2016 was an eventful year in politics, though not entirely positive. Yet amidst the chaos and divisiveness of many events last year, we should remember that the politicians are not entirely to blame; we must take some responsibility too.
The Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year 2016 was “post-truth.” This is no surprise in a year where we were shook by fake news. However behind fake news in the end are businesses with a profit motive. These websites generate ad-revenue by receiving clicks, and their goal is just that: to get you to click. To do this, fake news websites pander to our emotions and our irrational tendencies. People are more drawn towards news articles that trigger strong emotions such as anger and it is this fake news sites target. It is no surprise that some of the most widespread fake news stories include Obama banning the Pledge of Allegiance in schools and Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump. These headlines trigger an immediate emotional response resulting in these articles being shared and read.
When six in 10 links shared on social media have actually never been clicked, it is no surprise that fake news stories blow up. We have every right to lambast fake news sites for profiting off lies, but in the end they merely take advantage of our lack of fact-checking, over eagerness to share articles and apparent gullibility. We should not ignore our role here; post-truth politics cannot occur without propagation of fake news and misinformation from everyday citizens, yet we have still found a way to distance ourselves from this issue. Unfortunately this same principle has driven politics in 2016.
Unfortunately, politics in 2016 did not reach its lowest point with fake news. It has been a bad year for democracy with the election of Donald Trump in November and the referendum over the British exit from the EU in June. The favourability of either result is debateable, but these events were certainly highly divisive and bitter. However it was supporters and critics from every side that drove this division. Racism and bigoted rhetoric were perpetuated by many, yet there was also a prevalent demonisation by many of supporters of Donald Trump and Brexit. Extremist ideas will undoubtedly fester if Donald Trump supporters are instantly labelled as a “basket of deplorables”. Violence against Donald Trump supporters and the characterisation of anyone who supports Donald Trump as ignorant or racist only ensures those who support Donald Trump could not be swayed via reasonable debate and not only therefore fail to prevent Donald Trump’s election, but sour politics further.
The same story was seen with Brexit. Both the xenophobia that fuelled aspects of the Brexit campaign and the demonisation of those who supported Brexit soured the political landscape. It was not Farage who violently protested; Donald Trump himself did not carry out all the violent incidents at his events nor did Hillary Clinton carry out the endless mocking of Donald Trump supporters. It was us as the public. We are quick to blame the establishment and quick to blame politicians for divisive campaigns, but politics does not function without our participation and it was our participation that created such division.
There are of course things fundamentally wrong with referendums and the nature of an election, but in the end it is us as people who choose whom to vote for. For only 21 per cent of people to trust politicians yet be outraged at the failed promise of £350 million to the NHS is contradictory, especially amongst the widespread opposition to this figure. When it was claimed every household would lose £4300 as a result of Brexit, evidence the figure was misleading was seemingly ignored by those who continued to believe politicians they supposedly trust so little. The lesson here is that people are prone to confirmation bias (favouring information that confirms existing beliefs) and display in-group favouritism (favouring one’s group) which explains the tribalism found in referendums. 21 per cent of us may trust politicians, but we will be far more likely to believe them if they say something we would like to be true and are far more likely to reject evidence given by the opposing campaign. In the end, we create the very division and misinformation we dislike.
The sad truth is so much of what we hate in politics happens because we let it happen. In 2016 the election of the stern Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and the rejection of the peace deal with FARC in Colombia shocked us yet we seem to forget that people in their millions themselves turned up and made these happen. It appears highly contradictory to say politicians both pander to our votes yet ignore issues we care about, but in many cases the lack of action comes from us. We may care about tax evasion for example, but public response to the hugely scandalous leak of the Panama Papers has died out already. However after the MP expenses’ scandal, the national furore it resulted in a number of MPs resigning, as late as Maria Miller in 2014. Real tangible change erupted as a result of true uproar.
As we therefore enter 2017, we must remember that as easy as it is to distance ourselves from politics, everyone is always a part of the political process. Our responses to an event shift the government response and in the end it is us who choose how we vote. 2016 was marred by division and misinformation but it was action by everyday people who propagated this. It is easy to blame the establishment, but the truth is citizens are always driving politics. Every vote, referendum and campaign is made up by members of the public and popular opinion itself has immense power. By being less divisive, more critical and more thoughtful, politics would improve. The sooner we take a measure of responsibility and act to change this, the better off we will all be.