Facebook, Fake News, and the Threat to Modern Democracy

Facebook, Fake News, and the Threat to Modern Democracy

Articles, Current Affairs

Facebook, Fake News, and the Threat to Modern Democracy

In a recent announcement, Facebook revealed new measures to help combat the problem of ‘fake news’ on the website, after growing concerns from both sides of the political spectrum over the effect of the spread of misinformation. We often hear the phrase ‘undermining democracy’ thrown around in the media, but what exactly does this mean, and can Facebook’s new measures do anything to stop this in its tracks?

In order to understand whether the new measures will successfully reduce the prevalence of fake news, we must understand the causes of the problem. The issue of inaccurate information being disseminated as ‘news’ on Facebook can be traced back to its decision to reshape the way it delivers the ‘trending’ feature in 2016. When it was first introduced in 2014, the ‘trending’ topics were determined by a team of people within Facebook, who were obligated to check if a story was credible with a respectable news outlet before putting it into the trending section. However, after complaints that the team showed anti-conservative bias in their editing, they were replaced by an algorithm that did not perform the same rigorous accuracy checks on stories, which almost immediately resulted in ridiculous hoaxes skyrocketing to the top of the trending list. For example, false headlines about Fox News’ Megyn Kelly were promoted, along with false reports of the existence of an inappropriate video involving a McDonald’s sandwich.

Considering this, Facebook’s plan to take down the ‘trending’ feature seems like a sensible first step in tackling the problem of fake news; it will be much harder for fake news stories to reach a large number of people quickly. However, the company acknowledged that this would by no means eradicate the problem, and thus are currently working on a breaking news feature to highlight important news stories from legitimate sources, so users are encouraged to read accurate updates on developments both locally, and around the world. This measure has the potential to be highly successful, as it recognises the growing importance of Facebook as the primary news source for many in the Western world, and assumes some responsibility for pointing its users in the right direction of reliable news. However, ultimately, we must acknowledge that it is largely down to the individual user to employ a greater level of scepticism to the information they view on Facebook. It would be unreasonable to expect the company to take responsibility for every single piece of false information spread on its website, especially considering the sheer mass of content uploaded every second. 

Now let’s think about how fake news might ‘undermine democracy’, and why it is important that Facebook and its users work together to reduce the prevalence of false stories. If people are frequently exposed to misinformation, many are likely to be in some way influenced by it, whether this be outright believing something false to be true, or forming subconscious biases against certain things, people, or groups of people. Thus, those affected by fake news are more likely to make less informed choices when voting, which threatens the benefits our society gains from democracy; for example, it is much more difficult to use one’s vote to hold someone in power to account if you are misinformed on the actions of that individual.

While this danger to the democratic process can seem frightening, the future of Facebook and fake news is looking increasingly positive. For the first time, Facebook is taking direct action, and doing what it can to limit the spread of misinformation. The planned steps address both the original cause of the problem, and the changing nature of Facebook as a hub for news stories as well as updates on family and friends. However, all this will be for naught if we as individuals do not recognise our own responsibility to not take everything at face value, and actively seek out reliable information. So, if you plan to share this article, how about taking a few minutes to do a quick Google search and check that what I’ve told you is accurate?

The Significance of this Year’s Unusual G7 Summit

The Significance of this Year’s Unusual G7 Summit

Articles, Current Affairs

The Significance of this Year’s Unusual G7 Summit 

 

The Group of Seven (G7), consisting of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, is a forum that was founded to facilitate discussion and cooperation on shared economic and political goals by the seven largest economies. It began as an informal meeting between US Secretary of the Treasury George Shultz and the Finance ministers of key US allies, namely West Germany, France, and the UK, in 1973, and was eventually expanded to include Japan, Italy, and Canada. The EU has also been represented at G7 summits since 1977.

