11,000 Americans voted for Harambe. It is 2016, and memes have officially replaced politics in the millennial mind.
It is a brilliant statistic that sums up the absurdity of 2016 political discourse; unfortunately, it is just not true. 11,000 people did not vote for Harambe. This statistic was circulated by Twitter user Jeffrey Otingo, who admitted that “it did not come from an official source”. In other words: he saw it online and from then on it just spiralled – an Anonymous-affiliated Twitter account then tweeted a ‘report’ that the number was actually 14,000.
The number continued to grow, with some people quoting 20,000. The reality is that most write-in votes are not counted, and many states prohibit them entirely; there just is no way for us to know how many Americans were witty enough to vote for a dead gorilla. This is just another online urban legend fuelled by a culture of one-click attention spans and a mass lack of critical thought. But was this any different before the internet?
Probably not. However, what the internet has brought to this lack of critical thinking is clickbait. Articles with provocative headlines are shared with little regard for whether the title bears any relation to the truth, or even sometimes, to the content itself; more often than not, clickbait headlines are worded in such a way that misleads the reader into thinking what the article describes is a lot more shocking than it actually is. But with an online culture that likes and shares before reading and has little regard for source-checking, establishing the facts, or gaining a nuanced understanding of political biases, authenticity has long been thrown out of the window. With 44 per cent of American adults using Facebook as their news source, misinformation has become the mainstream.
Add to the mix the proliferation of post-truth politics. 2016 has seen a rise in politics fuelled by emotion instead of objective fact. Emotion has always been key to populism, but with the Trump campaign this has reached another level. Trump regularly denies saying things that he has been recorded saying. The irony is that a large part of the reason people trust politicians like Trump is that they see them as more ‘authentic’. People have long since lost trust in politicians, so someone who ‘tells it like it is’ – both by voicing unspoken concerns but also by speaking in ordinary language – is considered more real, even if their statements are incongruous and impossible to put into practice. With politics increasingly descending into the realm of the surreal, it is becoming harder and harder to distinguish fact from fiction.
The last three months of the election saw fake viral stories outperforming actual news on Facebook. That fantastic, albeit fictional, quote by Trump in 1998 saying that “If [he] were to run, [he’d} run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country…” was quoted by liberals and conservatives alike for much of the election period. With the flourishing of unreliable, partisan publications from across the political spectrum such as Occupy Democrats and Breitbart, it is easy to get sucked into a vortex of what Stephen Colbert described as ‘truthiness’ – something that sounds true, without being true. This is especially the case because people are inclined to believe what they want to believe, and also what they find easier to understand. The problem with this is that truth is often multilayered: it is rarely found in black and white.
Social media has the potential to showcase a range of voices that would not get a chance in print media. This is important – movements such as the peaceful protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline were neglected for a long time by the mainstream media. It has the potential to be a voice for the disenfranchised. But in an increasingly strange world where post-truth is the becoming the norm, we have a collective responsibility to think critically about what we believe and share.
Image credit: Gage Skidmore