Should You Believe What You Read on Social Media?

I post I wrote on Facebook last week got 151 likes, far more than I have ever had before. These were from people I had never heard of. There were also 25 replies, mostly quite thoughtful.

In my post I said that there is something seriously wrong with the UK education system when people can be conned so easily by so many obvious lies in 2016 and at the 2019 election. I also said that this was made far worse by social media. It seems that there are millions of people who have never learned and never been taught how to evaluate information on the Internet. This should be basic stuff at any level of education.

Anyone can post anything they like on Facebook and other social media outlets. The onus is totally on the reader to decide whether the post is true or not. This is made worse by the Like function on Facebook. When you “Like” something you are fed more posts making the same point as the original one. This reinforces your view of the original post as you are drawn more and more into a net of similar opinions. You have to force yourself to seek out alternative views. Many people obviously don’t do so.

The replies to my post almost all agreed with what I said, and lamented the situation. One person wrote that in Finland media literacy is taught in schools and there are media literary campaigns aimed at adults of all ages. Finland has one of the most highly educated populations in the world.

Another person wrote that her 13-year old daughter had an English topic of Fake News at the start of the lockdown. She was pleased that the schools, at least in Wales, are teaching about misinformation.

In the UK, huge numbers of people, especially those who did not use computers are work, have not had any training in using computers and the Internet.

Having spent some time looking at the comment forums of the tabloid press I am even more saddened and angry that 11+ years of schooling in the UK seems to turn out so many people who make elementary spelling errors and cannot write in sentences. There are some people who say that this is a deliberate policy to prevent there being too many people who can criticise the government. In my more cynical moments I tend to agree with this, but it does not bode well for the future of our country.

Education budgets have been cut and cut in the UK since the Conservatives took over government after 2010 election. So have local government budgets. Youth clubs, libraries and other local government initiatives which can help the underprivileged and poorly educated have lost funding. Many don’t exist any more. There are far fewer opportunities for people to study beyond leaving school without having to pay huge fees.

A well-educated population creates a forward-looking country with a healthy economy. The UK seems to be going in the opposite direction.

Most routes for adults to learn how to use the Internet have been closed down, but now that so many people have smartphones, it is inevitable that they turn to the internet for information. This has been cunningly exploited by the current UK government which has enabled so many lies to be disseminated online.

This is particularly true on Facebook which collects detailed information on its users in order to sell adverts targeted at individuals who have certain characteristics. Telling Facebook the date of your birthday creates a good feeling when all your friends wish you Happy Birthday, but it also tells advertisers how old you are. Clicking on a post which supports the Prime Minister tells Facebook to send you more and more adverts pushing you to vote for him.

Whatever you think of the Prime Minister’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings – and I am no fan of his – he is a master of three-word slogans which have clearly influenced people. These slogans give the impression that they are one-off events when in fact they are slow processes which could take years. The EU Referendum was won by the slogan Take Back Control, but they never said who was taking back control and of what. The 2019 election slogan “Get Brexit Done” appealed to people who were fed up of hearing about Brexit. Now we hear today of the beginnings of the huge and costly process of getting Brexit done.

Sir Ed Davey tweeted last week, “Why would we need to ‘get ready for brexit’ if you had already got brexit done” in response to a newspaper article about Michael Gove and the new Get Ready for Brexit campaign. This is such an obvious comment, but the government is relying on people having short memories – and the rapid flow of bite-sized information streaming past them.

I spent my working life as an information professional and have watched the development of the Internet since it started. It was clear that it was going to turn the information world upside down. I sat in plenty of meetings discussing just that.

It is a pity that too few people saw that the Internet would not always be a force for good. Too many are using it now to promote misinformation and disinformation in the knowledge that readers of these posts are not well-equipped to question and evaluate them. Just like the person I met outside Parliament last September.

What do about this? I can’t see much happening under this current government which, in my view, is set on destroying the UK as it makes everybody poorer. Its behaviour during the coronavirus has been a story of muddle and mismanagement. Will it try to cover up the impending mismanagement of doing Brexit by putting out misleading 3-word slogans on Facebook in the hope that people believe them? I hope not, but I fear it might happen unless more people speak out.

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