Social media — the crowned jewel at the intersection of globalisation, information and
connectivity. The miracle of the internet reduced to TikTok, memes and character limits. Amidst
the ebb and flow of the popularity of its differing formats, what has become abundantly clear is
that from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram and everything in between, the consumption
conglomerate is fundamentally shifting how our world — and the discourse within it — operates.
Information is available at a staggering scale thanks to the accessibility of the Internet.
Seemingly any fact or conceivable question is at your fingertips: from Wikipedia to archives and
scientific journals, there is no shortage of avenues for learning.
Running alongside this at a breakneck speed is the ability for new information to be transmitted,
especially through mediums like Twitter that operate on the basis of ‘first past the post’. As
incredible and potentially beneficial as this is, these same platforms that allow the rapid spread of
breaking news in real-time often operate without regard to actual truth.
Inherently built into the algorithm of Twitter is the urgency to put out information first, to get
your information the farthest. This is demonstrated by the frequent retractions and corrections
issued by major news organisations on behalf of journalists, and even by high-profile people who
should have a better grasp of the information they are peddling:
This creates a major problem — there is a lack of liability for information put out through social
media channels. Whereas network news and print media build their entire business on the
reputation of its journalists, editors and editorial review boards, anyone with the ability to
sensationalise a story or transmit speculation as ‘breaking news’ serves to build their own brand
on a platform where being the first to break a story gives you a massive leg up in terms of
The powerful nature of Twitter is perhaps best characterised by its most polarising user —
Donald J. Trump. The recognition of the vast ability the platform has to spread opinions and a
narrative with reach and expediency has led to a break from the communicative norms of the
Where past Presidents would issue statements through the press secretary as a figurehead for the
White House, or for important matters through direct addresses to the nation, President Trump
fires off a barrage of tweets. In fact, he has tweeted over ten thousand times since taking control
of the White House.
What is particularly interesting, as demonstrated in this New York Times article
is the correlation between major events in which the POTUS would attempt to control the
narrative, and the frequency with which he tweets. Regardless of personal political feelings
toward someone like Donald Trump, the case has been made clear — social media is a powerful
tool for political engagement.
A dangerous trend is the growing use of social media by political groups and states actors with
the aim of controlling a narrative either through overwhelming an algorithm, spreading
deliberate misinformation or creating falsified public sentiment through the use of ‘bots’. When
digesting information from articles or skimming headlines, it is important to always note the
publication and be aware of its reputability. However, much more difficult to perceive is the
manufacturing of a false consensus.
Between gaming algorithms and employing ‘cyber troops’ to sway public sentiment, the largescale
manipulation of social media by political forces is nothing to scoff at — more than seventy
countries are known to have expressly used these tactics to misinform the public. Many countries
are known to have interfered with foreign nations through the use of social media campaigns.
Needless to say, a healthy scepticism is important for any new information being consumed on
Facebook or Twitter.
The other side of this is that social media also presents the opportunity for individuals to present
their own lived experience to the world. Discourse can be had between an unending variant of
people, each with their own personal narratives that shape the way they interact with facts and
opinions that run contrary to their own.
Social media gives us the opportunity to expand our worldview, by interacting with people with
completely different experiences, from the comfort of our own homes. The most powerful form
of persuasion in interpersonal dialogue isn’t facts or stone-cold reason, but strong personal
narrative. When someone is faced with facts, they can counter with different facts or exceptions.
But what is so powerful, and hard to discredit, is someone’s story: although not remotely
objective, it is at its core as true as truth can be, even if it doesn’t prove a demonstrable fact or fit
an overarching factual narrative. The lived experience of a person is as powerful and worthy of
sympathy as anything else.
We must decide where the balance between sympathy and substance lies. How do we weigh
understanding individual stories against greater narratives and statistics? How do we continue on
with discourse that has its basis in facts and reason over the emotional response to someone’s
personal truth? Emotional discourse is as important as factual discourse, because if we value one
another, lived experiences are as important as fact.
The question at the intersection of these things is validity, and the way we are to put these small
and large pieces of the puzzle together. Misinformation is dangerous, but narratives that push
back against conventional facts are not inherently damaging to discourse. They’re simply
considerations. Just because one lived experience is true doesn’t mean it is the overarching
narrative, and simply because an experience flies in the face of conventional wisdom doesn’t
mean it isn’t true. We should be pursuing a balance of understanding interpersonal implications,
while also striving to understand the full scale of a story to reach an ultimate conclusion.
Maloney, Devon. 2016. “‘Everyone on Twitter Is Talking about It’ Is Not the Same as
Everyone Talking about It.” The Guardian. The Guardian. January 12, 2016.
New York Times, Michael Shear, Maggie Haberman, Nicholas Confessore, and Karen
Yourish. 2019. “How Trump Reshaped the Presidency in Over 11,000 Tweets.”
The New York Times, November 2, 2019.
Trudell, Craig. 2019. “Musk Deletes Tweet Sharing Incorrect Report of Tesla Sales
Win.” Bloomberg.Com. 2019. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-04/contrary-to-musk-s-tweet-tesla-isn-t-the-no-1-premium-carmaker.
Yarno Ritzen. 2019. “How Armies of Fake Accounts ‘ruined’ Twitter in the Middle
East.” Aljazeera.Com. Al Jazeera. July 15, 2019.
“TV Is Still the Most Common Way for Americans to Get Local News, but Fewer People
Are Watching.” Nieman Lab. 2019. https://www.niemanlab.org/2019/06/tv-is-still-the-most-common-way-for-americans-to-get-local-news-but-fewer-people-are-watching/.
Bradshaw, Samantha. 2019. “The Global Disinformation Order 2019 Global Inventory of
Organised Social Media Manipulation.” Oxford