By Ranjana Das
2018 has seen a legal battle ensue between the parents of a toddler Alfie Evans, who passed away in April 2018, and the Alder Hey hospital. Similar to the Charlie Gard case in 2017, the Evans case led to multiple hearings, all of which concluded in agreement with the hospital, that life support should be terminated. Both the Gard case and the Evans case gathered thousands of followers on social media, calling themselves an ‘army’ in support of the parents.
Last summer, I analysed the rhetorical strategies mobilised by the social media campaign around baby Charlie Gard, to identify seven classical markers of populism which enabled rampant misunderstanding of both law and science to rapidly reject and replace evidence-based debate with heightened, emotive responses. This year too – we have witnessed mass hysteria surrounding baby Alfie Evans, once again, in a furore characterised by foreign interference from right-wing, populist groups, seeking to use religion to reframe and misrepresent a conversation on a child’s rights as being a battle between parents and state bodies. This year too, thousands of voices on the so-called Alfie’s Army have lamented parents being stripped of vague and elusive ‘parental rights’ by so-called socialised healthcare. This year too, expertise and evidence have repeatedly been rejected and replaced by anecdotes, emotive rhetoric, misinformation, trolling, fake news and very clear gaps in critical literacy with all media, including social media.
One key similarity between the Gard and Evans campaigns was the gendered nature of both debates, generating overt misogyny in one (Gard), and the apparent invisibility of gender in the other (Evans). Connie Yates – Charlie’s mother was manufactured as the eternal mother figure, who fitted straight into gendered, societal constructions of women – simultaneously manufacturing Katie Gollop – representing Great Ormond Street Hospital – as a villain, putting her at the receiving end of venomous abuse, repeatedly mobilising her gender each time she was attacked. By contrast – Tom Evans – who performed a similar role to Yates, for his son Alfie, never found himself becoming a mythical hero, and neither his gender, nor the gender of the (male) legal representation for Alder Hey – factored in the social media rhetoric in a remotely comparable way.
Similarities and differences set aside, while the seven key markers of populism I spoke about last year all hold true for the Alfie Evans campaign, I wish to focus in what follows on the ways in which social media has been used for complex ends in this case, in a general context of people finding news and information online.
Liveness, and a ladder of perceived authenticity: The Evans campaign was marked by a steady use of ‘live’ videos. Group members on the ‘army’ page quickly established a ladder of perceived authenticity in responding to these videos, with family-posted live feeds considered most authentic, but nonetheless, always, seeking out ‘the next live feed’ or asking ‘will someone post a live feed please?’. A live feed from the family was always perceived to be most authentic (and hence never critically evaluated), but any live feed – if posted from outside the Alder Hey hospital – was at best ‘newsworthy’ and at least – filling the time for those ‘checking in after the school run to see if any updates’. There has been such a great value ascribed to the ‘liveness’ of the going-live function on Facebook that the content and the authenticity or balance of views in the content of the live feed – seemed to slip further and further away from anyone’s mind. We see here echoes of the familiar soap opera audience, awaiting the narrative to unfold and develop, with a willing suspension of disbelief – the tragedy of it all being that this was far from a soap opera.
Repetition and rapidity kept misinformation spreading with breath-taking velocity in the group particularly if these had to do with sinister conspiracies. People invested time and energy in circulating anecdotes about perceived vaccine injuries, apparent organ-harvesting by hospitals, and the possible introduction of lethal dosages of execution drugs into helpless infants. These claims were copied and pasted multiple times, within seconds of being posted, by a host of other posters, till these became the vast majority of replies on a single thread. There was no easy way to trace a claim back to a source, let alone an evidence-based source, for the moment itself took on an air of urgency – where posters copied and pasted and posted within seconds, and a thread reached tens of thousands of responses in hours.
