Saturday 24th April saw 10,000 anti-lockdown demonstrators take to the streets of London. Their reasons for protesting were varied, such as social distancing restrictions, vaccine passports, and mask-wearing, with many protestors believing that the vaccine programme is being orchestrated by pharmaceutical companies. This anti-vaccination sentiment might come as a particular surprise given that the vaccine rollout has been cast by media outlets and politicians globally as the key to the eradication of the virus and a return to normal life. It’s clearly a cause for concern – the BBC alone has dozens of articles dispelling anti-vaccine conspiracy.
Extreme views are not new. One of social media’s great benefits is that it makes reliable information more readily accessible, but the flipside of digital communication is that it can enable the rapid dispersion of misinformation. Digitalisation makes it easier for people to connect, potentially intensifying views, and building digital communities rooted in radicalism. Social media and targeted advertising have played a role in the spread of anti-vaccination messaging and COVID-19 conspiracies. On Facebook, the biggest anti-vaccination pages grew by 19% in the last year (as of February 2021), and the followers of anti-vaccine Twitter accounts trebled. TikTok is commonly cited as a breeding ground for COVID conspiracy theories.
Social media and targeted advertising have played a role in the spread of anti-vaccination messaging and COVID-19 conspiracies. On Facebook the biggest anti-vaccination pages grew by 19% in the last year, and the followers of anti-vaccine Twitter accounts trebled.
Social media allows compact nuggets of (mis)information to be rapidly spread across the internet. The second culprit is targeted advertising in the age of social media. Tools such as cookies, social listening, and retargeted advertising allow receptive audiences to be easily identified by the companies who are seeking them out. These marketing and advertising tactics encourage the reinforcement of poorly informed – or simply incorrect – opinions. Social media algorithms repeatedly expose people to information and content they’ve already interacted with, meaning that individuals are decreasingly having their perspectives challenged.
It doesn’t look like this problem is going to get better. For example, there are 689 million monthly TikTok users globally, and in the UK the platform’s users grew by 75.2% in 2020. Of the 100 million monthly TikTok users in the US, 32.5% are aged between 10-19yrs, and 29.5% are aged between 20-29yrs. Given that 54% of young people receive their news from social media, these platforms are the main source of information for young people. This can be a problem, because you cannot communicate a sophisticated, data-driven, well-referenced and fact-oriented argument about a complex and evolving current affairs topic through a meme or a 15-second video. The short-form structure of these platforms encourages the spread and adoption of simplified views that can have long-term negative consequences. The consequence may be a generation of children who have not learnt how to digest complex long-form (and often dry) current affairs analysis in either video or written form.
Studies show that over the past 30 years, US journalism has moved towards more subjective, opinion-based reporting that relies on argument and an appeal to the reader’s emotions.
In the same breath, mainstream media isn’t necessarily an alternative in this respect. Many of the headlines covering the pandemic have been fearmongering and dramatic. Major news outlets have been impacted by the growth of social media; newspaper sales have fallen by 2/3rds in the last 20 years, so they have appeal to readers to stay competitive. Studies show that over the past 30 years, US journalism has moved towards more subjective, opinion-based reporting that relies on argument and an appeal to the reader’s emotions.
Social media can be a great and democratic enabler, but the prominence of COVID conspiracies and anti-vaccination sentiment highlights their ability to moonlight as a pandora’s box. Equally, with traditional news outlets moving online and acquiring readers through social clicks and digital subscriptions, they too are engagement-oriented and playing to the crowd. This raises the question as to what the news in the modern day should be. The plentiful content across the web dispelling COVID conspiracies suggests a moralistic approach to journalism is still alive. Which way it will go remains to be seen.