PS21 Report: Social Media and Politics


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  • Social media can generate the momentum to change minds, policy and even governments.
  • It is, however, no longer the “Wild West” it was five years ago.
  • Successful (sometimes) for single issue campaigns, less clarity on its use for swaying elections.
  • Can lead users and media to an “echo chamber” that reinforces views rather than informs.
  • Campaigns can produce a wide range of unintended consequences.
  • Can prove a useful tool to boost voter turnout.
  • Little clarity on how space will evolve. Some platforms — including Twitter — might simply vanish.

On Monday, 18 May 2015, the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21) held a discussion on ‘Social Media and Politics’.

A full transcript can be found here.

The panelists were as follows:

Peter Apps (Chair): PS21 Executive Director.

Tim Hardy: technical writer, commentator and activist: beyondclicktivism.

Sandy Schumann: Wiener-Anspach Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Social Psychology at the University of Oxford.

Jonn Elledge: Journalist at the New Statesman and Editor of City Metric.

Please feel free to quote from this report, referencing PS21. If you wish to get in touch with any of the panelists, please email

Over the last decade, social media platforms have redrawn both politics and business on the Internet. How exactly they have done so — and how sustainable that might be — still remain extremely poorly understood, however. Question marks remain over the sustainability of some of the most popular social media channels, particularly Twitter. In some cases, the political effect of social media campaigns can be transitory at best.

What is clear is that it has represented a major challenge to more conventional “top-down” media, information and political structures. It has also proved relatively difficult to control.

Sandy: Institutions, formal leadership, and hierarchical structures have become less important. People just act on personal interpretations and rationales, find each other, and can co-ordinate… actions.

There’s evidence from Spain (the Indignados) and from the Arab world (Tahrir Square)… [We] know that Facebook played a role — in addition to word of mouth — in getting people out on the street.  #kony2012 [raised] millions and millions of dollars and… awareness for Africans and [a] conflict in Africa that probably no-one had ever heard of.

Tim: … It makes me think of that description of the revolutionary mob: that you try and ride the tiger. You can’t really control it because it is, on some levels, a genuinely spontaneous outpouring of individuals and, as such, there is no way that you can guarantee that you can steer the outcome of anything…

If you decide it’s not going the way you want there’s no way of saying: “Let’s drop this campaign and try something different.” You can try a second campaign but you never go viral twice.

The space is now much more crowded by governments and corporations that it was only a handful of years ago. That may have a somewhat stifling effect on debate, innovation and political activity, particularly on the fringes.

Tim: Social media, particularly five years ago when it was still relatively new, felt very much like everything was up for grabs. There was very little commercial engagement with platforms like Twitter. Businesses didn’t really know how to manage it. Media companies didn’t really know how to engage. Obviously, they’ve moved in and filled that vacuum.

Media coverage of the UK election shows some of the risks in being too focused on social media. For all users, it risks becoming an “echo chamber” in which they simply receive the views of those with whom they already have a great deal in common.

As users become increasingly aware they are in the public eye, they may also become less honest about the views and image they present. Social media can encourage ‘groupthink’.

Jonn: There is a great tendency within the media… for [a] kind of echo chamber effect… Until the exit poll came out, basically the entire country had convinced itself that a hung parliament was inevitable… And we were all massively wrong. And I think one reason for that is that we’d been repeatedly reinforcing that impression, not just through newspapers but minute-by-minute on Twitter and Facebook… It’s very easy for something to harden into a received wisdom.

Sandy: On Facebook people are usually quite aware of who their audience is. So if your friends believe that most of their friends are leftwing they will perform an identity that their friends appreciate and may not be expressing their political views.

Tim: At the moment social media has this extraordinary role… in many people’s lives, in that it is a performance space… We are creating a public persona which is something historically very few people ever had to do, whereas now an ordinary person… [has] one eye on… future employment prospects… They are curating their relationships with one another, they are self-censoring and they are saying things they don’t necessarily believe…

Social media is at its most effective in one-off, quick-burning campaigns. For all the talk of “slacktivsm”, those who joined such campaigns are often highly motivated and willing to do more to make a difference.

Sandy: I’d like not to use [the term “slacktivism”] anymore… because it refers to a notion of being unmotivated to act, and my own research showed that people who do engage in those quick and easy actions like signing a petition or liking a Facebook page are actually motivated to make a difference.

In 2010-11, UK protest group UKuncut successfully grabbed attention with multiple flash mob occupations of stores run by companies they accused of evading British tax. While the protests themselves eventually died out — in part due to more aggressive policing and a series of arrests — they had successfully influenced the overall political climate

Tim: From nothing, people would self-organize, and find one another, and could then go and close down Boots, or TopShop, by demonstrating in a very non-aggressive, playful kind of way that always played well with the media… In the run-up to the election, in particular, we saw both Labour and the Conservatives accepting that there was money to be found from the [tax-evasion] schemes and that the public was against them.

It is difficult to repress information, whether through censorship or legal means such as libel threats or court-based “superinjunctions” designed to criminalise certain information on privacy grounds.

