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UK general election vote

General election apathy and suspicion

Just as the British public thought they had reached peak politics a snap election was called for the 8th June, drawing the United Kingdom into yet further political upheaval.

For only the eighth time in the history of UK politics, the country will be asked to vote long before the parliaments term is up.

Due to the 2011 Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, this required a two-thirds majority vote by MP’s in the House of Commons.

Right in the midst of a tsunami of speculation and open hostility over Brexit, the UK electorate has greeted the news with perhaps justifiable apathy and suspicion.

Over the next few weeks, every UK political party will be holding fraught telephone conference calls desperately trying to combat the political apathy in the country and find a way to engage with their weary constituents.

Creative storytelling

Perhaps the largest obstacle to overcome for both political parties and the electorate is the proliferation of fake news.

Regardless of how the media reports on the phenomenon, fake news in politics is nothing new; selective news, newspapers with political agendas and blatant propaganda masquerading as legitimate news has been ever present throughout the history of democracy.

What has changed however is how we as an electorate receive and interact with news.

Social media sites have created the perfect platform for misinformation to reach millions of people with ease, altering or reinforcing opinions with headlines and reports that in the best cases are facts taken out of context and warped to fit an agenda, at worst completely fabricated stories with absolutely no basis in truth.

As an audience we are also not blameless in this deception.

Those blithely given likes and shares we give to headlines or stories without either verifying the source or veracity of them adds legitimacy to them, a legitimacy that alters and manipulates the algorithms of both Facebook and Google giving them even further visibility, a manipulation that both Facebook and Google have been slow to react against and in many cases seem unable to halt.

Easy money

The challenge that political parties will face in the upcoming months will be how to combat fake news; countless daily telephone conference calls will be scheduled to monitor websites and coordinate responses.

As we’ve seen since the Scottish independence referendum back in 2014 and every major world election since, the problem is getting larger with every election and the reason does not lie in political agendas but purely in financial gain.

The US election saw a virtual tsunami of fake news and voter manipulation, the scale of which seemed only possible by state sponsored intervention with many suggesting heavy involvement by the Russian government.

The reality was not cold war style agents setting out to manipulate the US but university students stumbling across a relatively easy yet highly lucrative opportunity.

In the run up to the US election, over 70% of the most shared fake news stories originating on Facebook came from one small town in Macedonia.

The town of Veles, with a population of only 45,000, was responsible for the launch and successful running of 140 US political websites, with stories outperforming content from traditional outlets such as the New York Times on Facebook by over 500%.

The motivation was simple; the lucrative ad revenue on these websites giving returns of $5,000 per month and in some cases thousands of dollars per day easily met with the right story hitting the right audience.

Since the US election, the students running these sites have moved their attention towards the current French election and reports suggest a huge campaign gearing up to meet the UK general election.

Without a clear strategy from both Google and Facebook it is unclear how or if this problem will ever end.

There is an argument that both Google and Facebook’s slow reaction to the issue is due to the massive conflict of interests inherent in the problem.

Both companies receive huge amounts of income through their advertising platforms; Facebook receives income from site owners promoting their stories and Google from both advertising the stories plus their share of ad revenue from their Adsense platform.

Without public and political pressure it seems unlikely much will change.