Post-truth politics and social media mis-education

Published by Dr Ben Williamson

In the same year that has seen ‘post-truth’ named as word of the year, both the UK’s Brexit referendum and the US election have raised significant questions about education. One question concerns why, on average, people with fewer educational qualifications tended to vote for the UK to leave the EU, or for Trump to take the presidency, while those with more qualifications tended to vote the other way. It has been suggested that a new ‘education gap’ has emerged as an apparent determinant of people’s political preference.

‘Labyrinthine Circuit Board Lines’ – Photo credit: quapan

‘The possibility that education has become a fundamental divide in democracy—with the educated on one side and the less educated on another—is an alarming prospect,’ says the political scientist David Runciman. ‘The less educated fear they are being governed by intellectual snobs who know nothing of their lives and experiences. The educated fear their fate may be decided by know-nothings who are ignorant of how the world really works.’

Education alone, of course, was not the only determinant in the two votes. Statistics from the EU referendum indicate the vote for leaving the EU was concentrated in geographical areas already most affected by growing economic, cultural and social inequalities, as well as by physical pain, mental ill-health and rising mortality rates.

‘There is ample evidence that political dynamics are being increasingly driven by the dramatic spiraling of escalating inequalities,’ claim the sociologists Mike Savage and Niall Cunningham. ‘To put this another way, growing economic inequalities are spilling over into all aspects of social, cultural, and political life, and there are powerful feedback loops between these different spheres which are generating highly worrying trends.’

The kind of political polarization that materialized during both Brexit and the US election is the result of the related dynamics of education, geography, economics, and cultural and social networks, and the feedback loops between them. ‘The way that the wealthy elite are increasingly culturally and socially cocooned, and the extent to which large numbers of disadvantaged groups are outside their purview is deeply worrying,’ note Savage and Cunningham.

Whether social media has participated in this polarization of political perspectives has become one of the defining debates in the wake of Brexit and the US election.

‘Social media now enhances these patterns,’ David Runciman has explained. ‘Friendship groups of like-minded individuals reinforce each other’s worldviews. Facebook’s news feed is designed to deliver information that users are more inclined to ‘like’. … Education does not provide any protection against these social media effects. It reinforces them. … [T]he gap between the educated and the less educated is going to become more entrenched over time, because it … represents a gulf in mutual understanding.’

The involvement of social media in the spread of ‘post-truth politics’ points to how it is leading citizens into informational enclaves designed to feed them news and knowledge that has been filtered to match their interests, based on data analysis of their previous online habits and what social networks they belong to.

Part of the problem is that social media has become the source for a very high concentration of fake news, computational propaganda and misinformation. Since the US election, it has been revealed that Trump’s campaign team worked closely with Facebook data to generate audience lists and targeted social media campaigns. It employed the ‘psychographic’ data analytics company Cambridge Analytica to data mine the personal details, online behaviours and sentiments of 220 million potential voters, and then sent them personalized, micro-targeted political messages. The same firm worked with the Leave.EU campaign. This exemplifies the use of the data journalist Jonathan Albright describes as a new ‘data-industrial complex’ of behaviour tracking and identification technology in contemporary politics.

Added to this, other more politically-activist social media sites such as Breitbart and Infowars have actively disseminated right-wing political agendas via social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, reaching audiences that count in the tens of millions. ‘Platforms like Twitter and Facebook now provide a structure for our political lives,’ Phil Howard , a sociologist of information and international affairs, has argued. He claims that social algorithms allow ‘large volumes of fake news stories, false factoids, and absurd claims’ to be ‘passed over social media networks, often by Twitter’s highly automated accounts and Facebook’s algorithms.’

‘Circuit Board’ – Photo credit: Rob Swystun

The post-truth spread of misinformation twinned with the magnification of political and social polarization is at the core of a new public pedagogy of political mis-education. Public pedagogy is a term used to refer to the lessons that are taught outside of formal educational institutions by popular culture, informal institutions and public spaces, dominant cultural discourses, and public intellectualism and social activism. Big data and social media are fast becoming the most successful sources of public pedagogy in the everyday lives of millions around the world. They are educating people by sealing them off into filter bubbles and echo chambers, where access to information, culture, news, and intellectual and activist discourse is being curated algorithmically.

This is further related to, reproduced and exacerbated by social inequalities in education, economics and cultural access. Doing well in formal education or not now appears to be a determinant of which kinds of social networks you belong to. ‘The educational divide that is opening up in our politics is not really between knowledge and ignorance,’ David Runciman argues. ‘It is a clash between one worldview and another.’

The philosopher Bruno Latour has described these opposing worldviews as ‘two bubbles of unrealism,’ one clinging to an imagined future of globalization and the other retreating to the imagined ‘old countries of the past,’ or ‘a utopia of the future confronting a utopia of the past.’ Education has long reinforced these utopias of unrealism. Contradictory policy demands over the last two decades have pointed simultaneously towards an education for the future of a high-skills, globalized knowledge economy (as reinforced by global policy actors like the OECD), and an education of the past which emphasizes traditional values, national legacy, social order and authority. Social media algorithms and architectures have further enabled these utopias of unrealism to embed themselves across the US and Europe.

Sociologists have begun asking hard questions about the capacity of their field to address the new problems surfaced by Brexit and Trump. The field of education needs to involve itself too in this new problem space. Clearly, for example, there are important implications here for how young people access and evaluate information. Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller of the think tank Demos have highlighted a need to teach young people critical thinking and scepticism online to ‘allow them to better identify outright lies, scams, hoaxes, selective half-truths, and mistakes.’

But I think we need to go further, and to probe how educational inequalities and the public pedagogies of social media are combining to co-produce people’s expectations of their place and their futures in democratic societies. We need to directly address the challenge of how to approach education in post-truth times.

About the author

This post was written by Dr Ben Williamson, Lecturer of Education within the Faculty of Social Sciences and member of the Faculty’s Education Studies research group. Ben’s research focuses on education policy and educational technology from a critical, sociological perspective. Read more.