Social Media and Politics: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Let’s talk communication, social networks, computational propaganda, and my summer internship on Parliament Hill…

Posing for a photo with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the 2018 staff Garden Party held at 24 Sussex Drive.

ast summer, I, along with about 140 young adults, was chosen from hundreds of applicants across the country to take part in the Summer Leadership Program (SLP). I was hired as an intern at the Liberal Research Bureau — one cog of many inside the Parliament of Canada machine — and worked on the Communications team. I did not expect to be selected. I wanted to be part of the political process, part of the conversations and interactions that lead to societal change and long-lasting policy, but the hoop felt too far away. Being selected was a long-distance shot. The problem was, I barely knew anything about Canadian politics.

What I did know, was that communication is important. And I understood that social media was changing politics, like it was changing nearly everything else — but I didn’t know just how much.

hen I say I barely knew anything about Canadian politics, it wasn’t for lack of trying. I knew what I deemed to be enough: Canada’s Prime Minister was Justin Trudeau; Alberta’s Premier was Rachel Notley; my Member of Parliament was Ron Liepert; former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Calgary home was about a 10-minute drive away from mine. I’d learned a little about campaigning through canvassing for David Winkler, a councillor candidate for Ward 10 in the 2017 Calgary municipal election. I’d pondered on the power of lobbying when I attended the Government of Alberta’s Black History Month Celebration after Premiere Notley officially recognized the observance in Alberta. I knew inherently that politics was linked with power, and that not being involved came with consequences for my community, my country, and myself.

But I couldn’t name up to 5 MP’s off the top of my head. I didn’t know who Andrew Scheer was. I couldn’t tell you what “dropping the writ” meant, or that the first Parliament Building burned down on February 3rd, 1916, and that the Library was saved by the Clerk who remembered to shut its fire-proof iron doors before fleeing the fire, or that the longest riding name in Canada is Leeds — Grenville — Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes. In my first week in Ottawa, I discovered that most of the young adults hired through the SLP program knew such things. Many were pursuing political science or history degrees. Some had helped manage campaigns. A few had grown up in Ottawa, where political jargon was commonplace.

When I set aside my imposter syndrome, I like to think that I was hired because—though I’m no political scholar — I understand communication. I am a Marketing major and English minor, and have been designing promotional materials for local businesses and community organizations for nearly 10 years. I strongly believe that when it comes to politics, and nearly everything else, social media is currently the 21st century’s most powerful form of communication.

In politics, and in business, the stakes are high and information is power.

first learned about network effects in Introduction to Business Technology Management, from Instructor Catherine Heggerud. A network effect emerges when the perceived value of a network depends on the number of interactions among the users of the network. Social media platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, tend to benefit from this effect and use algorithms and data mining to tailor friend suggestions in order to grow their network. Facebook’s “People You May Know” feature, released in 2008 in response to LinkedIn’s similar feature, was instrumental in growing its platform. As the networks of individual users grow larger and become more interconnected, information disseminates faster and farther. One study found that Facebook users with large, clustered social networks are able to disseminate information more effectively than those with smaller or less clustered networks. The characteristics of social networks — access to data, interconnectedness, and ease of information dissemination — make social media powerful. Which is perhaps why the majority of the Government of Canada’s digital advertising spending in the 2017–18 fiscal year was spent on social media ads, for the first time ever.

With access to data such as age, interests, and mutual friends, marketing and communications teams are better able to segment target markets and create more customized content that is more likely to be liked, shared, and reposted. The 2017 to 2018 Annual Report on Government of Canada Advertising published by Public Services and Procurement Canada states that Facebook allows for “niche-targeting and it generally has high engagement rates.” The Annual Report also states that, though Twitter has more limited targeting options than Facebook, it is “used more for ‘breaking news.’ ” Even outside of market segmentation, general government initiatives, programs, and successes are often announced using mass-market approaches. Below are two graphics that I designed when I was working in Ottawa:

The first visual targets the majority of Canadians and is paired with a description that subtly differentiates the Liberal Party from the Conservative Party while the second visual targets University students and young adults entering the workforce. In my business classes, I’d learned how to market a product by developing segmentation and positioning strategies, identifying the most relevant communication channels, and promoting the product’s core, actual, and augmented benefits. Last summer, I found that these lessons were just as applicable in politics. Each party markets an ideology; they sell ideas to the Canadian people. Party colours and slogans are used to reinforce political brands. Below are some visuals posted on the social media of Conservative MPs:

The governing party or coalition often aims to defend its market share the way a market leader might, while opposition parties operate as market challengers, aiming to become the new industry leaders. This Harvard Business Review article addresses a similar idea, but backwards. There are numerous parallels between the corporate and political world. In politics, and in business, the stakes are high and information is power. Information facilitates engagement, and social media platforms are often a key source of relevant information. Generally, if one knows as much information as possible about their target audience, they can communicate with them more effectively.

