Don't Trust the Internet – How Digital Influences Politics

Donald TrumpIn a week when the US elections are heating up and everyone’s talking politics, there’s some remarkable research supporting the extraordinary power of search engines and social sharing. It’s fascinating stuff. 

How the internet influences politics

Read on to find out about the Majority Illusion, how natural search results influence voting habits, and more.

Beware the Majority Illusion

Have you heard of the Majority Illusion? A team at the University of California has studied the links between well-connected members of social media groups. Apparently particularly popular individuals have an uncannily strong influence. But because most of us have no real idea about how well connected the people we follow are – or are not – it’s a challenge to evaluate how popular their opinions really are. It looks like the very structure of social networks makes minority views seem more widespread.

  • When just a few people share something widely, it gives the impression everyone is thinking the same thing
  • When the people sharing have fewer connections, the information being shared seems much less important

Unexpectedly, the study also proved highly connected people are less likely to see a given piece of information in the first place. But once they see and share it, it has a dramatic influence on followers.

DARPA can identify those most likely to share information on Twitter

DARPA has also been looking at the influence of social media. Their analysis of Twitter activity showed it was entirely possible to identify the people most likely to re-Tweet a given piece of information. Which means, of course, that marketers are getting all excited, because these users can be targeted and asked to share specific stuff.
On the other hand asking is one thing, getting is another. In my experience Twitter users don’t appreciate being asked to share Tweets. They prefer to make up their own minds, and requesting a re-Tweet can cause offence.

Twitter, Quilliam and ISIS

According to Jonathan Russell, the head of policy at the anti-extremism think-tank Quilliam, groups like ISIS are disturbingly savvy where social media are concerned. In his words, “They have managed to digitise propaganda in a way that is completely understanding of social media and how it’s used.” No surprise really, when the majority of the organisation’s members are young men from the internet generation, who are playing on their digital home ground.

Get more votes through better organic search visibility

If you’ve ever doubted the natural search engine results pages have anything other than commercial power, think again. Research by US psychologist Robert Epstein reveals the higher up in the natural search results a political candidate appears, the more credible voters are likely to believe they are.
Worse still, the page 1 Google effect is dramatic. One study showed 48% more people intended to vote for a politician after a biased test-algorithm ranked the candidate higher in the search results. The effect, observed in genuine elections in India, also works outside the lab, with less of an impact but enough for a very close result.
How come the search results have become so powerful an influence? Billions of us use search engines like Google every day to find things out, check facts, compare opinions and get the latest news. And we have conditioned ourselves to trust the search results implicitly.
This is bad news for anyone who despises media-hungry, obscenely wealthy nutters like Trump who, by their very nature, are all over the search results like a rash. And it leaves politics wide open to abuse. Imagine a search engine with a secret political agenda. They could move favoured candidates to the top of the search results, manipulate user opinions and trash the democratic process while they’re at it.

Lies, fibs and obfuscation

Did you notice Cynk Technology’s stellar rise in 2014? The company briefly became worth a staggering six billion US dollars after putting false information online, including countless tweets and emails promoting their shares. But it turned out the business didn’t exist. It had neither assets, staff nor revenue. Worse still, it’s entirely possible to trick bots into buying stocks and shares, and even to trick financial markets into crashing.
All this represents a salutary tale, a warning shot across the bows of those of us who think the internet is the fountain of truth. The internet isn’t home to the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It is simply a repository for anything and everything that human beings want to upload to it. Popular folk on social media don’t necessarily reflect the most popular viewpoints. Politics being politics, the entire digital arena is wide open to abuse.

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