We take a look at how the social media landscape is overshadowed by scandals with François-Bernard Huyghe, a specialist in geopolitics, director of research at Iris, expert in influence and disinformation.

Fake news, fake followers, fake influencers, deep fake, etc. Political currents, companies and simple individuals fight to spread their representation of reality and the courses of action. The craziest points of view – conspiracy theories, flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, and other trolls – bringing together highly active small communities, whose impact is often destructive. In regard to digital technologies, it brings with it an arsenal of highly sophisticated disinformation that is constantly improving and increasingly easy to access. Is there a place for trust among all this?

Fake news, fake followers, fake influencers, deep fake… How did we end up here? François-Bernard Huyghe: These Anglicisms are recent and numerous: I listed 60 in my essay on fake news (1). They can be found in journalism, politics, geopolitics and even in everyday conversation; so, they are now part of our reality.  Of course, lies and deception go back a long way, but it was in 2016 that the general concern became widespread, with the election of Trump, Brexit, the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, the Catalonia elections, in Italy, etc. So, we have granted great political power to the spreading of fake news -and other ‘alternative facts’- on social media. To the point that it is a threat to democracies, the media, and ultimately, to trust as a common socio-economic foundation. Thus, we have moved into the era of post-truth. And the context of Covid-19 confirms this point of view; WHO even talks of an ‘infodemic’, with harmful consequences.

Where is trust in social networks and media? F.-B. H.: Trust in social media has flipped; we’ve gone from a concept, or from a meme, “social networks will establish democracy everywhere”, to “social networks are bringing down democracies”. We started with the idea that social networks provided a freedom of speech that would trouble the powers that be – those of governments and brands, in particular. And this would in turn lead to more lucid citizen-consumers, saner politicians and better-quality products and services. Ultimately it is the opposite that has become widespread. In the case of brands, other negative factors also arose, such as Dieselgate, the leak of personal data, its commercial exploitation, the opaque role of artificial intelligence, fake customer reviews, click farms, etc.

What are the consequences of these disinformation practices for the public?

F.-B. H.: Gafam and social media regularly report on the thousands of harmful messages or fake news that they delete. There is also corrective intervention from fact-checking experts or bodies, such as AFP Fact Check, partly financed by Facebook, whose new role is “to refute anything that did not happen”. However, despite this refutation, those who manipulate opinions are well aware that there is still some doubt. As Hannah Arendt already said, “When everyone lies to you constantly, the result is not that you believe these lies but no one believes anything anymore… And with such a people, you can do whatever you want.” Ultimately, the most serious aspect is not any particular fake news article; it is the torrent of them that has had a toxic impact on our minds. Citizen-consumers find themselves overwhelmed with doubt, with an inability to learn and act, which leads to frustration or even anger. Take a look at the USA, where Trump has attacked Twitter, while the social network was doing its job of moderating; it is like the start of a soap opera about freedom to express anything and everything, in other words, to misinform with impunity.

What kind of influence is legitimate in the eyes of the public? F.-B. H. : We have gone from a time when mass media would publish a message in line with that of esteemed opinion leaders, and we have now arrived – through this crisis of general trust – at a strong legitimacy of nano and micro-influencers. Therefore, over prestige and authority, we now prefer proximity; people who talk to me should be people like me. They and I, we should find ourselves on a level playing field. Hence, also, a form of insularity. The citizen-consumer is eventually stuck between individualism and tribalism. Because a tribe is still necessary in order to feel valued within their choices and their identity. Consequently, speeches that often end up getting through are not those of the experts or the established authorities; instead they are the simple opinions or the raw emotions of ‘real’ people.

How can we rebuild trust? F.-B. H.: On the part of the companies and brands, it seems wiser to establish horizontal and genuine links with consumers, rather than try to create messages that descend towards ‘the old style’. This probably happens through the human dimension, proximity, localness, transparency, proof, the personalisation of relationships, and by approaches that are more micro than macro. But, in a context of economic revival, they will have to ask questions about a shift in production, of real needs versus luxuries and ostentatiousness, of meaning and values, of the company’s social and ecological role, etc. Is it time for certain brands to make an ethical change and to become companies with a mission? It is worth thinking about.

(1) The term fake news, ‘infox’ or ‘fausses nouvelles’ in French, refers to untruthful information that is spread in order to manipulate or mislead the public.

“Over prestige and authority, we now prefer proximity.”

François-Bernard Huyghe

 

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