A general awareness of misinformation interestingly still prevailed, and more so, towards the end of Alfie’s life. There were occasional attempts by many to ‘wait till admin confirm’ or ‘wait till Tom posts’. Towards the very end of Alfie’s life people began reporting seemingly fake accounts, and flagging information which seemed to border on the unrealistic. The day Alfie passed away, a group began broadcasting live on Facebook asking ‘the army’ to reach Alder Hey because apparently Alfie’s body would be taken away to hide evidence of murder. This group reminded me of what Ong and Cabanes have recently termed ‘architects of disinformation’ – those behind fake accounts. Refreshingly, many members of the group stood their ground, and refused to believe this feed. But let’s be wary here, of over-celebrating caution. The refusal to believe this feed of course relied on the general sense of authenticity attached to anything posted by a group admin or Evans family members – which does little to speak to core concerns around the content emerging from the family itself which was the primary resource in positioning key players and processes in this legal battle. This encouraging general awareness of misinformation (reflected also in the recent Flash Eurobarometer survey which revealed 85% respondents perceiving fake news as a problem) therefore was ultimately framed within the problematic ladder of perceived authenticity where the ‘most authentic’ information still, came from ‘admin’ rather than critically evaluated evidence-based sources.
Critical media literacy
My analysis of the Gard case sought to unpack how populism had framed the entire furore, and this applies equally to the Alfie’s Army campaign. However, the latter has reached such proportions of disruption of public order and social life that it has prompted me to consider what we – as societies, communities, institutions and individuals might do – to ensure that public debate and dialogue in a heavily mediated social world does not descend /spiral into what we have seen unfold in the Evans case. The answer is far from simple, and far from a top-down magic bullet.
As a media and communications researcher, to me the entire Alfie Evans episode highlights the need for enabling and fostering right from childhood throughout life – what is commonly called critical media literacy – the ability to critically, analytically, carefully, evaluate and consider a mediated social world and the media through which we access this social world and participate in it. I remain wary, as many do, of positioning critical media literacy as a remedy of sorts – an easy, magic bullet against the kind of misinformation that gripped the Evans campaign. But I do wonder, what if, those part of the Evans campaign had asked –
- Is this view of doctors and the judiciary accurate?
- What ideologies lie behind this highly triggering tabloid headline? What’s the history of this tabloid?
- What is the agenda of a special interest religious group suddenly taking on this case?
- Is the tweet I have retweeted carrying authentic information?
- Who have I chosen to believe, and why?
- What is the website from which I have copied, pasted and highlighted this news report on doctors harvesting infants’ organs? Is this website to be trusted?
- Why do I need a live feed from outside Alder Hey?
- Is everything being said ‘live’ necessarily genuine?
- Is my contribution adding to a balanced debate? Or is it spreading rumours, panic and hate?
Critical media literacy, and indeed, critical digital literacy – for which Gianfranco Polizzi usefully suggests 10 key readings – is far from a panacea as Bulger and Davidson note, and needs work, time, and investment (see Renee Hobbs here for a comparison of digital literacy and media literacy). It is not the responsibility of any individual alone, for it operates at the personal level, the social interaction level and the media systems level, as Erstad and Amdam suggest. But, as Sonia Livingstone notes recently, worryingly, media literacy is often “proposed as the solution to fake news…. But this country hardly teaches or promotes it – we don’t even know where it fits in the curriculum”. Equally worryingly, many might believe that the scale and nature of misinformation in the Evans case was somehow an outcome of social media technologies, when, in reality, the origins of the entire gamut of misinformation circulating within Alfie’s Army was sociologically rooted – with deep-seated origins in problems primarily sociological, rather than, somehow, technological. Here, as I argued last year as well, expertise, truth and evidence succumbed to anecdotes and emotive rhetoric. These post-truth conditions, as the LSE Truth, Trust and Technology Commission seeks to understand, have structural causes and require strategic policy work, to then permeate through our entire curriculum, across subjects.
The recommendations of the European Commission’s High-Level Group of Experts (“the HLEG”) who advised on policy initiatives against fake news and online disinformation is what I will conclude this piece with, for they bear particular relevance to the Alfie Evans campaign. The HLEG advises that initiatives enhance transparency of online news, promote media and information literacy to counter disinformation, develop tools for empowering users and journalists to tackle disinformation, safeguard the diversity and sustainability of the news media ecosystem and promote continued research. Equally valuable are Bulger and Davison’s recommendations – which warns against treating media literacy as a cure-all, and carefully asks for a consolidation of stakeholders and a national media literacy evidence base.
While these seem broad and far-reaching, as policy recommendations at this level must be, unless this work begins, across institutions, our curricula will remain devoid of these critical skills and we shall continue to respond to the social world through lenses of panic, fear and a distrust and dismissal of evidence and expertise.
Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.