Jonn: One of the best uses of Twitter… was three to four years ago when the Guardian ran a story that basically said: “There is something we are not allowed to tell you. It is in the parliamentary records but there are reporting restrictions…”.  Twitter managed to take this piece of information and find out the exact details of who had taken an injunction out and why in the space of about 45 minutes.

The evidence of social media’s effect on elections themselves is equivocal at best. Not everybody wants a colossal onslaught of political comment and information.

Tim: … If the last elections show anything, it’s that the ability of social media to win an election is very much up for question. Twitter is for whatever reason left-leaning and Labour-supporting, while Facebook is far more conservative, and the Conservative party invested very heavily in ad campaigns on Facebook, which obviously had some influence as well, but we don’t know what that influence was.

Sandy: … We know from the US at least that people in general don’t appreciate political commentary on Facebook, and they don’t want to be convinced or persuaded on Facebook.

Still, it can have an effect — not least in encouraging larger numbers to vote and highlighting any perceived or actual attempts to rig the process.

Sandy: We… know that particular cost-benefit analyses are involved in voting or any other form of political behaviour… so definitely having access to information is much easier and quicker and has changed those calculations. [An experiment on Facebook showed] that in 2010, during the congressional elections in the US, there were about 40,000 additional votes being raised just by adding an “I Voted” icon on Facebook.

Jonn: … In the US presidential election in 2012 there were reports in social media about much longer queues outside polling stations in predominantly African-American areas than there were in white areas. I have no idea whether anything sinister was going on, but just the suspicion that something might have been meant that the people sort of pushed back really hard and were wiling to stand in that queue for a very long time just to make sure that their vote was not taken from them…

Some campaigns have had second-order effects which no university student in the Midwest tweeting #bringbackourgirls or #kony2012 could imagine.

Emmanuel Akinwotu (audience): In Nigeria [the #bringbackourgirls campaign] played out as a political agent… An insecure government was really spooked by it… To the wider world it was a huge thing… Protests took place in London and Washington and all over the world…

There were a number of things [the former Nigerian government] failed on but [the security situation] played the biggest role in discrediting its legitimacy and I think a lot of that was down to the way the #bringbackourgirls campaign galvanised public opinion.

Peter: #kony2012 had almost the opposite effect: it increased international support for the anti-LRA campaign, which meant that it secured Museveni’s position and strengthened his hand in domestic politics.

There is such a thing as too much information.

Sandy: Having a lot of information about how your government is doing and comparing that to governments around the world can actually discourage people from getting engaged in politics and voting because they feel like they can’t change much…

Tim:  One thing that a lot of people complain about is this kind of information fatigue… Which is why… Facebook has algorithms that have an inherent bias… they want you to be entertained and amused to keep you there, so anything nasty, like a riot, they just won’t talk about…

Users only get part of the story.

Jonn: If you are… responsive to stories that are more liberal or left-wing, then Facebook will give you those stories and it will give you the comments, and it will promote material that matches your beliefs.

It’s easy to look at something like Twitter and think it’s democracy, but it’s not… There will be campaigns that kind of got lucky, where… [a person with clout] spotted it at an early stage and put rocket boosters on it… There will be dozens of equally worthy… causes that just never manage to get that far, that we therefore don’t have the faintest idea [about].

Tim: … It’s very hard to keep up with all of it… It’s stories that are quick and easy… [that] will spread… Anything that requires a greater degree of engagement, that will challenge your ideas and is more complicated, is less likely to get a hearing…

Whilst also leaving individuals exposed.

Sandy: It is possible to reverse engineer people’s behaviour on Facebook.

Jonn: I think a significant birth… is Snapchat… Where there’s no record of anything. So a lot of teenagers… [who] don’t really want anyone to be able to look at the kind of things they are sending each other… prefer that to something like Facebook or Twitter, where there is a paper trail.

Tim: Maybe we could see a massive kind of Balkanization, whereby people move into very strong filter bubbles, where they only want to hang out with people that they know… I can imagine a social media platform that’s completely encrypted: that BuzzFeed can’t look at to see what’s trending but neither can GCHQ or NSA…

There is no single established definition of what “social media” actually means. Different elements work in very different ways. Twitter is heavily used by journalists but its user base is highly unrepresentative and its business model unproven. Facebook has by far the deepest penetration, used by left and right wing and young and old alike albeit in very different ways.

Tim: The two big beasts [are] Twitter and Facebook… but obviously there’s a whole world of different platforms out there… The way that the media has adapted to the environment means even things like comments on websites have aspects of social media these days…

We’ve been here before. We’ve had dominant platforms and they vanish: such is the nature of the Internet…

Jonn: Facebook… [is] profitable… I think we have to consider the possibility that [Twitter] is just not going to be there in five years’ time because it couldn’t make any money.

What remains to be seen is whether the social media trend will last — or in what form. In such a fluid environment, further rapid change is inevitable.

Tim: Anything that is self-organising like this… can run out of momentum very quickly…

Sandy: I know computer scientists who are basically working on… putting together [the formula for the perfect tweet] and I don’t think they are too far off…

Jonn: I wonder… If you ever work out what the perfect tweet is, does the perfect tweet change?

Report by Crisa Cox. Transcript by Carrie Cuno, Rhea Menon and Vanessa Pooudomsak.

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