If you can’t get the media to dance to your political tune then maybe you need rhythm – or more precisely you need an algorithm.
Speaking to a media conference in Munich shortly before the US election, Angela Merkel came out with something a little left-field for a politician, she said: “I’m of the opinion that algorithms must be made more transparent, so that one can inform oneself as an interested citizen about questions like ‘what influences my behaviour on the internet and that of others?’- Citizen Merkel added: “Algorithms, when they are not transparent, can lead to a distortion of our perception, they can shrink our expanse of information.”
Well before everyone rushes to the internet to try and buy these algorithms and go on a mind altering trip – they’re not drugs but in the internet world of news and information, an algorithm is the engine behind what we end up receiving from our searches and social media preferences.
There are a growing number of critics who have highlighted the dangers of receiving information that either confirms an existing opinion or is recommended by people with similar ideas. With a somewhat dystopian prediction Chancellor Merkel warned: “This is a development that we need to pay careful attention to as a healthy democracy was dependent on people being confronted by opposing ideas.”
The concept of news today is not the broad spectrum of what is happening but instead has become for many a narrower filtered view of what algorithms think we are interested in reading. This left me wondering about the recent political shocks with Brexit and President Trump and whether the democratic process has been either unintentionally or even intentionally nudged in one particular direction by the way in which news now reaches the electorate.
The foundation of western democracies has been built on the existence of a free press to discuss the issues that effect our lives and any move to control or censor the flow of news and information is normally been a charge levelled at totalitarian regimes. But what if under the guise of convenience and user-friendliness many people have unwittingly entered a world of press censorship.
It seems hard to believe as we are now bombarded with news from many sources in different formats on a wide range of platforms – from 24 hour rolling TV news and constantly updated online news – to personalised news alerts sent to smart phones and news filtered to your preferences on social media, as well as Tweets and a whole host of other news services all vying to keep you ‘informed’ – In fact even if you’re not on social media the mainstream media will repackage or regurgitate what is ‘trending’ in case you missed out.
But with so much noise and distraction people have become only too willing to have their media filtered and packaged for them. But this is starting to remove any overall editorial validation out of the loop and your personalised news has now become not only biased to your opinions that ultimately reinforces your views but is likely to contain many factual errors or even be complete fiction.
As mainstream media continues to migrate online as it is established as the consumer platform of choice, it is struggling to make enough income to maintain high journalistic standards. It’s getting tougher as advertising models are falling foul to adblocker technology as the consumer becomes used to undistracted ‘free’ access – with pleas to the readership to either turn their adblockers off (as if anyone would be so gullible) or donate to their ’cause’ fall on mainly deaf ears. Others have resulted to building a pay-wall along their virtual borders to keep those expecting free access out – but the majority are simply going elsewhere for their news instead.
Online news services are therefore becoming increasingly reliant on new revenue streams including what is known as ‘Click-bait’ – where sensationalised stories accrue advertising revenue based on the number of users who click on the links. You may have even noticed them in your online broadsheet gathered under headings such as ‘Promoted Stories’ and many are powered by advertising organisations like Taboola and Outbrain. The business model is that linked sites pay the likes of Taboola and Outbrain for their services who in turn pay the host site where the links are based.
So why is this relevant? Well Click-bait content has spawned a lucrative industry in providing alternative content, which in turn has led to the rise of a new industry of fake news websites, who fabricate news and political stories with the express purpose of pushing the buttons one particular group or another so they will be compelled to click on the link either out of outrage or affirmation in the race to crank up the revenue.
These fake stories often appear to be quite plausible (depending on your bias) then get forwarded on through social media and quickly grow in popularity until algorithms in Facebook mean many of them start appearing in trending lists and are soon being read by hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. It’s the nature of social media that stories get elevated through feedback and fitting your personal preferences with the likelihood that your news feed contains a significant number of fake stories.
Research has shown it can normally takes over 12 hours for fact-checkers to establish whether a news story is untrue, by which time they’ve already been read and accepted as true by many people. A recent report estimated 44% of Americans got their news through Facebook and an initial attempt by the social media company for users to report fake news failed because people were not very good at spotting fakes – in fact they were more likely to get false positives because people tended to report true things they didn’t agree with as fake instead.
Which is one of the main problem of news delivered through social media, it’s accuracy is not being rigorously tested through editorial control and instead algorithms only distinguish what is popular and a story becomes more prominent through ‘likes’ and sharing – meaning the criteria for them being more likely to be believed is simply that they are popular because people agree with them.
In addition to ‘genuine’ fake news sites there are news sites that have been setup specifically to push a political cause or agenda. Whilst much of the mainstream media have always took a political editorial stance, these are openly partisan media organisations staffed by ideologically driven journalists that provide mainly opinion based commentary content that is geared towards like-minded people with the aim of ‘re-addressing’ their perceived media bias against their views. These organisations also often act as news aggregators and link to favourable articles that appear in more mainstream outlets like Fox-News.
