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Did social media drive the US presidential election 2016?

Technology is disrupting the way we consume news. Still, like all disruptions, that does provide an opportunity for anyone who can find the truth that’s out there, and then make sure it reaches as many people as it should

columns Updated: Nov 14, 2016 01:39 IST
US Elections,Social Media,Donald Trump
A crowd marches from Union Square to Trump Tower in protest of new Republican president-elect Donald Trump on November 12 in New York.(AFP Photo)

The Rs 2,000 currency is designed keeping in mind to eradicate the black money issues using state-of-the-art indigenous nano technology, every Rs 2,000 currency note is embedded with a NGC (Nano GPS Chip)

How the embeded NGC Technology Works?

The unique feature of the NGC is it doesn’t need any power source. It only acts as a signal reflector. When a Satellite sends a signal requesting location the NGC reflects back the signal from the location, giving precise location coordinates, and the serial number of the currency back to the satellite, this way every NGC embedded currency can be easily tracked & located even if it is kept 120 meters below ground level. The NGC cant be tampered with or removed without damaging the currency note

How will this help eradicate black money menace?

Since every NGC embeded currency can be tracked. The satellite can identify the exact amount of money stored at a certain location. If a relatively high concentration of currency is found a certain location for a longer period of time at suspicious locations other than banks & other financial institutions. The information will be passed on to the Income Tax Department for further investigation

Just a beginning of the end of black money in India.

Read: Narendra Modi embraces cashless economy, maybe a bit too fast

That was the message that did the rounds on WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) last week and many people believed it. I’ve often found grammar and spelling to be a good bxxxxxxt indicator, just as I’ve sometimes discovered implausible hoaxes packaged in grammatically correct writing, so I do not blame people for believing the message. Some in the Mint newsroom did too, but then did what all journalists should be trained to do – doubt; and ask questions. Many did not, which explains why some websites, newspapers and TV channels did stories based on what was essentially a WhatsApp message of unknown provenance.

That was on Monday and Tuesday.

On Wednesday (in India), the day the US election results were expected, The New York Times carried a slick real-time forecasting graphic titled Live Presidential Forecast that started off the day by giving Hillary Clinton a 80% chance of winning. Indeed, her chances peaked at around 85%. By noon (India time), the two lines, for the two candidates, had intersected and then diverged in opposite directions. The new graphic gave Donald Trump a 95% chance of winning.

Read: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg says fake news didn’t drive US election

Everyone got it wrong, even the experts. Nate Silver’s well regarded started off by giving Clinton an over 70% chance of winning. By around noon (India time) it was giving Trump 80%. When forecasts swing as wildly as they did that day it can mean only one thing: the original forecast was horribly off the mark. And maybe (just maybe) no one questioned them because they fit the prevailing popular narrative.

On Thursday (in San Francisco), Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg described theories attributing Trump’s victory, at least in part, to fake stories on Facebook that praised him and dissed his rival as a “pretty crazy idea.” “There is a profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason someone could have voted the way they did is because they saw fake news,” The Guardian reported him as saying. Zuckerberg added that anyone who subscribed to the theory had “failed to internalize” the underlying message of the election results.

Read: Big Data and the US election

While on messages, I see four relevant to the media and anyone who consumes media in these anecdotes: One, it is possible for a media outlet to be wrong, very wrong, irrespective of whether it is a large newspaper or a niche (well, relatively niche) blog run by an expert; two, social media is increasingly becoming about news; three, there is a lot of fake news out there and it is very easy to spread such fake news; and four, fake news could change outcomes (although I doubt it really did in a US election where everyone but Donald Trump, it turned out, was completely out of touch with the real America).

I do not know the reach of social media in India when it comes to news. In the US, according to a May report by the Pew Research Center, 62% of people over the age of 18 get news from social media, with 18% getting this often. And Facebook, which is now probably the most powerful media company in the world (even if it sometimes behaves as if it is in denial of this), is ahead of every other social media company. According to the Pew report, 67% of US adults used it every day and 44% got news on it.

The problem with news on social media and from Internet searches is that (apart from running the risk of being taken in by fake news) users usually end up seeing news that’s customised for them and which reinforces their existing outlook. Eli Pariser, the founder of Upworthy, called this the “filter bubble” in his book of the same name.

Read: Donald Trump pledges to be President for all Americans

“… he was talking about how the personalised web – and in particular Google’s personalised search function, which means that no two people’s Google searches are the same – means that we are less likely to be exposed to information that challenges us or broadens our worldview, and less likely to encounter facts that disprove false information that others have shared,” Katharine Viner wrote of Pariser in The Guardian in July in a piece titled How Technology Disrupted The Truth.

Still, like all disruptions, that does provide an opportunity for anyone who can find the truth that’s out there, and then make sure it reaches as many people as it should.

R Sukumar is managing editor, Mint.

Views expressed are personal

First Published: Nov 13, 2016 20:13 IST