brexit and fake news in the us election

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The problem of fake news in US elections first appeared in the run-up to the 2004 elections; over time, fake news became a reliable source of public intelligence (Holbert). The rise of fake news has been due to the rise of social media and the reliance on entertainment media as a source of political information. Prior to the 2004 US presidential elections, political analysts held that politics and television news were inseparable. Regardless of the opposing views, entertainment coverage is currently a leading distributor of political reporting. Considering that, there is little regulation of news flow in the entertainment and social media networks, the legitimacy, and accuracy of information shared on such platforms is often questionable.

Bots and Social Media

After the establishment of Twitter and Facebook, social media was lauded as an integral tool for disseminating social information and an avenue for democratic discourse regarding politics and policy. Nonetheless, few paused to ponder what would happen when powerful social tools were manipulated to achieve politically motivated goals. What would be the impact of the manipulation of public perception on the construct of society, as we know it? Would the political outcomes influenced by such events be regarded as free and fair?

In the recent past social media has played an increasing role in the dissemination of information regarding politics and public policy (Howard et al.). Stakeholders in the political domain such as governments and politicians are increasingly employing algorithms and information experts with the aim of influencing the direction of social discourse on political matters (Howard and Kollanyi). Some of the software that has been employed in the fake news warfare includes bots, which are commonly used to accomplish robotic assignments that are repetitive. Bots have been widely used to update social media sites with current news and information. Since bots do not have the intelligence to differentiate fake news from real news, they have become a versatile tool for persons interested in advancing political propaganda and hate speech via social media (Howard and Kollanyi). Bessi and Ferrara noted that the use of bots on social media adversely influenced the dissemination of political facts, resulting in negative public perceptions that compromised the probity of the US presidential election system (Bessi and Ferrara).

The dissemination of junk news via social networking sites is regarded as a tool of computational propaganda. So far, social networking sites have served as a medium for sensational and fake news especially during defining moments such as the US elections and the Brexit referendum. The magnitude of fake news has increased in proportion overtime causing misinformation to be classified as one of the key threats to society. This has been especially true because humans currently live in a post-truth world where the sanctity of the facts is no longer held in high esteem (Parkinson).

Previous studies have noted that social networking sites prefer sensationalist information irrespective of whether the information is counter checked to establish its authenticity or not. When fake news is backed up by dissemination algorithms or bots that share information in a particular pattern, it provides suitable tools for advancing propaganda in the political warfare. It has been noted that both state and non-state stakeholders willingly amplify and manipulate fake news via online channels. Apart from social media, some websites and news media have been used to advance propaganda. The primary challenge associated with such fake websites is that ordinary citizens are sometimes not able to know that the site is providing false information because such sites often masquerade as real news channels providing real information. However, their primary goal is to mislead the public. It has also been noted that such sites also depend on social media platforms to drive engagement and boost traffic. In the Brexit referendum period and US presidential elections, bots, fake websites, and computational algorithms were used in a wider scheme aimed at discrediting the political establishment.

US Presidential Elections

One of the fundamental dangers posed by bots is the fact that they are capable of easily advancing political propaganda through rapid replication and their ability to mimic human users. A case in point, machine-based (computational) propaganda took center stage in the course of the 2016 presidential election, especially after the Republican and Democratic Party primaries. There were numerous incidences where misinformation and fake news were spread via online media channels with the aim of misleading the eligible voter population (Howard et al.). After the November 8 elections, there has been widespread speculation about the role of fake news in helping Donald Trump to win the elections, which was rather unexpected based on opinion polls. For instance, in the state of Michigan, surveys conducted before the elections showed that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had similar voter support. However, Trump garnered more votes than Hillary; a probable indicator that fake news may have tilted the scales in favor of Trump (Howard et al.). Some penitent questions would need to be addressed to prove this assertion; such as were fake news trending on social media in Michigan a few days to the elections. What was the magnitude of junk news, masked commentary, sensationalist, and extremist content spread in Michigan?

A study that analyzed close to 22 million tweets posted by approximately 138,700 Twitter users living in Michigan or close to Michigan noted that about 57 percent tweets bore pro-Trump information in comparison to 20 percent for Hillary (Howard et al.). Additionally, it was noted that as the elections approached, twitter traffic associated with Trump increased and subsequently outpaced Hillary Clinton’s 11 days to the election. Further analysis established that two percent of the tweets were derived from bots while close to 26 percent of the tweets were sharing junk news. It was worrying to note that the ratio of junk news to the real news was one to one. Besides, after the researchers added up the information bearing non-factual WikiLeaks data and extraneous information from Russia, it was noted that 47 percent of the political information that was presented as real news before the election was indeed fake (Howard et al.) or political propaganda.

