Week in Review

Anna Rawhiti-Connell: Stop giving social media so much credit

Anna Rawhiti-Connell explains why she's not prepared to accept that 'snake oil' social media tactics will somehow manipulate the vast majority of New Zealand voters who already know what they believe in.

Happy new year to users of the Gregorian, Lunar and Julian calendars. To those in the media, apologies for missing the start of your year which, according to the election year calendar you follow, was in September 2019.

Among the many issues pundits have already been discussing in the very long lead-up to election year is the possible influence of social media on democratic process. I am here to make my only prediction for election year: social media will not be anywhere near as influential as coverage will have you believe.

One of the problems we currently have is that social media is largely used by a lot of people to describe nothing at all. ‘Social media’ has become a catch-all amorphous blob; a spectre that looms large over the election, yet discourse about it is frequently boiled down to three things: the use of Facebook ads, its role in spreading fake news, and what people say on Twitter.

My definition of social media as a collection of online networks where human beings with their own minds, values, and beliefs do things for an average of an hour and a bit a day - the importance of which is massively skewed because it’s highly visible - is less popular than the amorphous blob theory.

An estimate of how many New Zealanders who could be reached with Twitter advertising in 2019 puts the user base at just over 500,000 - or 10 percent of the population. Twitter is thick with politicians and journalists and very searchable. As such it’s an easy news source.

This is the first hive of social media activity to be struck off the relevance register. It is in no way representative of the New Zealand population and leads to amplification of noise, rather than signal. Stupid things MPs say on Twitter is not important news and ‘Person changes mind after Twitter argument’ is a headline you’ll only see on The Onion.

Despite there being legitimate cause for concern about how Facebook operates, I am perplexed by our willingness to perpetuate a narrative that positions citizens as subject to nebulous forces when there isn’t a single known methodology for attributing voter behaviour to engagement with political content or ads.

Unfortunately for Facebook, they have a perfect cartoon villain as CEO. It’s really easy to be worried about the influence of Facebook ads when Mark Zuckerberg can’t answer simple questions and the company has a severe deficit of scruples, morality and accountability.

Despite there being legitimate cause for concern about how Facebook operates, I am perplexed by our willingness to perpetuate a narrative that positions citizens as subject to nebulous forces when there isn’t a single known methodology for attributing voter behaviour to engagement with political content or ads.

Almost unquestioned, Topham Guerin, the precocious digital agency founded by two New Zealanders, has been awarded God-like status for their apparent roles in the Conservative Party and Liberal Party victories in the United Kingdom and Australia. Ironically, their ascent to the top of the dark throne has been aided by those most worried about the adoption of their tactics here. It is not uncommon to see truth warriors on the left speak about them online with the fear and conviction of Hogwarts students speaking about Voldemort.

Venerable institutions like The Guardian have breathlessly trumpeted their influence, quoting video views as a logical determinant of popularity and voting behaviour. They’ve retrofitted these vanity metrics into a victory narrative with a straight face and all I’m asking is that we perhaps consider that correlation is not causation.

To date, there just hasn’t been the evidence to support the idea that political activity online is particularly influential in shaping voting decisions. In academic studies done on the impact of social media on the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections in the US, most point to a small effect.

Ohio State University researchers found that despite the prevalence of falsehoods or ‘fake news’ on social media, their influence on peoples’ beliefs is relatively small. Pew Research Center found most Americans don’t change their opinions on political issues based on what they see on social media. Researchers from NYU and Stanford found that undecided voters are far less likely to believe partisan news articles, and only 14 percent of adults listed social media as their most 'important' news source.

We should question coverage that submissively hands the game over to the very platforms we should be empowered to question rather than roll over and accept death by technology.

Digital marketing was meant to make attribution easy. Much faith was placed in power it would give marketers to know how effective their advertising and content was, and to be able to attribute behaviour to that activity. We can measure some things but what we can’t do very well at all is measure how anything on the internet impacts offline behaviour.

Unfortunately, humans are inconvenient and don’t behave in a linear fashion. Humans click on links and comment on things and then they go and floss their teeth or go to work. They pick up the kids, they listen to the radio. A lot of them go about their day without having any awareness of which party has posted what meme. Annoyingly, if you work in consumer marketing, many of them will do things like click on your website, click on an ad you show them based on that earlier site visit and then buy the competitor's product at the mall in three months’ time.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be aware of the new methods politicians will deploy to try to convince us to vote for them.

I’m not saying we won’t witness behaviour online that will be contrary to our own beliefs and values.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t recognise, assess, and critique the revolutionary changes social media has brought forth.

What I am saying is that social media isn’t a magical microcosm that reflects the broader electorate. The woman who constantly comments on stories on Facebook about the Prime Minister using her child for political gain isn’t representative of most National voters. We shouldn’t be creating a self-perpetuating narrative that casts those who vote differently to us as dumb-dumbs who believe everything they read on Facebook.

What I’m saying is we should question coverage that submissively hands the game over to the very platforms we should be empowered to question rather than roll over and accept death by technology.

What I’m saying is that methods used to mobilise voters that have worked in the past will work again, and that video views shouldn’t be held up as some kind of divine predictor of electoral success.

What I am saying is we should ignore stories that boost inconsequential noise over important signal.

I once got a bit pissed with a friend and ended up in an argument about faith in humanity. ‘I LOVE HUMANS’ I yelled. And it’s true. I’m just not willing to give up on people that easily and I am certainly not prepared to accept that unproven snake oil tactics will somehow manipulate the vast majority of New Zealand voters who know what they believe and will vote accordingly.

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