After trawling through hundreds of pages of data disclosed by the world’s largest social media companies this week under an agreement with the European Union to shed more light on disinformation, one figure stood out.
It was 155. That was the number of videos uploaded in Ireland in the first half of this year that were sent for fact-checking by the social media giant TikTok. Of these, 21 were removed due to the check.
The intention is not to single out TikTok, many of the numbers reported by other social media companies on their fact-checking initiatives were similarly underwhelming. But the number stood out for being so small among the other figures in TikTok’s report, which quantified users, clicks, and views by the hundreds of thousands, millions, and sometimes billion.
That lonely number of 155 brought home the vast scale of the unverified information that has become the population’s daily diet through their online channels of choice.
Online content is the mainstream media now, as Fintan O’Toole pointed out in a column earlier this week. Despite the talk of the so-called “msm” as though it were dominant, reading a newspaper these days is a minority pursuit.
The important difference, it should be noted, is that whatever its flaws, information published by old-fashioned media organisations is done under the constraints of media law, an industry code of conduct, editorial practices developed over decades, journalists’ professional training, and an obligation to publicly issue corrections and clarifications when the inevitable human errors are made.
The potential consequences for society of the dominance of unverified information were illustrated by the violent rage towards politicians elected by their fellow citizens that was expressed by demonstrators outside the Dáil last week.
The uniting factor behind the disparate grievances expressed, whether about Covid-19 vaccines, sex education in schools, immigration, transgender rights, or proposed hate-speech laws, is that they are a roll-call of the hottest disinformation issues of the moment.
Divisive topics are algorithmically favoured online because they produce engagement. The cumulative effect can be to produce the sense of crisis that political scientists warn is what tips people towards radicalisation.
The release of the TikTok data this week is the result of efforts at EU level to try to come to grips with this issue.
Google, Meta, Microsoft and TikTok all shared reports on disinformation on their platforms and their efforts to combat it for the first time under a new code of conduct agreed with the European Commission. X, or Twitter, did not do so because it withdrew from the code of conduct under owner Elon Musk.
The code of conduct is voluntary, but incentivised by the EU’s Digital Services Act, a major new regulation of online platforms that recently came into force. It requires platforms with at least 45 million monthly users to have systems in place to control the spread of disinformation, hate speech and illegal content, and forces them to expose their algorithms to external scrutiny.
The rationale is that the functioning of democracy relies on having a set of mutually agreed upon facts, and polarising false information is toxic to this.
The poisoning effect that disinformation has already had in many countries is clear to those who have reported on European politics in recent times.
Ireland’s democracy is a rarity in allowing the public casual and easy access to their elected representatives, who roam constituencies knocking on doors, often handing out their phone numbers — something unheard of among our European neighbours.
Protests like that at Dáil last week could be read as being precisely aimed at ending this norm. There exist political actors who do not want democracy to function and are using disinformation as a tool to damage and destroy it.
Their playbook — already well-rehearsed elsewhere — is to use a sense of division and crisis to take power, then to hamper or quash free criticism, and then prevent the further free choice of the electorate. These people lack elected representation in Ireland, but there is no reason to think we have a special immunity.
TikTok described shutting down a “covert influence operation” network early this year that “targeted Irish audiences” with “divisive content”, and had 94,743 followers.
This is a wake-up call that efforts to foster division are very deliberate.