Essentially these organisations are unashamedly producing exaggerated propaganda with the explicit purpose of moving their cause forward – and since people are now having their news sources filtered through social media they often gain greater weight to more balanced mainstream articles because they better fit the criteria of a user’s preferences.
It has been often observed that many of the partisan media organisations on the political right were instrumental in communicating the Donald Trump campaign and it’s now widely expected that Steven Bannon, Chief Executive of Breitbart News will be given a prominent role in the new Trump administration following his successful job of running his election campaign.
Many of these conservative partisan news organisations, including Breitbart News, are aligned to a group known as the ‘alt-right’, which seems to be a loose umbrella organisation that accommodates a wide range of let’s say ‘less progressive’ views ranging from anti-immigration and white nationalism to anti-feminism and homophobia.
In fact the alt-right seems to have no specific ideology other than it’s against mainstream views and politics, with its purpose being seemingly to cause outrage with what they claim are ‘satirical pieces’ that often do more than cross the boundary of political correctness. It’s members are actually just as likely to be causing mischief as trying to forward a political agenda, but they seemingly all support Donald Trump.
Incidentally in 2014 Breitbart News launched Breitbart London, which is edited by UKIP leadership hopeful Raheem Kassam and had regular contributions from a certain Nigel Farage and the ‘respected journalist’ (as Trump described her) Katie Hopkins.
Conspiracy to mislead
So on the back of this ‘alternative’ narrative flowing into people’s personal news feeds Donald Trump entered the political stage. He appears to be a great believer of fake news and conspiracy theories – he must be as he seems to be fond of quoting them often enough. His public communications espouse anything from climate change being a hoax to the ever-increasing crime list of his favourite felons the Clinton mob – no wonder his supporters shout ‘Lock her up’ as the fake news trail of bodies she is apparently leaving in her wake is starting to get serious.
Even back in 2011, before his presidential candidacy was even on the horizon, he was most famously an exponent of the ‘Birther’ conspiracy, which asserted that Barack Obama was not born an American citizen. He got quite heavily involved in the whole charade, even offering to pay $5m to a charity of Obama’s choice if he published his passport application.
It’s not possible to say whether he is just an equally easily duped member of the public or someone who instigates and exploits the misinformation seeds that have been stealthily planted in the gullible electorate. But if you employ a man who is responsible for producing misleading propaganda that feeds into social media as your strategist then you have surely left yourself open to the charge of complicity.
It stands to reason that in a digital media age, those who can best make use of the media or even manipulate it will tend to win the argument – if indeed they ever get round to actually having an argument – as rather counter-intuitively having a coherent argument is not necessarily the way to get the ‘numbers’ these days.
It’s more about having a media strategy that will best gain you votes or lose votes for your opponent. It’s no longer simply about having a clear message that you believe will connect with the electorate – it’s about triggering an emotional response that makes the voter think either you will make their lives better or your opponents will make their lives worse.
Since people receive their news in many different ways, communicating a single message to the electorate has become more complex so the objective instead is about creating a narrative that is specifically targeted different messages at a particular sectors of the electorate. It also means it is possible to say different things at the same time without them needing to coherently sit together – a politicians dream!
So it’s all sounding great – social media has allowed your unadulterated propaganda past the gate-keepers and they’ve also fragmented and sliced the electorate so they’re nicely sorted for bespoke messages direct to their smartphones. But there’s still one problem to overcome – those big pesky show-piece TV debates watched simultaneously by tens of millions, with every detail poured over and analysed infinitum – surely nobody could finesse those could they?
Well it appears truth is no longer important to the electorate – The recent Brexit and US Presidential campaigns have been labelled ‘Post-Truth Politics’. This essentially means the accuracy of the message seems unimportant to those watching as assertions are believed based on their emotional appeal – rebuttals of their truth are just ignored and the message is repeated until it becomes widely accepted.
Basically your work has already been done by creating an earlier narrative through your digital propaganda and reinforcement of this narrative at campaign rallies in front of a partisan crowd. Trump had portrayed his opponent as Crooked-Hillary who is part of the wider corrupt establishment that has been failing the people for years – they were sold a plausible narrative and even bought the T-shirt and bumper sticker to boot. Their eyes had been opened and only one man could make it better.
Dead Cat Distraction
Though it’s impossible to control everything that happens in these TV debates and other unexpected news fallout is also bound to occur – but don’t worry because that’s when it’s time to create a media distraction and the leading protagonist employ strategists who know how to manipulate the media to reduce the impact of unwanted coverage.
The phenomenon known as ‘Throwing a dead cat on the table’ is used to divert attention from a story in the headlines that is damaging you by giving people something more dramatic or shocking to talk about (hence the dead cat analogy) – it replaces from the headlines the real negative story that you don’t want the media to focus on.