Russia was included from 1998 onwards, resulting in the forum being called the G8, but was ejected from the forum following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Previous summits have focused on improving and facilitating international trade, reducing trade barriers, and discussing coordinated approaches to crises such as the Syrian Civil War, which was discussed in the 2012 summit held in the UK. Traditionally, a Joint Communiqué is written at the end of each summit, which reaffirms the views expressed and commitments made by member nations.

This year’s G7 summit was unusual in that it was characterised by marked hostility between the US and its traditional allies and trading partners; whereas previous summits have focused on shared values and commitments, with the US standing alongside its allies in condemning Russia and upholding liberalism in international trade, the 44th summit has made it clear that US interests and priorities have shifted away from those of its allies, and has been described by some commentators as being more akin to a ‘G6+1’ meeting than a G7 one. This hostility is perhaps best exemplified by the clash between US President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Given that US-Canada relations in the period leading up to the summit were damaged as a result of the imposition of tariffs by the US on Canadian steel and aluminium, and President Donald Trump reportedly accusing Canada of having burnt down the white house in 1814 in a call with Mr Trudeau, among other things, the clash between the two leaders is perhaps unsurprising – however, there was still an expectation that some common ground would be found, as Mr. Trump had backed last year’s G7 joint communiqué reaffirming the group’s traditional united approach, despite making it clear that the US view on climate change, among other issues, differed from the remaining six nations.

This year, Mr. Trump spent most of the summit criticising the other nations for being ‘unfair’ and taking advantage of the US, and paid lip service to the idea of shared values while making it clear that ‘America First’ was his main concern. Furthermore, he expressed support for including Russia in the forum once again, which was met with a negative response from all the leaders present except for the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who said he believed including Russia “is in the interests of everyone,” and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who made no comment, clearly attempting to balance Japan’s desire for improved relations with Russia with his commitment to the G7 nations.

Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau’s desire to continue business as usual at the summit by discussing the issues of gender equality and climate change, and reaffirming shared commitments, appeared to clash with the need to protect Canadian interests. Despite attempting to address the US concerns over international trade, his efforts ultimately backfired as, soon after leaving the summit, the US president launched a personal attack on Trudeau, calling him “dishonest and weak”, and stated that he had instructed US representatives to reject the joint communiqué that had been agreed upon at the G7 summit.  The events of this summit have implications for every nation involved, as well as the entire international community, as it has demonstrated a new US approach to international diplomacy. The fact that the US President left the summit early and pulled his support for the joint communiqué while prioritising his bilateral meeting with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be an indication that the US will continue to play an active role in international issues but is no longer concerned with building consensus with its allies.

Overall, it appears that the UK, France, Germany, and Canada remain committed to maintaining the ‘rules-based international order’, as referred to by Prime Minister Theresa May in her address to the House of Commons following the summit, though what this means in the context of Brexit is unclear. French President Emmanuell Macron went so far as to imply that the US was no longer needed in maintaining this international order, stating that “we don’t mind being six, if needs be”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed disappointment with the US, while German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas stated that there will be consequences, and implied that Germany will have to reconsider its approach to international trade.
The situation with regards to the remaining two members of the G7, Japan and Italy, is more complicated.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who was appointed only 48 hours before the G7 summit to represent a government comprised of the anti-establishment ‘Five-Star Movement’ and the right-wing populist Northern League, took a balanced approach at the G7 summit. Despite siding with President Trump on the issue of Russia, he did not oppose the EU consensus on issues of trade, which suggests that the Italian Government is still evaluating its approach to foreign policy despite having been elected on an anti-EU and anti-immigration platform.

On the other hand, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is faced with a delicate balancing act – he requires US support on the issue of North Korea, but US tariffs will significantly damage the Japanese economy, especially given that President Trump has proposed tariffs of up to 25% on vehicle imports into the US. Vehicles make up approximately 15% of Japan’s overall exports and 38% of those vehicles are exported to the US, meaning that any tariffs imposed by the US would affect Japanese businesses significantly.
Moreover, Japan has been attempting to negotiate with Russia to resolve their territorial disputes over the Kuril Islands, and has held several meetings over the past few weeks with Russian leaders with the goal of ‘cultivating closer security and economic ties’ in order to bring the two nations closer to resolving their disputes . This means that Mr. Abe is unwilling to fully side with the UK, France, Germany and Canada on the issue of excluding Russia from the G7/G8, as that would jeopardise his efforts to reach a settlement with Russia.

