Monday, August 31, 2015

Don’t overestimate the trolls

Facebook is undoubtedly a revolutionary innovation that allows millions of people to do things they could have only dreamt of before. Like sharing funny cat videos, passive-aggressive insulting of anyone or anything that annoys them, and of course spying on their exes to see if they're getting fat. I've noticed, though, there are plenty of people who misuse Facebook by doing meaningless things. Like political party supporters who attempt to influence public opinion.

The 2015 election campaign will surely be remembered as the first one where events in cyberspace have dominated popular political coverage and conversation.
Forget posters and banners and loudspeakers. Politics today is all about cleverly written memes, humorously edited YouTube videos and, if you're Jack Warner, articles from the satirical news site The Onion. Enthusiastic party supporters as well as politicians now measure support for a particular point of view in “likes” and “shares”. The old traditional media — press, radio and television — in a desperate attempt to remind us that they can still be cool, have gone along with the whole thing and now cover reactions on Facebook to news stories as legitimate news stories in themselves.

There are two main reasons politicians and their party faithful should be cautious about assuming that they can use social media to either win votes or shape public opinion.
Firstly, there is little evidence to suggest Facebook or other social media sites can help a party win an election. In one experiment conducted in the US in 2010, on the day of the congressional elections, researchers set out to see how many people they could influence via Facebook to go out and vote. Setting up special Facebook voting messages and using control groups, they determined they were able to influence “60,000 more votes nationwide and were indirectly responsible for 280,000 that were spurred by friends of friends” — what they called the “‘social contagion' effect”.

Given that 90 million people voted in those elections, this does not look like an impressive level of influence, at least not to determine the outcome of an election. Though I suppose if you're like the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ), having the ability to get more than two people to vote for you might be a huge deal.
Of course a lack of evidence has never deterred politicians and their supporters from doing anything.

The second reason they should be cautious about overestimating the ability of social media has to do with the very nature of the Internet itself.
To borrow a line from former prime minister Basdeo Panday, the Internet has a morality of its own. Sites like Facebook are essentially giant echo chambers, governed by algorithms designed to give you back exactly what you put in. Facebook's hyper connectivity appeals to most of us precisely because it helps us connect only with those who already share our worldview.

Facebook allows us to live in our own digital gated community where we can surround ourselves with ideologically similar neighbours, never having to worry about them blaring loud ideas we don't like at all hours of the day. If an outsider idea does wander into these ideological ghettos, they are treated the same way we treat Jehovah's Witnesses ringing our bell on a Sunday morning: by either pretending we're not home, or telling them we worship Satan, just to see how they react.

Perhaps the biggest lesson we can learn about politics and the Internet is from former opera child star turned watered down pop singer, Charlotte Church. After the recent election in Britain where the Labour Party suffered a humiliating defeat after they were widely expected to win, Church took to her blog to outline where she thought Labour supporters went wrong. “It wasn't at all what was expected, especially considering the political conversation that we'd seen on social media for the past six months…There can only be one conclusion: we've been preaching to the converted,” she wrote.
Whichever party wins our own general election this year, I suspect many poor souls on Facebook will be shocked into the realisation that they were doing the same.

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