The drive for greater connectivity is the defining trait of the early 21st century. The technology of interconnectedness, most visibly seen through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, drives not only how we interact with friends, family and like-minded strangers, but also how we shop, how we work and, increasingly, how we form and express our political opinions.
Social media has the power to do great things in the political arena. A tool of democratisation, it enables us to feel part of a political movement in a way that’s never been more immediate and empowering. When used well, social media helps create groundswells of opinion that can lead to political change.
Contrast Jeremy Corbyn’s populist and optimistic #ForTheMany campaign against Theresa May’s hesitant #StrongAndStable effort and the difference that an effective social media strategy can make becomes clear.
But, as the recent BBC documentary ‘Secrets of Silicon Valley‘ explored, the exponential growth in the use of social media, and the resulting levels of increased connectedness, has created a disruptive influence in politics that we are struggling to understand.
The rise of social media
In 1996, the US passed the Telecommunications Act. A pro-free trade bill, its aim was the opening up of markets to competition in order to rapidly increase public access to telecommunications technology – i.e. the internet.
But within this Act was a clause that, unbeknownst at the time, would have a huge impact on how we use the internet today. Section 230 of the Act states:
‘No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.’
This essentially meant internet platforms would not be legally responsible for the content its users put on their site. Jeremy Malcolm, Analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, explains the big impact of this small clause:
‘[without Section 230] we probably wouldn’t have the same kind of social media companies we have today. They wouldn’t be willing to take on the risk of having so much unfettered discussion. We wouldn’t have the internet we have today.’
Without Section 230 there would be no Twitter, YouTube, Instagram or Facebook. And considering how much time we spend on social media – the average user spends 50 minutes a day on Facebook alone – had that clause not been included then our lives today would look very different.
Our time is money
The considerable amount of time we spend on social media platforms has already alerted advertisers to the benefits of the new information age. Thanks to the online digital footprints we leave – from the bands we like on Facebook to the books we buy on Amazon – advertisers can gather data on our behaviours and from that draw accurate profiles of our personalities. The complex algorithms they employ to do this lets them know a great deal about us, from our religious persuasion and sexual orientation to our political leanings, career interests and even our intelligence.
Using profiling, advertisers can target their messaging accordingly, tailoring it to those they think will appreciate it the most. For businesses, this results in a more precise use of their marketing budgets and a greater return on investment, whilst we as consumers benefit through being made aware of products and services that are more likely to resonate with us and improve how we live our lives.
But these profiling algorithms are extremely powerful tools. Through their use, advertisers can quickly and intimately understand millions of people, and – thanks to the increasingly connected world in which we live – reach them instantly. And that is a potentially troubling eventuality.
As Jamie Bartlett, the BBC presenter of ‘Secrets of Silicon Valley’, put it:
‘Whoever controls that model will have unprecedented possibilities of manipulating what people think, how they behave, what they see.’
And this is an increasingly pertinent point when you realise it’s not just advertisers who are now involved in such profiling, it’s politicians, too.
The triumph of Trump
Whatever your opinion of Donald Trump as American president, it’s hard to argue that he didn’t run anything other than a brilliant social media strategy during his election campaign.
During the presidential race, Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric combined with his relentless exposure of his opponent’s perceived frailties saw him emerge as a social media superstar, attracting four million more Twitter followers than his opposite number Hillary Clinton in the process. Trump’s regular use of Twitter and Facebook kept him fresh and relevant in our digitally defined era, lending him an aura of modernity and approachability that helped further drive his anti-elitist, fresh-start manifesto.
And, just like the advertisers before him, Trump was able to exploit his huge social media following with targeted messaging.
It’s Facebook wot won it
As ‘Secrets of Silicon Valley’ explained, Trump’s election team employed the skills of a London-based company called Cambridge Analytica. They collected data on over 220 million Americans, splitting them into ‘universes’ – groups of people defined by shared, wide-ranging characteristics, such as when they last voted, the car they drive, their favourite websites and their stance on hot topics such as gun ownership and immigration.
Once these ‘universes’ had been identified, Trump’s marketers created adverts tailored specifically to each one. So, for example, working mothers would see Facebook video ads outlining Trump’s tax break proposal for that particular demographic.
And if the tailored data was the ammunition, social media was the weapon that fired it. Instead of relying on more established platforms such as television and print, Trump put social media at the front and centre of his communication strategy, preferring its immediacy, its easy digestibility and its relatively cheap cost. (It’s been estimated that Trump received the equivalent of over $5 billion dollars’ worth in free earned media during his election run.)
