Politics & Government

Do social media divide us, hide us from each other? Are you particularly aware of what content is personalised for you, what it is you’re not seeing?

This is the second post in a series that will uncover great writing by faculty and students at the Oxford Internet Institute, things you should probably know, and things that deserve to be brought out for another viewing. This week: Fake News and Filter Bubbles! Fake news, post-truth, “alternative facts”, filter bubbles—this is the news and media environment we apparently now inhabit, and that has formed the fabric and backdrop of Brexit (“£350 million a week”) and Trump (“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period”). Do social media divide us, hide us from each other? Are you particularly aware of what content is personalised for you, what it is you’re not seeing? How much can we do with machine-automated or crowd-sourced verification of facts? And are things really any worse now than when Bacon complained in 1620 about the false notions that “are now in possession of the human understanding, and have taken deep root therein”? 1. Bernie Hogan: How Facebook divides us [Times Literary Supplement] 27 October 2016 | 1000 words | 5 minutes “Filter bubbles can create an increasingly fractured population, such as the one developing in America. For the many people shocked by the result of the British EU referendum, we can also partially blame filter bubbles: Facebook literally filters our friends’ views that are least palatable to us, yielding a doctored account of their personalities.” Bernie Hogan says it’s time Facebook considered ways to use the information it has about us to bring us together across political, ideological and cultural lines, rather than hide us from each other or push us into polarised and hostile camps. He says it’s not only possible for Facebook to help mitigate the issues of filter bubbles and context collapse; it’s imperative, and it’s surprisingly simple. 2. Luciano Floridi: Fake news and a 400-year-old problem: we need to resolve the ‘post-truth’ crisis [the Guardian] 29 November 2016 | 1000…

Here are five pieces that consider the interaction of social media and democracy—the problems, but also potential ways forward.

Image from Gage Skidmore via Flickr Creative Commons

This is the first post in a series that will uncover great writing by faculty and students at the Oxford Internet Institute, things you should probably know, and things that deserve to be brought out for another viewing. This week: The US Election. This was probably the nastiest Presidential election in recent memory: awash with Twitter bots and scandal, polarisation and filter bubbles, accusations of interference by Russia and the Director of the FBI, and another shock result. We have written about electoral prediction elsewhere: instead, here are five pieces that consider the interaction of social media and democracy—the problems, but also potential ways forward. 1. James Williams: The Clickbait Candidate 10 October 2016 | 2700 words | 13 minutes “Trump is very straightforwardly an embodiment of the dynamics of clickbait: he is the logical product (though not endpoint) in the political domain of a media environment designed to invite, and indeed incentivise, relentless competition for our attention […] Like clickbait or outrage cascades, Donald Trump is merely the sort of informational packet our media environment is designed to select for.” James Williams says that now is probably the time to have that societal conversation about the design ethics of the attention economy—because in our current media environment, attention trumps everything. 2. Sam Woolley, Philip Howard: Bots Unite to Automate the Presidential Election [Wired] 15 May 2016 | 850 words | 4 minutes “Donald Trump understands minority communities. Just ask Pepe Luis Lopez, Francisco Palma, and Alberto Contreras […] each tweeted in support of Trump after his victory in the Nevada caucuses earlier this year. The problem is, Pepe, Francisco, and Alberto aren’t people. They’re bots.” It’s no surprise that automated spam accounts (or bots) are creeping into election politics, say Sam Woolley and Philip Howard. Demanding bot transparency would at least help clean up social media—which, for better or worse, is increasingly where presidents get elected. 3. Phil Howard:…

Mark Zuckerberg has responded with the strange claim that his company does not influence people’s decisions. So what role did social media play in the political events of 2016?

After Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, 2016 will be remembered as the year of cataclysmic democratic events on both sides of the Atlantic. Social media has been implicated in the wave of populism that led to both these developments. Attention has focused on echo chambers, with many arguing that social media users exist in ideological filter bubbles, narrowly focused on their own preferences, prey to fake news and political bots, reinforcing polarisation and leading voters to turn away from the mainstream. Mark Zuckerberg has responded with the strange claim that his company (built on $5 billion of advertising revenue) does not influence people’s decisions. So what role did social media play in the political events of 2016? Political turbulence and the new populism There is no doubt that social media has brought change to politics. From the waves of protest and unrest in response to the 2008 financial crisis, to the Arab spring of 2011, there has been a generalised feeling that political mobilisation is on the rise, and that social media had something to do with it. Our book investigating the relationship between social media and collective action, Political Turbulence, focuses on how social media allows new, “tiny acts” of political participation (liking, tweeting, viewing, following, signing petitions and so on), which turn social movement theory around. Rather than identifying with issues, forming collective identity and then acting to support the interests of that identity—or voting for a political party that supports it—in a social media world, people act first, and think about it, or identify with others later, if at all. These tiny acts of participation can scale up to large-scale mobilisations, such as demonstrations, protests or campaigns for policy change. But they almost always don’t. The overwhelming majority (99.99%) of petitions to the UK or US governments fail to get the 100,000 signatures required for a parliamentary debate (UK) or an official response (US). The very few that…

Data show that the relative change in page views to the general Wikipedia page on the election can offer an estimate of the relative change in election turnout.

2016 presidential candidate Donald Trump in a residential backyard near Jordan Creek Parkway and Cody Drive in West Des Moines, Iowa, with lights and security cameras. Image by Tony Webster (Flickr).

As digital technologies become increasingly integrated into the fabric of social life their ability to generate large amounts of information about the opinions and activities of the population increases. The opportunities in this area are enormous: predictions based on socially generated data are much cheaper than conventional opinion polling, offer the potential to avoid classic biases inherent in asking people to report their opinions and behaviour, and can deliver results much quicker and be updated more rapidly. In their article published in EPJ Data Science, Taha Yasseri and Jonathan Bright develop a theoretically informed prediction of election results from socially generated data combined with an understanding of the social processes through which the data are generated. They can thereby explore the predictive power of socially generated data while enhancing theory about the relationship between socially generated data and real world outcomes. Their particular focus is on the readership statistics of politically relevant Wikipedia articles (such as those of individual political parties) in the time period just before an election. By applying these methods to a variety of different European countries in the context of the 2009 and 2014 European Parliament elections they firstly show that the relative change in number of page views to the general Wikipedia page on the election can offer a reasonable estimate of the relative change in election turnout at the country level. This supports the idea that increases in online information seeking at election time are driven by voters who are considering voting. Second, they show that a theoretically informed model based on previous national results, Wikipedia page views, news media mentions, and basic information about the political party in question can offer a good prediction of the overall vote share of the party in question. Third, they present a model for predicting change in vote share (i.e., voters swinging towards and away from a party), showing that Wikipedia page-view data provide an important increase…

Both the Brexit referendum and US election have revealed the limits of modern democracy, and social media platforms are currently setting those limits.

Donald Trump in Reno, Nevada, by Darron Birgenheier (Flickr).

This is the big year for computational propaganda — using immense data sets to manipulate public opinion over social media. Both the Brexit referendum and US election have revealed the limits of modern democracy, and social media platforms are currently setting those limits. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook now provide a structure for our political lives. We’ve always relied on many kinds of sources for our political news and information. Family, friends, news organisations, charismatic politicians certainly predate the internet. But whereas those are sources of information, social media now provides the structure for political conversation. And the problem is that these technologies permit too much fake news, encourage our herding instincts, and aren’t expected to provide public goods. First, social algorithms allow fake news stories from untrustworthy sources to spread like wildfire over networks of family and friends. Many of us just assume that there is a modicum of truth-in-advertising. We expect this from advertisements for commercial goods and services, but not from politicians and political parties. Occasionally a political actor gets punished for betraying the public trust through their misinformation campaigns. But in the United States “political speech” is completely free from reasonable public oversight, and in most other countries the media organisations and public offices for watching politicians are legally constrained, poorly financed, or themselves untrustworthy. Research demonstrates that during the campaigns for Brexit and the U.S. presidency, large volumes of fake news stories, false factoids, and absurd claims were passed over social media networks, often by Twitter’s highly automated accounts and Facebook’s algorithms. Second, social media algorithms provide very real structure to what political scientists often call “elective affinity” or “selective exposure”. When offered the choice of who to spend time with or which organisations to trust, we prefer to strengthen our ties to the people and organisations we already know and like. When offered a choice of news stories, we prefer to read about the issues we already care about,…