According to (Hall, Goldstein, and Ingram), the rise of Donald Trump was attributed to the fact that his candidature assumed some form of comedic entertainment. This view is augmented by principles based on rhetorical theory, linguistic and cultural anthropology. Besides, Trump adopted an unconventional political style that was founded on anti-establishment sentiments and political spectacle, criticism of the political system and other presidential candidates.

Trump campaign team was able to advance fake news and the anti-establishment narrative because contemporary capitalism seems to place more emphasis on style rather than content. This assertion is supported by most neo-Marxist and post-structuralism scholars. It appears that Trump and his campaign team were well aware of the desires of modern capitalism. Nonetheless, Trump introduced a whole new dimension to it (Hall, Goldstein, and Ingram) through fake news, propaganda, and inflated nationalism; defying political correctness and focus on the visual capital. Trump’s campaign successfully executed what is considered perhaps the largest celebrity-driven 21st-century political campaign for the US presidency. Some of the notable lies uttered by Trump in the election period include the assertions that Barack Obama and Mrs. Clinton were the architects of the Islamic State (Peters); claims that were false regardless of one’s political inclination.

The Brexit Referendum

An analysis of the Twitter activity during the Brexit period established that the official twitter accounts namely @ivotestay and @ivoteleave were bots. Despite the fact that the two accounts were from opposing sides of the political divide they seemed to be using a similar algorithm. This is because the accounts did not develop new tweets but they robotically retweeted varied information from their respective sides (Howard and Kollanyi). Other bots that were highlighted in the study included @Rotenyahu and @Col_Connaughton that were previously pro-Palestinian but whose content was changed to focus on the Brexit referendum with a particular bias towards the Brexit side (Howard and Kollanyi). From this arrangement, it can be deduced that bots were used as a tool for political warfare in spreading fake news and misinformation regarding the demerits of remaining as part of the European Union. The US elections mimicked the Brexit referendum by all proportions. From a voting perspective, it was noted that the Brexit vote was won by a mere majority while Trump did not win the popular vote.

Politics of Brexit and Trump’s Election

If one could view the Brexit referendum and US elections from a broader context, it could be noted that fake news succeeded in reversing the liberal global order that advocated for internationalism in place of nationalism. The spread of fake news was attributed to right-wing extremists and radical fractions brought together by anti-immigration (Moore and Ramsay), neo-conservative issues that were the core of the white men working-class disenchantment with the political establishment. These sentiments were especially strong among men living in de-industrialized regions in the US where manufacturing jobs were lost as manufacturers migrated to the Far East due to the availability of affordable labor force. The less educated working-class American men were more receptive to conspiracy theories, half-truths, propaganda, and lies. Lower education made it harder for this segment of the population to change their long-held beliefs even when provided with evidence to the contrary. This explains why it was easy for Trump to advance his anti-globalization message to such a broad audience.

As discussed earlier, the lack of employment or the decrease in job opportunities available to white working class men triggered the narrative of disenfranchisement (Moore and Ramsay). This is because this segment of the population felt that it was missing the social and economic progress that was perceived to be benefiting minority groups and other countries that traded with the US and the UK.

According to anti-globalization proponents, the global order facilitated the emergence of a middle-class population in frontier and emerging economies while at the same time compromising the employment security of citizens in developed countries in Eastern Europe and North America. It is argued that intellectuals and scholars helped to deliver the modern capitalism doctrine after 1989 (Gross). Modern capitalism is to blame for the economic suffering, and emotional dislocation caused globalization. One of the wrong opinions was that the western world did not have an option to the western style capitalism and democracy (Gross). Such assumptions made the political institutions in the west to be blind to the emerging dynamics in the political landscape today. Despite the fact that anti-globalization proponents were advancing legitimate and understandable concerns, the political establishment seemed to be blind to the reality. The cause was advanced by populist political candidates (in the persona of Trump and Boris Johnson among others) who managed to whip up public emotions buoyed by fake news and propaganda to record unexpected victories. Additionally, the fact that Marine Le Pen managed to gain such a large following is a clear illustration that doctrines of the far right movement have also become entrenched among the French masses. The unexpected popularity of Marine Le Pen destabilized the liberals despite the fact that she did not win the elections (Gross).