Social media is thus extremely helpful in mobilization. Campaign teams can identify users in specific locations with specific user activity and interests, and invite them to doorknock or share political messaging. Third party groups can also drive the narratives of their preferred parties and instill distrust in others. In Ottawa, I participated in and overheard many conversations about the role of Ontario Proud and Facebook in garnering loyalty for Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives in the Ontario provincial election. For many who can’t attend campaign rallies or political debates, social media offers a means of keeping up with information in a fast-paced election cycle. Ontario Proud’s content typically comprises highly-saturated attack ads that use sensationalist and often misleading language to provoke target audiences enough to like, post, and repost content. And Ontario Proud was really, really good at this. After the provincial election, Ontario Proud’s founder and former Conservative staffer Jeff Ballingall announced that Ontario Proud’s “Facebook content was viewed almost 67 million times — more interactions than the Facebook pages of the three main parties, their leaders, the unions and all other political advocacy groups.” They mobilized voters through GOTV initiatives by identifying Progressive Conservative supporters through data analytics on social media, sending and placing millions of text messages and phone calls, handing out tens of thousands of brochures, and hiring teams to unplug opposition lawn signs.

Social media, and the data insights that one can garner from it, is a powerful means of communication and mobilization. Yet, the question of how much personal data a government or corporation should be allowed to gain through social media remains immensely contentious…

According to a Nanos Research survey, 73% of Canadians are either concerned or somewhat concerned about how “political parties use the personal information on voters they collect.”

acebook has patented a technology that would bolster its “People You May Know” feature by suggesting connections based on mutual Wi-Fi connectivity. Imagine you’ve become a regular at a local cafe, and another person seemingly around your age tends to come in around the same time that you do. You’ve never spoken to them. You don’t know their name. You couldn’t even guess at the colour of their eyes. But you both have the Facebook app on your phone which launches a data packet and makes the insight that you and the stranger often frequent the same cafe around the same time. Later, Facebook will suggest that you become friends with each other and reveal your name. Some articles label this innovation as “ice breaking,” others “creepy.” It’s an invasive new reality, and Canadians must decide where to draw the line. Do users have a say? Should there be more opt-out features? Should social media companies have privacy policies with terms and conditions clear enough for the lay man to understand? Facebook’s role as the largest and most profitable social network in the world means governments, parties, and businesses often turn to it first for data.

Consumer relationship management becomes constituent relationship management in government and voter relationship management in politics. This often requires collecting as much data on, and logging every interaction with, as many possible voters as possible. Canadians don’t appear to be all that comfortable with this: according to a Nanos Research survey, 73% of Canadians are either concerned or somewhat concerned about how “political parties use the personal information on voters they collect.” More than eight in 10 respondents say they are either concerned or somewhat concerned about the “safety of their personal information on Facebook and other social-media platforms.”

In the wake of what critics have deemed a “techlash,” an era in which Silicon Valley’s biggest companies are being held more responsible for their data exploitation, governments all over the world continue to pass stricter data protection legislation. In 2018, the House of Commons’ ethics committee recommended that the federal government impose regulations on social media corporations to limit hate speech and curb the spread of misinformation and remove political parties’ exemption from federal privacy law. The Government addressed these concerns by passing Bill C-76. Among many stipulations, the bill requires online platforms to “create a registry of all digital advertisements placed by political parties or third parties [and to] ensure they remain visible to the public for two years” as well as mandates that political parties establish policies to protect the privacy of Canadians’ personal information in their databases.

It’s disturbing when fake news is deemed real news and real news is deemed fake news. When teenage shooting victims are deemed crisis actors. When hate crimes are staged, leaving actual victims increasingly doubted and forgotten.

ictionary.com’s 2018 Word of the Year was “misinformation.” We’ve established that network effects compound information dissemination. But what happens when this information is purposefully wrong? It’s easy to spread “fake news” on social media. Maybe in the future, blatant lies posted on social media networks will be flagged or marked immediately. For now, misinformation remains a viable strategy.

While misinformation does not imply intent to deceive and disinformation does, misinformation is often the result of a strategy rooted in disinformation. The propagator of disinformation typically has something to lose — something that they can hold on to a little bit longer if only they spread some fake news. “Fake News” isn’t new, and it wasn’t coined by Donald Trump, and it doesn’t describe all left-leaning media. In the mid-1950’s the tobacco industry launched a disinformation campaign aimed to cast doubt on findings that cigarettes were cancerous. Oil and gas firms continue to fund climate denial lobby groups in hopes of shifting blame from the fossil fuel industry. The ramifications of these disinformation campaigns are usually propagated misinformation. In the digital age, the individuals liking and reposting information on social media aren’t typically doing so with the intent to mislead. Many genuinely believe whatever information they have chosen to disseminate, and often so easily do so because it feels good. Whatever information they’ve shared with their networks aligns with their purposefully uncontested view of the world. It matches the echoes in their echo chamber, creating synergies that fuel a positive feedback loop.

