If like me you’re a progressive who believes in the march of global human rights, it’s been a bit of a depressing time since 2016. Vote after vote just hasn’t gone our way.
We’ve all had to get uncomfortably familiar with bitter disappointment. From Brazil’s far-right crackdown on LGBT+ rights, with their new leader calling himself a “proud homophobe” to Poland’s Supreme Court being attacked for serving “the ideology of homosexual activists.” And most recently it was Taiwan’s turn to cause upset and anguish – its recent referendum on marriage equality after a 2017 court ruling to introduce same-sex marriage ended in a devastating defeat for equality.
The common thread running through so many of these votes is fake news on Facebook.
In Taiwan, the vote itself was organised by Christian groups; organisations that make up only 5 per cent of the country’s population. And by now it’s clear that online campaigning tactics fuelled and funded by Christian organisations and the Chinese disseminated fake news materials across Taiwanese social networks. The aim appeared to be to confuse and convince people ahead of the vote on marriage equality. This material described LGBT+ people as perverted and claimed that Taiwan’s universal healthcare system would become overrun with foreign HIV-positive homosexuals, who would marry Taiwanese men to access HIV/Aids treatment.
These sorts of fear tactics are nothing new in any political election. But as we’ve seen repeated across all recent public votes across the world, votes and referendums seem to now be won where the public are most connected – social media. Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie has claimed that the now defunct political consulting firm could even utilise Facebook data on people's fashion tastes to encourage them to vote for Donald Trump during the 2016 US election.
Only this week we’ve again been reminded of the dangers of fake news on Facebook, with new research suggesting adverts on the platform have ignited anti-refugee attacks in Germany.
The core problem is that, through its algorithm, Facebook separates us from moderating voices or authority figures, and herds us into ever smaller like-minded groups, encouraging us to consume content that engages our base emotions.
It’s in this light that Taiwan’s decision to put marriage equality to a vote could be seen as a big mistake. Although in some cases these types of votes are won – as in Ireland and Australia – the risks now are too great. In an age of fake news and unregulated social media, wherever possible, human rights should not be put to a public vote. Lies and misinformation which used to be on the fringes of political discourse are now too easily seeping into the mainstream.
Arguably any organisation can now open an advertising account on Facebook, and can begin targeting individuals based on salary, job, interest, location and even association with any of these factors. But too many regressive organisations, who would like nothing more than to rollback hard won rights, have absolutely no qualms about abusing – rather than just using – smart social profiling techniques. They seem happy to lie, cheat and misinform to get what they want, posing a real threat to the ongoing move to equal rights and equality across the globe.
During the Out4Marriage campaign that I helped found in 2013 to support changing the law to allow same sex couples to marry, digital profiling didn’t exist in the same detail as today. What won the campaign for us was the power of progressive, personal and positive storytelling – empowering celebrities, MPs and members of the public to create their own short video content and post it online explaining why they we’re “coming out for marriage.” What wins marriage equality campaigns is the same thing which wins any campaign fighting for better human rights: empathy, compassion and relatability – particularly viewable by an audience who disagrees and needs convincing.
But shift forward to 2018, and using Facebook to reach an audience that disagrees with your opinion is near enough impossible. Imagine what could be done now if you add the power of personalisation on social media, adapting the messages to someone’s ambitions, aspirations and desires.
On the issue of gay rights there is still much work to be done. Equal marriage is still the exception around the world. And let’s not forget, it’s still illegal to be gay in 70 countries. In 10 of those countries the punishment is death. And in many cases, progress has not just stalled, it’s going backwards. Campaigners have their work cut out.
It’s time for companies like Facebook to step up and give the LGBT+ community a helping hand. First, they need to start taking misinformation seriously. As the fight for equal rights shows, there are real life impacts to the sort of fake news polluting the platform; from the thousands of gay people in Taiwan who will not be able to get married to the individual gay or trans people attacked in places like Brazil because of Facebook posts that demonise and vilify their identity.
But they need to change their all-important algorithm. How are campaigners ever going to engage with and change the minds of those who disagree with LGBT+ rights if those people are stuck in an echo chamber that fails to expose them to different views? Without social media which proactively engages us with all different attitudes and points of view, we won’t be able to see the views that we need to change.
This change will require a big overhaul of social media sites’ profit models, but they need to take responsibility for the damage they have caused, and acknowledge the reality that this type of fake news disproportionately attacks LGBT+ people. Given how effective the tactic has been in mobilising the far right in recent elections, we can expect more in the near future. Facebook can either be a dark cloud on the horizon, or a ray of light. This coming year it needs to choose which one it wants to be.
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