Thanks to Cambridge Analytica, Trump’s team were able to speak to millions of social media followers regarding issues they cared strongly about. And thanks to Facebook’s huge user base – one preconditioned to engage and provide feedback – Trump’s campaigners could run up to 50,000 variants of its adverts and work out which worked best in terms of positive feedback (likes) and the amount of donations garnered.
Trump’s digital director, Brad Parscale, claims Facebook was a huge boon to their campaign, providing the majority of the $250 million it hoovered up in online fundraising.
Parscale said: ‘Our biggest incubator that allowed us to generate that money was Facebook… Facebook and Twitter were the reasons we won this thing.’
Trump’s election win proves the efficacy of social media in today’s political arena, and provides a lesson for all aspiring incumbents: that failing to maximise its ability to reach millions of people with tailored messaging is a mistake you can’t afford to make.
But the evolution of Trump from TV celebrity to the world’s most powerful man isn’t social media’s only political claim to fame. The 2016 US election also gave rise to another phenomenon: fake news.
If you didn’t already know (and if not, where have you been!?), fake news is information presented as truth but that has no basis in fact. It is a tool designed to spread misinformation and con its readership into believing falsehoods, usually at the expense of a political rival. And thanks to the hyper-connected world social media has helped create, the threat of such purposely false reportage has never been greater.
Barack Obama, an early adopter of social media in his election-winning campaign of 2008, recently cast doubts on the tech giant he once embraced, saying:
‘There’s so much active misinformation [that’s] packaged very well and looks the same on a Facebook page or when you turn on your television… if everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made then we won’t know what to protect, we won’t know what to fight for.’
It was Facebook’s own study that helped underline the risks of fake news in the current political climate. In 2012 it secretly manipulated the news feeds of nearly 700,000 users by showing them either fewer negative or positive news articles. They found that when positive inputs were reduced people produced fewer positive posts and more negatives ones, and vice versa.
The indication was that emotions expressed on Facebook have the power to influence our own in a similar way, creating a wave that spreads out across the social network. This is called emotional contagion, and it’s what allows fake news, via platforms such as Facebook, to spread so quickly. The formula is as follows:
An emotional message + the connective power of social media = the ability to reach readers with unsubstantiated news with unprecedented speed.
‘Secrets of Silicon Valley’ reminded us of the false story printed by alt-right website Breitbart, in which they claimed a group of Muslims burned down a church in the German city of Dortmund. The story was quickly revealed as being untrue – prompting German politicians and media to warn its public of the rise of fake news – but not before tens of thousands of people had read and shared the story.
The risks of fake news don’t just end with the sharing of false stories; it is also an increasingly convenient option for politicians to take when dealing with criticism. Donald Trump and his aides have accused reporters and established media outlets of being exponents of fake news seemingly in an attempt to avoid answering difficult questions.
What the fake news phenomenon teaches us is that whilst it’s always been important to question our news sources, it’s the ability that social media affords us to share news – to help it spread like a contagion – that marks a sea-change in how we engage with news and interact with the political landscape. Fake news presents us all with the responsibility of questioning and corroborating the information we consume and share so that we don’t become unwitting facilitators of false narratives.
But in the hyper-connected social media world that bombards us with hundreds of news articles every day, telling fake from fact is becoming ever more difficult.
Like all technological revolutions, the dawn of the internet – and of social media in particular – has granted us great freedoms that once would have seemed impossible. These days we think nothing of FaceTiming friends and relatives in different time zones, of sharing photos and articles at the click of a button, of laughing at lolcats again and again. And again.
But it’s on the political landscape that social media is currently at its most disruptive. Twitter and Facebook, in particular, have helped enfranchise millions, affording ordinary people the ability to campaign for, debate and challenge their political establishments on an unprecedented scale.
Whilst for our political leaders, social media’s unparalleled persuasive power – born from sophisticated profiling algorithms, targeted messaging and a global user base – now plays an essential role in winning elections and remaining relevant in the digital age.
Within the liberating ideal of social media – namely, its power to bring together people of all nationalities, creeds and ages – resides not only the possibility of greater political engagement and enlightenment, but also the potential for manipulation and the spreading of false narratives.
And, perhaps, in forcing us to arm ourselves with the knowledge to tell fact from fiction in this fake-news era, social media’s greatest impact will be felt not by our political leaders but by the people who vote them in – you and me.