The University of Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project has been exploring the “use of algorithms, automation, and computational propaganda” on social media since 2012 and describes computational propaganda as one of the most “concerning impacts of technological innovation.” Through bots and algorithms, political actors backed by interest groups and campaign teams insert themselves in heated conversations, demobilize and delegitimize opposition, and generate false support. A plethora of think pieces have suggested that Russian bots heavily influenced the 2016 American Presidential election, with some critics even going as far as to say that Donald Trump would not have won against Hillary Clinton without the aid of social media bots. With computational propaganda, information dissemination and user provocation trumps any notions of truth. Propaganda is an age-old art. We know it exists. We know that social media can be weaponized to spread propaganda with minimal effort and investment. But we fall for it anyways.

And it’s disturbing when fake news is deemed real news and real news is deemed fake news. When teenage shooting victims are deemed crisis actors. When hate crimes are staged, leaving actual victims increasingly doubted and forgotten. Such a reality is disorienting, and it can leave one constantly suspicious and distrustful. I’ve found myself practicing an intense type of discernment when reading news stories and consuming political content that I never bothered to summon growing up. I’ve heard that maybe this is a good thing. Maybe millenials’ doubt in information disseminated through media, and in particular social media, is making them experts at gleaning fact from opinion. But maybe our skepticism is making us cynics.

As a marketer and a writer observing the world’s changing digital landscape and fluid perceptions of truth and subjectivity, I know that social media has and will continue to change what “effective communication” means. I know that communication tools will continue to be weaponized, and that navigating social media requires a healthy amount of judgement. But I also know that social media is both a threat to and an opportunity for the future of our democracy. Social media can foster youth engagement and encourage participatory politics. Its accessibility can get people involved in government decision making in ways that they were previously unable to. More people can reach out to MPs on social media, engage in microactivism, and keep current with political parties and government actions with increasingly minimal effort.

2014, the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign rallied citizens and governments across the globe. I still remember leaving the library on the day before my International Baccalaureate Mathematics Exam and finding my way to the steps of Calgary’s City Hall, amidst a crowd of Nigerian-Canadian women and men, and chanting, “Bring Back Our Girls.” Now and then someone would sing, “All we are saying,” to the tune of John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance, and everyone else would sing back, “Bring Back Our Girls.”

Social media is powerful. And we all know that means.

But the problem seems to be that few people are responsible for managing this power. I don’t know if everyday Canadian citizens have the ability to contain and steer the robust forces of social media. But I know that we can can try.

Social media users can ask social media platforms to do better in flagging and marking disinformation campaigns. We can rally our government by capitalizing on the power of social media and communication. Passionate about sustainability, I and some friends launched Petition E-1700 (A Petition for Sustainable Takeout Packaging) and gathered signatures by reaching out to social media users on Facebook. Silicon Valley investor Roger McNamee states that there is a “growing percentage of children [who] prefer the hyperstimulation of virtual experiences to the real world.” Social media platforms have been used to bully and harrass youth. We can petition our government to strengthen child protection rights on social media platforms. We can use social media to learn more about others that don’t look like we do, or talk like we do. We can seek change through empathy.

Surely, we can be victorious in some of the goals we set. And while we celebrate victories, we must remember there are always more battles on the horizon. While citizens have rallied for increased protection rights, federal political parties are still exempt from following federal privacy law. While social media has compounded the interconnectedness that began with the Internet, a digital divide still exists that leaves certain people behind.

Social media is often fragmented, and viral moments often die down as quickly as they take off. Today, half of the Chibok school girls have still not been found. The headlines have faded and Nigerian girls continue to be kidnapped, and families displaced and abused in IDP camps. I can only take solace in remembering that, for about two weeks in the spring of 2014, the world thought about and bemoaned a tragedy in northern Nigeria that would have otherwise been ignored without #BringBackOurGirls. The world remembered the girl child. Scholarships were set up. Awareness was raised. Activist groups and organizations continue to pressure the Nigerian government and the world to address the Boko Haram’s terrorism. Whether social media campaigns rely on slacktivism, and whether or not doing so is helpful, does not take away from the fact that microactivism through clicks and tweets can amplify voices usually left unheard.

Of course, social media’s megaphone effect doesn’t last forever. But maybe the megaphone effect can last just long enough to inspire an eleventh grader to want to contribute towards public policy, to defend international human rights, to continue to amplify the voices of marginalized communities in Canada, and around the world. Maybe the megaphone effect can last just long enough to inspire her to apply for an internship on Parliament Hill — despite knowing little about Canadian politics — in hopes of learning more about the conversations and systems that affect her community and her world. Maybe the megaphone effect can last just long enough to inspire hope, in a world where cynicism has become easier to embrace.

For the Chibok girls that have yet to be found, their families still wait for them, praying for their daughters. Hopeful…

And a part of me is to.

Mirabelle Harris-Eze is a 20-something writer based in Calgary, Alberta

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