Overall, this G7 summit may represent a turning point in global trade and international relations, and is yet another indication that economic liberalism and the international order that dominated the past several decades is now in decline.

By Bilal Asghar

Edinburgh Launch

Edinburgh Launch

Events

Calling all young activists based in Edinburgh – we shall be launching in November 2018!

The venue is yet to be confirmed…

Keep revisiting this page to find out more information closer to the time!

London Launch

London Launch

Events

Calling all young activists based in London – in October 2018 we shall be holding our Launch Event!!

The venue is yet to be confirmed, but will most likely be in the Houses of Parliament…

Keep checking this page to find out more details closer to the time!

Fairer Fares for Manchester Metrolink?

Fairer Fares for Manchester Metrolink?

Articles, Opinion

Eloise sheds light on proposed changes to Manchester’s Metrolink and discusses how it could affect young people.

Fairer Fares for Manchester Metrolink?

Travel for Greater Manchester are proposing a new ‘four-zone’ based ticketing system, supposedly reducing the number of pricing options from over 8,500 to just 10 zone-based fares in order to create a “system that is simple, convenient and good value for money”. The change could potentially be introduced in early 2019, on approval from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

A public listening exercise is currently taking place, involving a questionnaire exploring public opinions of the proposed system. However, this survey, whilst asking for age during the completion does not mention the impact of this change on the young people of Greater Manchester – an issue which needs serious attention.

Currently, 16-18-year-olds of Manchester are faced with a series of confusing and nonsensical options regarding tram fares. For 16-year-olds, they are only counted within the 11-16 age bracket until the 31st August after they turn 16 – leaving many 16-year olds outside of this age bracket. From then on, 16 and 17-year-olds are no longer counted as ‘children’ despite the legality that disputes this. The introduction of the ‘Get me there’ card was meant to simplify this, with talks of concessionary rates for students. However, this has been entirely ineffective – there are no clear options to select a concessionary or ‘half-price’ option at the stations, and the whole concept has been both poorly advertised and poorly delivered.

16-18-year olds are then forced to paying the full adult fare – despite their compulsory attendance of full-time education severely limiting their income – if any at all. To add insult to injury, many young people use the Metrolink to travel to their place of education – often suddenly having to double this fee to continue making the same journey that had done since the age of 11 – a fare that seems incredibly unjust. This sense of injustice is only heightened when compared to the London system, with Andy Burnham acknowledging just how much further “ahead” they are.

London’s system for under 18s is clear and logical. 5-10-year-olds travel free on all Transport for London (TfL) and most National Rail services in London. 11-15-year-olds can travel free on buses and trams, with half-price on all other TfL services and most National Rail services in London. 16 and 17-year-olds can travel at half-price on all TfL services and most National Rail services in London. If they are residents of London they may also be eligible for free bus and tram travel – and all of these are linked by one card. This highlights the shambolically disjointed nature of Manchester’s trams, buses and rail (which is another issue entirely), as well as the inevitable strain of transport costs that are evidently avoidable.

It seems that once again, Manchester has drawn the short straw. Amongst the current northern rail crisis, it has become apparent that northern transport is not up to an appropriate standard – with young people bearing the brunt of this. A zonal system for trams would undoubtedly make an improvement – major cities all over the world follow this system – but we must not let young people be forgotten whilst making this change. I urge you to make your voice heard by highlighting the necessity of considering student tram pricing through the additional comments section of the following survey.

Feedback closes midnight Sunday 17th June 2018.
Metrolink zonal fares survey

By Eloise Hall

 

China’s Social Credit System- Is science fiction becoming science fact?