We should appreciate how social media can provide a wealth of valuable data to understand the anger and despair that the polls missed, and to analyse political behaviour and opinion in the times ahead.

Young activists gather at Lafayette Park in protest at the presidential campaign of presumptive Republican nominee Donald J. Trump. By Stephen Melkisethian (Flickr).

Commentators have been quick to ‘blame social media’ for ‘ruining’ the 2016 election in putting Mr Donald Trump in the White House. Just as was the case in the campaign for Brexit, people argue that social media has driven us to a ‘post-truth’ world of polarisation and echo chambers. Is this really the case? At first glance, the ingredients of the Trump victory — as for Brexit — seem remarkably traditional. The Trump campaign spent more on physical souvenirs than on field data, more on Make America Great Again hats (made in China) than on polling. The Daily Mail characterisation of judges as Enemies of the People after their ruling that the triggering of Article 50 must be discussed in parliament seemed reminiscent of the 1930s. Likewise, US crowds chanting ‘Lock her up’, like lynch mobs, seemed like ghastly reminders of a pre-democratic era. Clearly social media were a big part of the 2016 election, used heavily by the candidates themselves, and generating 8.8 billion posts, likes and commentson Facebook alone. Social media also make visible what in an earlier era could remain a country’s dark secret — hatred of women (through death and rape threats and trolling of female politicians in both the UK and US), and rampant racism. This visibility, society’s new self-awareness, brings change to political behaviour. Social media provide social information about what other people are doing: viewing, following, liking, sharing, tweeting, joining, supporting and so on. This social information is the driver behind the political turbulence that characterises politics today. Those rustbelt Democrats feeling abandoned by the system saw on social media that they were not alone — that other people felt the same way, and that Trump was viable as a candidate. For a woman drawn towards the Trump agenda but feeling tentative, the hashtag #WomenForTrump could reassure her that there were like-minded people she could identify with. Decades of social science research shows information about the behaviour of others influences how groups behave and now it is driving the unpredictability of politics,…

What are the dangers or new opportunities of digital media?

Did Twitter lead to Donald Trump’s rise and success to date in the American campaign for the presidency? Image: Gage Skidmore (Flickr).

One of the major debates in relation to digital media in the United States has been whether they contribute to political polarisation. I argue in a new paper (Rethinking Digital Media and Political Change) that Twitter led to Donald Trump’s rise and success to date in the American campaign for the presidency. There is plenty of evidence to show that Trump received a disproportionate amount of attention on Twitter, which in turn generated a disproportionate amount of attention in the mainstream media. The strong correlation between the two suggests that Trump was able to bypass the gatekeepers of the traditional media. A second ingredient in his success has been populism, which rails against dominant political elites (including the Republican party) and the ‘biased’ media. Populism also rests on the notion of an ‘authentic’ people—by implication excluding ‘others’ such as immigrants and foreign powers like the Chinese—to whom the leader appeals directly. The paper makes parallels with the strength of the Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigrant party which, in a similar way, has been able to appeal to its following via social media and online newspapers, again bypassing mainstream media with its populist message. There is a difference, however: in the US, commercial media compete for audience share, so Trump’s controversial tweets have been eagerly embraced by journalists seeking high viewership and readership ratings. In Sweden, where public media dominate and there is far less of the ‘horserace’ politics of American politics, the Sweden Democrats have been more locked out of the mainstream media and of politics. In short, Twitter plus populism has led to Trump. I argue that dominating the mediated attention space is crucial. One outcome of how this story ends will be known in November. But whatever the outcome, it is already clear that the role of the media in politics, and how they can be circumvented by new media, requires fundamental rethinking. Ralph Schroeder is Professor and director…

Explaining why many political mobilisations of our times seem to come from nowhere.

