From Facebook to ‘fakebook’ – who controls the information on social media?

By Xin Yuan Wang, on 24 November 2016

A young Chinese factory worker reading on his smartphone

A young Chinese factory worker reading on his smartphone.

Mark Zuckerberg finally said that Facebook plans to have a more effective control of misinformation, which is a sharp reversal in tone from the comment he made immediately after the US election that the “the idea that fake news on Facebook…influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea.” The fake news that circulated widely on Facebook is believed to have influenced the US election. It is reported that some fake news was created by teenagers in Macedonia who cashed in by catering fake news to demand, and many more were posted by ‘alt-right’ people who cooked up stories on platforms such as 8chan, 4chan, and social media.

The story of how fake news circulated on Facebook reminds me of what I have witnessed about the information consumption on social media among Chinese factory workers during my 15 months of field work in a small factory town in southeast China. Certainly, in many ways the two cases are incomparable, whereas the pattern of information dissemination seems to bear certain similarities.

For Chinese factory workers whose average education level is below middle school (most of them dropped out of school before the age of 17), social media has become the most important, if not the only, information resource. Therefore, social media actually plays an extremely important role in those less-educated people’s communication and (informal) education. What are the consequences of people being dependent on social media as their major information resource? Well, first of all, there will be a higher chance that the information people get will become unbalanced. For people who simultaneously consume news from other traditional media with ‘gatekeepers’, such as TV, newspapers, and magazines, social media is only one of the tools to get news.  Therefore, even if there are fake news stories on social media, the reliability of that news will be constantly tested in a more rounded information environment and any possible hazard of fake news will be diluted in a more balanced ‘informational ecology’ – just like natural purification. However, if social media has become the only or the major information resource, the risk of fake news can be amplified. Generally speaking, the higher education people receive, the lower the chance that social media will become their only or major information resource.

To add another layer to the problem. Unlike traditional media where information is distributed in a relatively neutral way, information on social media is not only filtered by customised algorithms based on users’ personal information, but is also filtered by people’s personal social network online – that is to say, each social media contact is a potential news agent who feeds you news on a daily basis. To give an example, as written in the book Social Media in Industrial China based on my research, a comparison of the shared postings on 145 social media profiles of factory workers and 55 profiles of middle-class Chinese in Shanghai shows that there is almost no information flow between two different social groups. Over a period of four months only one out of 6,000 articles (0.03 per cent) was found to have been shared in both groups, though 5.1 per cent of articles were shared within the factory workers group and 1.6 per cent within the Shanghai group. In the case of factory workers, the possibility of the same information being shared within the social group with similar social-economic status is 170 times higher than the possibility of it being shared across groups with different socio-economic statuses.

Also, the amount of fake news I encountered on factory workers’ social media profiles was much more than that on the  profiles of middle-class Chinese. Most of the fake news were sensational and dramatic stories about conspiracy, romance, or crime. Even though a few factory workers commented that they could imagine that there were certain ‘untruth’ elements in those news items, most people who shared the news believed the news was based on true stories and those who were not 100% sure certainly enjoyed the reading – as a kind of entertainment. “I would say there must be some truth in it (fake news) otherwise there won’t be so many people sharing it, right? Well, at least I feel for the story, that matters,” a 25-year-old male factory worker told me.

So while there is now the debate about how a social media company can take responsibility to control fake news on social media, for all intents and purposes one also has to acknowledge that in many cases, the most powerful information control comes from people’s sociality – on social media there is a certain truism: ‘who you know may decide what you know’. Among like-minded friends, on social media one receives news that is in most cases only confirming the beliefs shared by the social group one belongs to.

The ideal of education and social networking sites

By Razvan Nicolescu, on 26 February 2014

Schoolroom - Photo by Gerry Balding (Creative Commons)

Schoolroom – Photo by Gerry Balding (Creative Commons)

I have spend quite a while now looking at the impact of social media on the education system in the Italian fieldsite. This blog post will present a few ideas related to the place of education in the local society and some implications for social media.

People in this area conceive education as being the duty of two major institutions: the family and the public education system. While the family is responsible with the moral aspects of education, the different public education services seem to have more functional roles for the individual and the family. Maybe the most important role is considered to be the capacity of public education system to help people attain the desired jobs and social positions.

In a report on education I wrote for the GSMIS I discussed how this works differently at three levels: at the first level we have the hard nucleus of family, represented in many ways through the distinct couple mother-children. At this level, I suggested that public education could be seen as a commodity even if for different reasons that could range from the need to reify the mother-children unity and assure particular relationships within household for more traditional families to a necessary milestone on the road to acquiring a certain sense of self-autonomy in the more progressist families.

At another level, we have the local community where public education is to a great extent still a matter of family in which the role of the teacher or master is usually considered either in terms of the existing social relations within the community or in relation to a bigger ideal of the family. The third level is represented by the region and the state. It is at this level where people could start to say that things are not really working or the forces that play at this level are so powerful and remote so that you have no means to really change or move something.

Social networking sites have an interesting role here as they seem to articulate a sort of vehicle for people to relate to the bigger social issues. Most people use this mostly to make fun of a status-quo that nobody seems to be able to change. Social activists and people involved in politics could use the power of memes and other content on social media to try to send their messages to the higher level of the state in different ways that could be violent in many ways: from the daily accusations of corruption, derision of the public education system, to the realpolitik practised by some important politicians in close relation to social media. Many supporters of such kind of social media violence claim that the only way to change the systems or ‘mentalities’ is to react in a way that could not be ignored by authorities and should determine some reaction.

I will not detail these issues here, I will just mention a few thoughts on social media use among adult people with high education. One of the main things these people are most interested in on social media is to relate to their ex-colleagues or friends from University. This is true especially as most of the people who followed University studies in North Italy remained to live there at least a few years after finishing their studies and before returning to their hometown. The time spent away from home could typically be anywhere between 6 and 10 years, when they tried mainly to find a workplace or to start a family. The main reason for which the majority of 30-40 years old returned to their hometown is related to the fact that they found at least one of these two ideals difficult – either to attain at all or to preserve.

At the same time, recent data from the Italian Ministry of Public Education show that Italians under 35 years of age are by far the least able to find a job. Therefore, it seems that these people returned home just a few years before having a greater chance to find work. As most of these people lack economic resources within the family, their chances of obtaining a job in their hometown is even lower than in the bigger cities from where they returned. At the same time, most of them are not and do not want to take part in the local network of exchanging favours. As a consequence, a sociologist works as a part-time waiter, an engineer seasonally performs as a singer, and many others just do not look for a job anymore. In this context, for them social media responds primarily to their need to relate to the values they share with their ex-colleagues and friends from elsewhere rather than to the local community.

This is similar to Danny’s suggestion that for adult people the use of social networking sites seems to be related to a certain nostalgia and memorization. In this case, nostalgia is related to the ideal of Italian society rather than that of the local society, to its delights and difficulties, and the personal attempts to overcome these.

To conclude, if education acts in different ways at these levels it seems that individuals find themselves in less difficult situations when they do not cut the links between the levels. If high education could be in contradiction with many of the implications of family and local education, social networking sites allow highly educated adults to live locally and relate to distant values. The local tradition of learning a practical skill through apprenticeship has been really challenged by the insistence of the numerous Italian governments and European Union that state education system should respond to the request of labour market. In this context, social networking sites tend to work not upward towards the job market and the political economy but towards the individual need to live locally, which includes relating to ideals that are often in contrast local ones.