Britain is engaged in a General Election contest and once again political parties are investing money, time and energy in their online presence. The Tories are ploughing cash into Instagram adverts and Labour is doing its best to keep up.
But is all this effort worth it and does the internet make our democracy healthier or simply add to the confusion and cynicism that surrounds party politics?
Internet enthusiasts suggest that the online world – and social media in particular – can be a powerful resource for democracies. It offers access to a wider range of information, allows people to interact and comment and gives a voice to those who would not normally have one. But it also offers a platform to trolls and those who seek to profit from misinformation.
Where does our news come from?
Television is still dominant as the prevalent source of news in the UK, but more and more people are relying on the internet to source their information. One could argue that this is a way for people to free themselves from the domination of mainstream media. But data suggest that the most popular sources of news online are actually versions of popular mainstream media outlets (with the notable exception of the online only Huffington Post) or news aggregators. This means that there is an oligarchy of news providers online which dominate the scene, leaving little – if any – space for alternative sources.
The recent hype about “fake news” seems needlessly alarmist, especially given that recent data shows how, for example when it comes to the 2016 US elections, fake news constituted a minority of the information accessed online.
One of the characteristics of the online world is that people are able to comment on and discuss the news. While people are liable to come across fake news and conspiracy theories when surfing online, we must not forget that we are not passive receivers of information. It has been suggested that the internet might be just as powerful in slowing down the spread of conspiracies (and fake news) because people challenge them just as quickly as they spread.
This is not to say that we should ignore the issue of fake news. Research shows that small, cohesive minorities which provide consistent messages have the power to shift people’s attitudes and influence group decision making. It is important therefore to increase media literacy to help people spot fake news and challenge conspiracy theories.
Social psychologists have for decades looked at how our motivations play an important role in the way we receive and interpret information and events. One of the most compelling examples comes from one of the founding fathers of Social Psychology, Leon Festinger, who – with Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter – conducted a study exploring how people belonging to a cult react after the prophecy which was at the heart of the entire cult (for example, the end of the world) does not happen.
Some members of the cult find it so difficult to admit what they have believed in was wrong that they come up with extremely complex explanations to justify this failure. What is more, their conviction seemed to be strengthened by this apparent “dis-confirmation”.
We believe what we want to believe
Since then, there have been many theories and studies showing how we are not as rational and objective as we like to believe. Our thinking is heavily influenced by our goals and beliefs.
As I have argued elsewhere, this is certainly the case for social media and politics. We select the sources of the information we access, we choose the people we connect with and we spend a lot of time and energy trying to prove we are right rather than listening to other peoples’ points of views.
For example, if we believe that our views or the party we support are not represented fairly in the mainstream media (like recent data seem to indicate for Labour voters and – even more so – Green and other parties), we are most likely to turn away from them and look for alternative sources of information like The Canary and Guido Fawkes.
In this respect, it does make sense, especially for opposition and smaller parties, to invest in their online presence to make sure their message reaches their supporters. The problem is more complex for the undecided voters and those who have no clear political views. Initial evidence suggests that exposure to political advertising online or on television can have different effects on the voting intention and political behaviour of the undecided. The ability to seek follow-up information after viewing a political advertisement for those who are motivated to do so might be able to tip a voter in one direction or the other, depending on where this quest leads them.
It is once again down to the online community to make sure we use this resource wisely, enabling people to express their views and challenging those who spread misinformation and engage in abuse. Some people may believe the mainstream media is biased and they probably have a point, but that does not mean we should turn off our critical faculties when digesting news online – even if it is telling us what we want to hear.