Initially, it was expected that citizens, especially in the UK and the US, would direct their resentment towards the super-rich population who were viewed as having benefited the most from the exploits of globalization (Gross) that did not trickle down to the middle class and the have-nots. However, the US population did the unexpected by electing a billionaire to the White House. The same trend was noted in the UK where the ordinary masses believed and bought into the propaganda advanced by media outlets owned by billionaires such as Rupert Murdoch’s British Press.

On another perspective, Vladimir Putin emerged as one of the global leaders that capitalized on the emergence of fake news to influence institutions in other countries. According to Reuters, a think tank funded by the Kremlin was tasked with a plot to advocate for the election of Donald Trump indirectly. This was achieved using propaganda, which was mainly disseminated using social media channels (Parker, Landay, and Walcott). Besides, news outlets controlled by the Russian government or allies were used to advocate for the election of a president who would be more lenient towards Russia.

Conclusion

The focus of the current research article was limited to the spread of fake news and propaganda during the US presidential elections and Brexit campaign period. Based on the literature sources cited, it was deduced that social media and selected news channels were used to advance propaganda during the US presidential elections and Brexit referendum with the aim of ensuring that the electorate to lost hope in their country’s political establishment and status quo. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether the promises made by Trump and UK’s Conservative Party will materialize.

Works Cited

Bessi, Alessandro, and Emilio Ferrara. “Social Bots Distort the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election Online Discussion.” First Monday, no. 21, 2016, pp. 1–22.

The authors explored the extent to which social bots interfered with the outcomes of the 2016 US presidential elections. The article noted that social media channels were used to spread fake news and political propaganda.

Gross, Michael. “The Dangers of a Post-Truth World.” Current Biology, no. 27, 2017, pp. R1–R4.

The author posed serious questions such as what happens when truth can no longer hold in the face of propaganda and scapegoating and how can the scientific community exist in the post-truth world?

Hall, Kira, Donna Goldstein, and Mathew Ingram. “The Hands of Donald Trump Entertainment, Gesture, Spectacle.” Journal of Ethnographic Theory, no. 6, 2016, pp. 1–692.

Kira et al. trace the early days of Trump’s candidature and how his presidential bid was written off as a nonstarter because it seemed to fit into entertainment news rather than serious politics.

Holbert, R. Lance. “A Typology for the Study of Entertainment Television and Politics.” American Behavioral Scientist, no. 49, 2005, pp. 436–453.

According to Holbert, the merger of entertainment news with political discourse contributed to the rise of fake news. This was prevalent in the 2004 presidential elections in the US.

Howard, P. N., and B. Kollanyi. Bots #StrongerIn, and #Brexit: Computational Propaganda during the UK-EU Referendum. N.p., 2016. Print. ArXiv160606356 Phys.

Howard, Philip N et al. Junk News and Bots during the U.S. Election: What Were Michigan Voters Sharing over Twitter? 2017, pp. 1-6.

The authors undertook a detailed study of tweets shared in Michigan and how a voter’s political affiliation was adversely influenced by bots, propaganda, and junk news.

Moore, Martin, and Gordon Ramsay. UK Media Coverage of the 2016 EU Referendum Campaign About the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power, 2017, pp. 1-188.

Moore et al. discussed the penitent issues that informed the Brexit conversation in the campaign period and the conduct of the mainstream media in the UK.

Parker, Ned, Jonathan Landay, and John Walcott. “Putin-Linked Think Tank Drew up Plan to Sway 2016 US Election – Documents.” Reuters 19 Apr. 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-russia-election-exclusive/putin-linked-think-tank-drew-up-plan-to-sway-2016-us-election-documents-idUSKBN17L2N3. Accessed 20 Sep. 2017

The authors provided irrefutable evidence that the US elections were influenced by the actions of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies to the detriment of Hillary Clinton.

Parkinson, Hannah Jane. “Click and Elect: How Fake News Helped Donald Trump Win a Real Election.” The Guardian Nov. 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/14/fake-news-donald-trump-election-alt-right-social-media-tech-companies. Accessed 20 Sep. 2017.

The author highlights the role of fake news in advancing Trump’s anti-globalization agenda and anti-establishment movement in the run-up to the elections.

Peters, Michael A. “Education in a Post-Truth World.” Educational Philosophy and Theory, no. 49, 2017, pp. 563–566.

The author lists detailed information regarding the specific lies, propaganda, misinformation, and half-truths uttered by Trump or his campaign and their impact on post-truth era politics.

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