There’s a lot of talk about social media manipulation these days. Fake news, the Russians tampering with elections – it can all seem a bit far fetched and over-dramatised. Then the articles start talking about trolls, and bots, and sleeper bots; at that point, most people will switch off.
But maybe switching off isn’t such a good idea!
It was easier when you could put a face or a name to something more tangible. Is the BBC politically biased? Is Rupert Murdoch too close to the current Prime Minister?
These are things we can understand and the Sun’s apparent influence on the UK’s 1992 general election “It’s The Sun Wot Won It” is well known. There’s no doubt that people are influenced by the TV they watch and the papers they read and we’ve always been vulnerable to propaganda of one sort or another. We’ve learned to live with that.
No European countries had any independent broadcast media until the 1970s and a few late developers (Hungary, Austria, Sweden, Portugal …) retained monopoly control of TV until well into the 1990s. We shouldn’t forget that states have always wanted to control and manage information. It’s not just North Korean and China.
But the real issue with social media is that some important things have now changed and it’s no longer quite as easy to understand what is happening. The old days are the old days and the way we are now being influenced is fundamentally different. And it is going to become more and more of a problem despite growing attempts to bring the social media beast to heel.
Apart from anything else, most or all governments want to continue to use social media to further their own interests – they just want to stop others doing it. Not a great recipe for success.
So what’s so different?
The most important difference about Social Media relates to scale and accessibility and that’s not so easy to understand.
As the Computational Propaganda Research Project at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford says:
“Computational propaganda is the use of algorithms, automation, and human curation to purposefully distribute misleading information over social media networks.”
Well, I’m sure you’re pleased I cleared that up!
Can you feel your eyelids drooping? Maybe time to go and see if there’s anything interesting on Facebook or Twitter instead …
I thought I’d try and humanise this subject just a little and will publish a few more short blogs over the coming weeks which might help to demystify a few things. The next article will discuss bots and trolls – what they mean, what they can do and some ideas about what that might mean for you.