A (social) science experiment
Im not a fan of that bankrupt real estate promoter, game show host, serial liar, and useful idiot to the Russians who is President of the United States. But his shambolic presidency does serve an important purpose. It reminds us of the significance of the rule of law, the dangers of demagoguery, the perils of populism, the importance of journalism, the need for lawyers and the hazards of Twitter. Naturally, I have written about Trump in BarTalk, Canadian Lawyer and even the Globe and Mail over the past few years. My views are well known and well published.
Some months ago, I stumbled upon an amusing app called “Trump Tweet Generator.” The app allowed me to generate a mock tweet from Donald J. Trump with his photograph in the corner, the number of likes and shares, and reference to the twitter handle @realDonaldTrump, which of course wasn’t real at all and wasn’t linked to Twitter. It was really a meme generator with a twist. I could say whatever I wanted in 240 characters and it looked like it was a tweet from Trump.
My tweet said, “Loser TONY WILSON is an OVERRATED WRITER and part of the FAKE NEWS along with the failing New York Times and treasonous Washington Post.” But rather than posting it with the link to the “Trump Tweet Generator” (which would have given the gag away), I deleted the link and watched what unfolded, which became an interesting social science experiment in the age of Facebook, Twitter and fake news.
My friends who saw the post and commented were impressed that I had been publicly trashed by Trump, and I didn’t correct them. I recall saying: “I guess he didn’t like something I wrote,” which would have been true if he’d ever read anything I had written. In any event, I was congratulated by virtually everyone who commented, and became a minor celebrity for about 12 hours.
When I came home for dinner the day my mock Trump tweet went live, my two adult children knew it was all a sham. “Nice try,” said my son. My daughter at least checked Twitter to see if Trump’s tweet about me might have been real. She said over dinner “Fake news Dad... I checked Twitter.”
So what did I learn from this social science experiment? Well, first off, maybe millennials like my two adult children, are more astute than we boomers give them credit for. Maybe they know that anything posted to Facebook (particularly by their boomer parents) is either humblebragging, a sales pitch, or fake news. Maybe millennials are like citizens of the old Soviet Union, who knew that everything in Pravda was a lie because it was in Pravda.
Secondly, despite the fact that everyone in my friend group is astute, intelligent and successful, most are boomers. The remote possibility of something being true (my Trump tweet), made it probably true. Wilson writes for the Globe, Canadian Lawyer and BarTalk. He has written about Trump. Trump must have read something Wilson wrote and lashed out at him. Seems plausible. Could be true. Must be true. Well done Tony!
With apologies to friends who believed the tweet was real, the big lesson here is this: the possibility that something might be true because it’s on social media doesn’t make it true.
Perhaps this explains how the lunatic fringe (including Fox news) has hijacked the American political system with manufactured untruths that are targeted to a particular audience, and that this “fake news” is taken as gospel by those who don’t challenge the source of the story, because it matches their own belief systems.
The closest thing we have to institutionalized fake news in Canada are sites like BC Proud, Alberta Proud, Ontario Proud, Old Stock Canadian and other sites which all too often inflame debate with misrepresented facts and half-truths (including those about the justice system) to stir up their base of rabid Trudeau-haters. When I see their posts, I often see references to “Turdeau” and “Libtard” by their followers; I have to wonder if those who provide comments to these posts are really Russian trolls throwing metaphorical grenades into what should be rational and thoughtful dialogue.
I have since deleted my Trump tweet from Facebook and all the congratulatory comments from my friends, who became part of this social science experiment. I would only hope that the moral of this story is to question everything you read on social media – even from me.
Tony Wilson, QC is a franchise lawyer at Boughton in Vancouver and a Bencher of the Law Society. The views expressed herein are strictly those of Tony and do not reflect the opinions of the Law Society, CBABC, or their respective members.