China’s Social Credit System- Is science fiction becoming science fact?

Articles, Current Affairs

Black Mirror-fan, Jack, draws disturbing parallels between the show and China’s new social credit system. How concerned should we be about this new interventionist scheme being implemented by the Chinese government?

China’s Social Credit System- Is science fiction becoming science fact?

picture from The Independent.

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is a television show after my own heart. The combination of dystopia and science fiction harkens back to similar works such as The Twilight Zone, and the keen analysis of the darker side of potential technology helps showcase our dependency on our smart devices. Indeed, it has been previously described as being about “the way we might be living in 10 minutes if we’re clumsy.” Now it appears those 10 minutes may nearly be up. The season 3 episode entitled Nosedive imagines a society in which every social interaction a person has can be rated out of five stars by the other people involved. This affects the person’s individual rating, which has significant influence on their socioeconomic status and place within the society. Examples of this include the fact that certain houses, transport and medical treatment are reserved exclusively for people of a high enough rating.

While this episode was undoubtedly only meant to critique the importance we place on what others think of us online, it has been frequently compared to a new mandatory scheme that is slowly being put into place by the Chinese government. The Social Credit system, which began to be put in place in 2014 and is supposed to be fully implemented by 2020, is designed to use mass surveillance to assign a rating to every citizen in order to control their behaviour. It is supposedly based upon the principle that “keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful” and is currently being orchestrated largely through private tech companies which hold people’s personal data. The score itself is said to be influenced by the actions that you take, including financial decisions, views expressed on social media (especially those related to politics) and traffic violations. For example, paying back loans on time would increase your rating whereas bad driving would lower it.

This may seem inconsequential, but the real danger comes from the penalties that are imposed on those with a low score. For example, their travel options can be restricted, including some 9 million people who have already been barred from domestic flights and 3 million who have been prevented from buying business class train tickets. Other restrictions will supposedly include slower internet speeds, more limited opportunities in higher education and careers and the inability to apply for credit cards/loans. There is clearly strong evidence here for the comparison to Nosedive, but the key difference is that in China it is the government that determines what is considered right and wrong rather than other people, which gives it huge powers to control the lives of individuals. This system could easily be as far reaching in its scale and effects as it is chillingly Orwellian in nature.
The move to the Social Credit system follows a political trend for China of tightening control over their own domestic affairs. Another example is that by 2016 spending on internal security had eclipsed spending on external defence by 13% and in February of this year China’s Xinjiang province revealed that its spending on domestic security had increased by an astounding 92.8% since 2016. This is in conjunction with the recent amendment to the Chinese constitution in March of this year, which served to remove term limits for the president Xi Jinping. This unprecedented entrenchment of power undoubtedly places him as China’s most powerful leader since Mao, and alongside the Social Credit system, it paints an unnerving picture for the future of the world’s second largest economy. To put it another way, the situation of an authoritarian leader who has entrenched himself in power seemingly indefinitely, and who will be in full control of the most far reaching and potentially oppressive mass surveillance programme in world history, seems to pose clear threats to the human rights of the 1.3 billion people of China.

As stated before, it is not an entirely accurate comparison between the situation in China and that of Nosedive, with the key difference being that in this instance all the power is in the hands of the Chinese government, making the implications ever more frightening. Yet, the important word here is implications. Even though there have been usages of this system to punish people so far, it is still not as pervasive and developed as the scenario displayed in Black Mirror, due mainly to the fact that the Social Credit system is not fully completed. Therefore, it does not seem at this stage that the comparisons to dystopian science fiction can be fully justified. However, in the wake of the scandal regarding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, it is important for us all to recognise that it is easier than ever for corporate and state organisations to gather and process data about each and every one of us. Whilst we shouldn’t write off technology, the message from both the Social Credit system and Nosedive seems to be that we should take a careful and cautious about the personal information we choose to hand over, lest it bring with it negative consequences for us all.

By Jack Walker