2016. Because of social media creating echo chambers, citizens were bombarded with only one of these sets far more than the other. The media did it constantly… It left impressions, it misinformed, and conveyed righteousness or despair where it shouldn’t have. Then finally at the very end when it was time to vote, most citizens didn’t even know where each candidate actually stood on issues. They had a preconceived notion because of the flash card training they’d undergone.
And now we’re left to pick up the pieces – scrambling to find any sort of tangible information that is real and truthful. Because truth is important, substance and intent matters, and our constitution ensures our freedom so long as we have an informed populace.
The moral of the story is don’t fall for it. Read as much as you can. Do your research. Go out of your way to listen to opposing views and watch (full length) video of people defending their views. Don’t get caught up in the sound bite and clickbait culture. You’re freedom may very well depend on it.