The poisonous face of social media
A little more than a month ago, a video clip was sent to me on WhatsApp. The clip is a segment from Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, episode No 203 released in 2014. It makes the rounds after every mass shooting that occurs in the United States. The clip shows a 13-year-old boy trying to purchase a number of items in different stores in Virginia that he was not, by Virginia law, old enough to buy. The video starts with the boy being driven around by his mom — he is obviously not old enough to drive — with a hidden camera, driving past a variety of stores that he is not old enough to work in.
His first stop is a convenience store where he tries to buy a six-pack of beer. As you know, you need to be 21 to buy a beer in the United States. The store clerk turns him away.
His second stop is another convenience store where he tries to buy a pack of cigarettes. In Virginia, you need to be 18 to buy tobacco. The store clerk turns him away.
His third stop is to yet another convenience store where he tries to buy “racy” magazines. In Virginia, you need to be 18 to buy “top shelf” magazines. The store clerk turns him away.
His fourth stop is to yet another convenience store where he tries to buy scratch-card lottery tickets. In Virginia, you need to be 18 to buy any lottery ticket. The store clerk turns him away.
His final stop is to a gun show and he asks to look at a .22 calibre rifle from a private seller. Within minutes, he pays cash and walks away with the gun. There is no minimum age to purchase or possess rifles in Virginia.
Obviously this is shocking. I was so surprised I posted the one-minute video to Facebook with the comment: “If this does not prove a point, then nothing will.”
A number of my Facebook friends asked that I make the post “public” so they, too, could share it with their friends. I obliged. Within hours the post went viral and within days it was attracting attention from people in the US who are not my Facebook “friends”.
And then it started.
It was not until my Facebook Messenger requests started going into overdrive that I noticed that my Facebook page was being bombarded with posts from “gun rights” enthusiasts and, frankly, total fanatics. Within just a few days, the post had attracted 176,000 “reactions”, 35,400 comments and 983,000 shares. I subsequently made the post available to “friends only” again and shortly thereafter the comments stopped — but it did not stop something more sinister happening.
Friend requests came in thick and fast. Literally thousands of people. The names were real enough, but the messages sent to me through FB Messenger were mostly the same and they went like this:
“Hi. I saw your post. You are a lying liberal. The video is a fake. Stop posting your liberal trash.”
“You are a piece of s**t and deserve to die. Stop spreading your lies.”
“The video is a fake. The FBI would have been there and intervened.”
Of hundreds and hundreds of messages on FB Messenger, maybe a dozen were in favour of the video. It took me hours over the course of a month to delete all the “friend“ requests and disgusting messages. This was obviously the point. Despite the post no longer being public, FB Messenger requests are still coming in about once a day.
This whole episode demonstrates the polarisation that exists in the US about gun control and the lengths that some will go to discredit the messenger or scare the messenger into shutting up. It is simple, especially if the message is accurate. Bombard the messenger enough and they likely will go away.
This small “gun control” episode on Facebook demonstrates the sinister effect social media has on democracy and freedom of speech. There was no real debate sparked from my post; the haters on both sides of the gun-control argument went from zero to 60 in moments. Scary stuff. It also occurred to me that the thousands of “posters” on my page and via FB Messenger may not have been real at all. Rather, they were more likely fake profiles set up by a pro-gun lobby group that scans the internet shutting down any person or organisation that may spread a message that advocates for gun control.
The term “boiler room” is increasingly being used in the US to describe the types of negative spin organisations that have been set up to infiltrate social media with the intent of manipulating political opinion.
Unfortunately, in Bermuda, this type of social-media influence also exists, albeit in a smaller more unsophisticated scale. Just a couple of years ago the Facebook page Bermuda Elections 2012, which is now called All Things Bermuda — Politics & Discussions, was awarded a Best of Bermuda prize for best media outlet. This, despite many “posters” being unidentifiable from their profiles.
The anonymous comments under mainstream Bermuda media stories are disproportionately influential in forming and galvanising public opinion, especially with people who have little time or inclination to undertake real research into the topics being “posted” on. It was crazy the number of times as minister I was referred to anonymous comments from online media as representing the view of the day. Anonymous posters making anonymous comments. Libellous and inflammatory comments. Vile, racist comments. Sometimes they are taken down and many times blocked. But they get through. And they are read. And they manipulate. And they fool. All this under the guise of “communications”.
The fact is that social media has become a global, political tool to influence public opinion — a political tool that is not founded in fact or reality. Cowards hide behind fake usernames to throw stones. A political entity that controls this medium will always win.
Link the talking points on social media to a radio station and then to a government department of communications and you have a winning formula. That formula is guaranteed when you use an outfit such as that of Cambridge Analytica to gather data and teams of people posting under anonymous names to spread sinister messages of divisiveness, lies and hate.
It seems to me that anonymous postings across mainstream media platforms should be banned, especially in a small community owing to the disproportionate effect it has in swaying an argument. If you have an opinion and wish to share it, then stand by it. Live with it. Own it. Only then will we be able to have real debate. Only then will democracy become stronger.
Cowards hiding behind a keyboard, using fake profiles on Facebook and other social media are harmful to everyone in every democracy, whether the topic is gun control or immigration reform.
With that said, the gun lobby “crazies” who bombarded me will not get that satisfaction again. My Facebook profile is private once again. It will stay that way.
•Michael Fahy is a former Minister of Home Affairs, Minister of Tourism, Transport and Municipalities, and Junior Minister of Finance under the One Bermuda Alliance government
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