Clearly Donald Trump has not been afraid to say something outrageous or controversial and create a media storm. The campaign has been seemingly one long media storm of personal scandals and faux pas’s – which has left most of the coverage relatively free of policy debate and scrutiny. Not so much a dead cat on a table but rather a whole parade of feline carnage – though it’s not clear where all those cats will be sourced from but I vaguely recall Trump claiming his fame allowed him to make a grab for people’s cats (or something along those lines).
Turned off from Turning out
A secondary effect of aggressive negative campaigning, perhaps even deliberate, is that it demotivates a significant portion of the electorate and simply takes them out of the equation by discouraging them from voting at all.
In a tight race, a lower turnout of people who were looking to decide based on coherent policy and reasoned arguments would arguably favour the populist candidate, since they would never be likely to give their support to someone without a plan.
At 55%, voter turnout at the US election was the lowest for 20 years, when in 1996 Hillary’s husband Bill was the incumbent and easily saw off a 73 year-old Senator Bob Dole who had failed to inspire the electorate. This is in comparison to Obama’s positive ‘Yes We Can’ message of hope campaign in 2008, which gave a turnout of almost 64%.
It may also be when people are not inspired by the alternative candidate they are reluctant voters and would only do so if they wanted to stop the other candidate. But if the polls were showing only that the candidate you didn’t want to win had only a 1-in-5 chance then maybe you wouldn’t feel that it was as important to go and vote as it would necessarily make a difference.
As for the polls getting it wrong again, well perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that people have said one thing to pollsters and another when in their own private bubble. Do seemingly agreeable people by day log into their anonymous handles in order to get their pent-up anger off their virtual chests. Social media has in some ways taught people who behave perfectly normal in public to be privately less tolerant of the opinions of others. Maybe social media has been subversively training people to stick two fingers up at the establishment – and anyone else for that matter.
Experimenting with the Truth
Are we inadvertently taking part in a social experiment or rather a social media experiment where the existing rules and regulations of society are being circumnavigated by the inability of systems to apply them when advances in technology to simplify our lives create a Pandora’s Box of unforeseen consequences.
We saw recently that the banks crashed due to no-one actually understanding what the true worth of the financial products they were holding as assets were, the value of which had been hidden by their complexity until someone lost their nerve and peeked inside to expose the fragility of the bubble they had created and the whole illusion collapsed in an instant.
We are also seeing a world where the physical delivery of products and services have been replaced by virtual ones and the business models that we used to monetarise them no longer seem able to produce the revenue required to keep them viable. This is leading to risks being taken with new business models that actually compromise the quality of the overall service.
The exchange of views through debate in the media has been an important cornerstone of our democratic process but the arrival of internet-bases content and social media has rapidly changed the way information is reaching us. In the same way markets moved to using algorithm-based systems to trade as volume and complexity increased, we are also handing the access to the ever-expanding digital information and it’s validation away from considered editorial assessment and over to algorithms.
This is the point at which Angela Merkel was right to be concerned – though the problem may not be the algorithms per se but their design and their purpose. These algorithms are becoming the gateway to information and it’s probably too important to be left to a few corporations to determine what they do since they may well have a profound impact on the very foundation of our society.
We are still paying the price for the banking crash due to governments (on behalf of the people) allowing soft-touch regulation of the financial institutions that became increasingly reliant on technology and algorithms as the speed, complexity and volume of trading increased – will our democracies now pay the price for our ignorance over how the ever-growing flows of information are being exchanged by the algorithms of a few major players.
The Age of The Charlatan
Either by accident or design, the media strategists of a populist like Donald Trump may have been able to devise a way to take advantage of loopholes in the social media algorithms to get their message believed. But it’s also not clear whether the widespread use of social media with its addiction to ‘likes’ has actually made the public more receptive to popularism.
We already live in a post-celebrity post-reality TV culture, where the views of our now famous extended pseudo-family members are courted on every subject imaginable – indeed social media seems to have turned everyone into minor celebrities themselves, with the trivia of their daily life now published for public approval in the quest for ‘likes’.
Advertisers have long since used celebrities to endorse their products because the perception is that the public are likely to trust the view of someone they believe they know. Perhaps people trusted what Donald Trump said over Hillary Clinton because he was a well-known celebrity who people felt they knew. Maybe people are also more likely to trust or agree with a story that is either shared by their friends or indeed delivered by their trusted social media platform.
The significance of the effect may be overstated as the research has yet to be undertaken, but in a close two-horse race where the democratic outcome of the results depends on the swing of a few percentage points it’s quite likely to have been a decisive factor – furthermore when the decision results in a major political shift that has far-reaching and long-standing consequences we should be sure that any algorithms that control our information are working for our benefit and not creating a false view of the world that charlatans can exploit.