#Auspol Twitter got all excited yesterday. A user who claims to be a journalist tweeted that an “L/NP party member” had said there would be a partyroom meeting on Monday and that “reports are Peter Dutton’s staff are working numbers to take the leadership”.

The fact that this was blatantly, verifiably false — apart from anything else, parliament doesn’t sit for another month (as Phil Coorey pointed out) — didn’t stop Twitter users from going berserk. The hashtag #libspill began trending. People demanded street marches to protest against a Dutton Prime Ministership. Others urged Newspoll respondents to give Turnbull a vote of confidence to head off a challenge. Youth news site Pedestrian then ran a piece on the speculation, because “as we all know with these sorts of things, the presence of smoke tends to indicate an imminent fire.” BuzzFeed’s Josh Taylor belted them for it, without luck. After all, the press gallery hadn’t told the truth about Barnaby Joyce, so it must be hiding the truth about an imminent Dutton takeover.

OK, so some people on social media are idiots. That’s hardly news. Why get all Chris Mitchell about it?

Because this was actual, demonstrable fake news, and it spread in exactly the way that lunatic stories about Hillary Clinton running a pedophile ring or the Pope endorsing Donald Trump spread — because people on social media wanted it to be true and were too lazy to, didn’t want to, or lacked the ability to, apply some basic scepticism.

Auspol Twitter users are always ready to attack the press gallery for its political coverage. A lot of that criticism is justified. But much of the time the criticism is because journalists have reported things that don’t fit people’s preferred narrative. Say something that fits people’s political worldview, and it’s all retweets, likes and “nailed it!”. Say something that doesn’t fit what people want, and they’re suddenly radical sceptics, refusing to accept any evidence you offer and parsing every syllable to detect your raging bias. The press gallery, people complain, is a herd of sheep mindlessly going in the same direction. Even if it wasn’t manifestly untrue, yesterday’s silliness illustrates that the herd mentality is as much ingrained in social media users as in any journalist.

This is significant because social media, and especially Facebook, has lately become the target of long-overdue scrutiny about how it facilitates fake news and allows the monetisation and exploitation of users’ private information. The two are not separate issues, but different aspects of the same issue.

The original “fake news” was literal faked news, outlandish invented stories — think Onion stories that weren’t funny — put on Facebook and designed to get people clicking so that websites could suck in ad revenues from the clicks. That political fake news, and pro-Trump political fake news especially, happened to get more clicks, and accorded with the agenda of the Putin regime and far-right groups in the US, was subordinate to the more basic principle of turning clicks into money. And that principle is based on being able to target advertising at an individual level, courtesy of the way companies can track your movement around the internet and profile you. It’s not just Google and Facebook that track and profile you — although they have a much richer personal information resource to use — it’s the vast number of companies trying to offer advertisers as granular a profile of you as possible.

Neither of these would be as much of a problem if people guarded their personal information better, and if they exercised some basic scepticism in their social media use. And no, that’s not victim-blaming. It doesn’t get Facebook or Google off the hook for constantly trying to exploit us. But we’re not passive victims of tech billionaires. We’re capable of protecting ourselves better. And if you want something to be true, that’s all the more reason to be sceptical of it. But we’re not. Wanting to believe something is true is apparently too hard for people to overcome on social media.

This is why I’m done with Twitter. I’ll continue to use it to support greyhound adoption and spruik my articles. I might even drop the occasional narky comment. But it’s such a vast pool of stupidity and gullibility that interacting with it, or prolonged exposure to it, is toxic. Life is too short.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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