Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2018-19/Truth, History and Society: How good is Twitter at telling the Truth?

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Introduction[edit]

Social media platforms such as Twitter are used to circulate information, but history teaches us that such vehicles of information can lead to an inaccurate representation of truth. ‘Truth’ is understood as an issue in this chapter, since it is frequently deformed by institutions or individuals, known as misinformation. Misinformation is incorrect information which circulates with a motive or unintentionally. UNESCO refers to it as a method ‘deliberately created to harm’.[1]. History demonstrates that, in certain circumstances, historical 'distributors' of truth, such as the Christian Church and national governments are guilty of misinformation when it serves their interest or principles. This historical issue of misinformation is even more relevant today with the existence of social media. Often approached through a political or sociological lens, we aim to provide a previously ignored historical background, to grasp a deeper knowledge on the transmission and impact of misinformation in our society. We will use history as a discipline to address the issue of misinformation and focus on the social networking service Twitter to prove its relevance in the 21st century.

Why is Twitter so popular?[edit]

It is commonly thought that social media forms such as Twitter are the ideal platform for information circulation. Indeed, it is accessible for everyone to consult but also to edit and it allows a multitude of opinion to emerge on a single question, meaning multitude visions of truth. It is build on the principle of free speech, as its homepage advertises, “We believe in free expression and think every voice has the power to impact the world” (Twitter 2018). Additionally, its structure is shaped specifically to facilitate the distribution of information in an era where we are drowning in knowledge. It does so by limiting the characters of every post to 280 words and registering our worldview and opinions through cookies, which allow it to only show relevant posts and accounts for every user. Hence, the accounts presented to us are limited by our own preferences, which follows the human tendency of establishing contacts with similar individuals, known as homophily. These points- accessibility, freedom of expression and cookies- which make Twitter such an appealing platform are also problematic.Twitter’s inherent structure allows misinformation to emerge and creates confusion about the accuracy of the information we access. However, this issue did not emerge with the birth of social media platforms, rather it has existed for hundreds of years, which this chapter will explore.

Misinformation in History[edit]

In this section, we will question the Church as an institution and the national government as vehicle of information, and to what extent they can be misleading in the truth they transmit. Both of these institution had a great influence on the public opinion and placed themselves as the holder of the absolute truth. However, History has showed circumstances where both institutions spread disinformation. Along with the Enlightenment movement, philosophers and intellectuals questioned the role of government and pointed out the Church’s dogmatism.[2]. The Church considered its morals, principles, and laws as absolute truth. However, the Catholic and Protestant Churches preached different values, and thus different versions of truth, which had violent consequences, such as Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572, where Huguenot Protestants were assassinated by Catholics. One such division was created by the protestant John Calvin in his idea of the sovereignty of people, which was severely contested by the Catholic because it questioned their version of the truth. National governments controlled truth to such an extent that they were able to ‘erase’ entire populations. For instance, Australia was declared “nobody’s land” by the British to rationalize their settlements in 1770, which negated 50,000 years of Aboriginal history.[3]. Moreover, media control over newspaper, radio and television was another attempt by governments to control truth, such as in France during World War One, where the scale of the war was played down to ensure cooperation by the population.[4]. Finally, the cold war is another historical example which demonstrates how nations brutally defend their version of truth, in this case capitalism and communism, by misrepresenting the opposing party through the media.[5]. The misinformation the East spread about the West led to John F. Kennedy's famous statement “Let them come to Berlin”, whereby he defended the West by inviting all to come to see the ‘truth’ for themselves. History proves it is easy to get mislead about the truth. By looking at misinformation through the lenses of history, it gives a new perspective to analyse the current political issue around false news in circulation, for instance on Twitter.

The agency of misinformation on society[edit]

In the past, misinformation has been used by institutions and leaders to promote their values and principles that they take for truth, even when it was not accurate. Today, Twitter, with its impressive 313 million users per month, has the power to promote certain ‘truths’, since its users are influenced by each other in the same way citizens were by institutions in the past . Fake news and lies spread 6 times faster than accurate information, according to a MIT research.[6]. Moreover, according to their research, false news can reach up to 100,000 people when truth does not circulate beyond 1000 people. False news is dangerous since it has huge impacts on our societies. The above mentioned MIT paper also demonstrated that false information is considerably more shared when it is in the category of politics. For instance, an increase in the volume of false news posts were recorded during the US presidential election in 2016 and in the Brazilian election in 2018. [7] Consequently, 92% of Brazilians are worried about being able to tell between truth and false online. [8] Fake news becomes an international issue when it leads to the misallocation of resources during attacks or environmental catastrophes or disturbs the financial stability of companies or even a state. [9] Some countries such as the UK or Brazil and companies as Adverifai actively fight fake news trough regulations and policies but this raises controversy. [10] Researcher on this field emphasize the need of large scale models to analyse the tendency of false news and to prevent it in the future.[11].

Conclusion[edit]

In conclusion, misinformation is a critical current challenge, but it is not new. As history has demonstrated, biased vectors of truth have always existed and impacted people's opinion, whether for political or religious purposes back time and today, hence, the way society functions. Previously studied as an issue within the discipline of Politics, misinformation can better be understood with an interdisciplinary view. Through the lenses of History and Politics, we aim to have a global understanding of it. Thereupon, we invite you to approach this seemingly emerging situation by also considering the past.

Word Count: 1124

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