Chris Marshall: Beware believable lies on social media

There's a picture going around of a ruddy-cheeked Tory sleeping off his lunch during a debate in the House of Commons.

Listening, not sleeping: this image shows partially deaf Tory MP Alec Shelbrooke listening to speakers in the Commons' benches, another image with his eyes apparently closed was used to wrongly suggest he was sleeping

For those with a particular world view it’s a near-perfect image, capturing a member of an entitled and uninterested political class doing exactly what you’d expect of him.

It’s an image which almost demands to be accompanied by a pithy caption and shared online. And that’s exactly what’s happened. Since the picture of Alec Shelbrooke, Conservative MP for Elmet and Rothwell, was taken in September 2015, it has been shared thousands of times on Facebook and Twitter.

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A recent Facebook post is accompanied by the comment: “Sleeping off my subsidised 3 course meal. Will vote later with the rest of the leeches to condemn the schoolkids to the soupkitchens.”

The only problem is that Mr Shelbrooke isn’t actually asleep – quite the opposite, in fact.

The partially deaf politician was photographed straining to hear a colleague’s words coming from one of the speakers discreetly mounted in the Commons’ famous green leather benches.

Another picture taken around the same time shows Mr Shelbrooke in more or less the same position – leaning back with his ear next to the speaker – but this time his eyes are open.

It almost doesn’t matter what the reality is, though.

In this post-truth era of “alternative facts”, the image’s message is one which can be bent to fit a particular agenda.

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Despite those pointing out at the time that the picture was not what it seemed, it continues to be misrepresented more than two years later.

No newspaper would have published this image with a similar caption without at least checking the basic facts first.

But in an age where social media has supplanted the “MSM” (mainstream media) in many people’s minds, anything goes.

It’s a state of affairs that those who care about our democracy and the forces which seek to subvert it should be very concerned about.

But despite the huge and unfettered expansion of social media companies, particularly Facebook, over the past few years, it is a phenomenon which has gone largely unnoticed by the population at large.

There are some indications, however, that things are finally beginning to change.

Last month, The Observer and the New York Times published allegations about Cambridge Analytica, a British firm which is accused of harvesting nearly 90 million Facebook profiles to help Donald Trump win the 2016 US election.

According to reports, the social media giant knew about the data breach in 2015 and did very little about it.

The controversy led to some temporary turbulence for Facebook as many rushed to delete their accounts.

But the damage to us all has already been done.

It has been insidious, destroying independent thinking and allowing contrarians to be shouted down by the mob.

It has allowed the censorious to shame companies who advertise in newspapers read by millions.

And it has enabled thousands to share misleading messages and images based on nothing more than prejudice and viciousness.

It remains to be seen whether the backlash against Facebook will be short-lived or something more permanent.

Sadly, the impact of social media on our political discourse may be irreparable.