Conspiracy theorists warn of deception and schemes against the American people perpetrated by “the one percent,” the political establishment, or insidious radicals buried in the “Deep State.” As you scroll down your Twitter feed, you encounter armies of users who seem to only tweet the most recent favorite hashtag of the so-called “Alt-Right.” Such hyperbolic claims, unverified by institutions and establishment media outlets, spread like viruses across the Internet. Hiding behind the screen, they attempt to use vitriol as a shallow substitute for real, respectful discussion.
Social media use has undoubtedly become a daily occurrence in the lives of millions in the past decade. Facebook alone had over 1.86 billion monthly users as of the end of 2016. However, with the oncoming second round of the French presidential election, it is clear social media, just as it has in our recent election, will play an inordinate role in the result.
The candidates are more or less analogous to the personalities we were exposed to through last year’s election cycle. Emmanuel Macron, an independent centrist and former banker, is rallying a broken political establishment. Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Front, is running a populist-nationalist campaign railing against Muslim immigration and the political establishment.
Already, we can see the distortions social media has created in the French political sphere. Russian state-owned media groups, such as RT and Sputnik, have already given inordinate attention and resources to covering and issuing propaganda for Le Pen’s campaign. Le Pen herself is also the heir to her father’s outright denial of the Holocaust, arguing that Vichy France played no role in the mass murder of millions of Jews, a more subtle, yet no less vicious attack on what is a consensus amongst Holocaust scholars.
The issues at stake in the French election are in many ways the same as those that will face our own country in the coming years. If we cannot trust institutions that are essential to our day-to-day lives, our society will continue to fray in the face of increased divisiveness and an end to the notion of a universally shared truth. More so than anything, social media has acted to corrode institutions and the very notion of credibility. As patently “fake news” is weaponized and travels quickly through the Internet, users come to doubt the legitimacy of their government and the groups that play such a critical role in safeguarding the very fiber of our world. The increasing division between, as The Wall Street Journal deems it, “red feed” and “blue feed,” exacerbates ideological division and strengthens the worst partisan instincts within us. Even the mere fact that we’re more likely to message over text than speak one-on-one deprives us of a shared human interaction.
The existence of such “fake news” is doubtlessly an insult to journalism, but also acts as a challenge to our principles. Unlike the generation before us, which was privileged to have a common basis of truth rooted in the nightly news and more face-to-face interaction, it is our generation that will have to re-establish shared ground and work to promote the truth, wherever it leads us. These are basic principles of journalism that this newspaper tries to embody just as much as these are goals for each of us to aspire to in our daily lives.