Cross-posted from the Princeton University Press blog. The authors of Political Turbulence discuss how the explosive rise, non-normal distribution and lack of organisation that characterises contemporary politics as a chaotic system, can explain why many political mobilisations of our times seem to come from nowhere.

On 23rd June 2016, a majority of the British public voted in a referendum on whether to leave the European Union. The Leave or so-called #Brexit option was victorious, with a margin of 52% to 48% across the country, although Scotland, Northern Ireland, London and some towns voted to remain. The result was a shock to both leave and remain supporters alike. US readers might note that when the polls closed, the odds on futures markets of Brexit (15%) were longer than those of Trump being elected President. Political scientists are reeling with the sheer volume of politics that has been packed into the month after the result. From the Prime Minister’s morning-after resignation on 24th June the country was mired in political chaos, with almost every political institution challenged and under question in the aftermath of the vote, including both Conservative and Labour parties and the existence of the United Kingdom itself, given Scotland’s resistance to leaving the EU. The eventual formation of a government under a new prime minister, Teresa May, has brought some stability. But she was not elected and her government has a tiny majority of only 12 Members of Parliament. A cartoon by Matt in the Telegraph on July 2nd (which would work for almost any day) showed two students, one of them saying ‘I’m studying politics. The course covers the period from 8am on Thursday to lunchtime on Friday.’ All these events—the campaigns to remain or leave, the post-referendum turmoil, resignations, sackings and appointments—were played out on social media; the speed of change and the unpredictability of events being far too great for conventional media to keep pace. So our book, Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action, can provide a way to think about the past weeks. The book focuses on how social media allow new, ‘tiny acts’ of political participation (liking, tweeting, viewing, following, signing petitions and so on), which turn social movement theory…

The Government Digital Service (GDS) isn’t perfect, but to erase the progress it has put in place would be a terrible loss.

Technology and the public sector have rarely been happy bedfellows in the UK, where every government technology project seems doomed to arrive late, unperform and come in over budget. The Government Digital Service (GDS) was created to drag the civil service into the 21st century, making services “digital by default”, cheaper, faster, and easier to use. It quickly won accolades for its approach and early cost savings. But then its leadership departed, not once or twice but three times—the latter two within the last few months. The largest government departments have begun to reassert their authority over GDS expert advice, and digital government looks likely to be dragged back towards the deeply dysfunctional old ways of doing things. GDS isn’t perfect, but to erase the progress it has put in place would be a terrible loss. The UK government’s use of technology has previously lagged far behind other countries. Low usage of digital services rendered them expensive and inefficient. Digital operations were often handicapped by complex networks of legacy systems, some dating right back to the 1970s. The development of the long-promised “digital era governance” was mired in a series of mega contracts: huge in terms of cost, scope and timescale, bigger than any attempted by other governments worldwide, and to be delivered by the same handful of giant global computer consulting firms that rarely saw any challenge to their grip on public contracts. Departmental silos ensured there were no economies of scale, shared services failed, and the Treasury negotiated with 24 departments individually for their IT expenditure. Some commentators (including this one) were a little sceptical on our first encounter with GDS. We had seen it before: the Office of the e-Envoy set up by Tony Blair in 1999, superseded by the E-government Unit (2004-7), and then Directgov until 2010. Successes and failures In many ways GDS has been a success story, with former prime minister David Cameron calling it one of the “great unsung triumphs…