Do you call that a haircut? I hope you didn’t pay for it.
Oh please this is rubbish, you’re a disgrace to yourself and your profession.
These are just two examples of comments that have followed articles I have written in my career. While they may seem benign compared with the sort of violent and vulgar comments that are synonymous with cyberbullying, they are examples of the uncivil and antisocial behaviour that plagues the internet.
If these comments were directed at me in any of my interactions in everyday life – when buying a coffee or at my monthly book club – they would be incredibly hurtful and certainly not inconsequential.
Drawing on my own research, as well as that of researchers in other fields, my new book “Uncovering Online Commenting Culture: Trolls, Fanboys and Lurkers” attempts to help us understand online behaviours, and outlines productive steps we can all take towards creating safer and kinder online interactions.
Steps we all can take
Online abuse is a social problem that just happens to be powered by technology. Solutions are needed that not only defuse the internet’s power to amplify abuse, but also encourage crucial shifts in social norms and values within online communities.
Recognise that it’s a community
The first step is to ensure we view our online interactions as an act of participation in a community. What takes place online will then begin to line up with our offline interactions.
If any of the cruel comments that often form part of online discussion were said to you in a restaurant, you would expect witnesses around you to support you. We must have the same expectations online.
Know our audience
We learn to socialise offline based on visual and verbal cues given by the people with whom we interact. When we move social interactions to an online space where those cues are removed or obscured, a fundamental component of how we moderate our own behaviour is also eliminated. Without these social cues, it’s difficult to determine whether content is appropriate.
Research has shown that most social media users imagine a very different audience to the actual audience reading their updates. We often imagine our audience as people we associate with regularly offline, however a political statement that may be supported by close family and friends could be offensive to former colleagues in our broader online network.
Understand our own behaviour
Emotion plays a role in fuelling online behaviour – emotive comments can inspire further emotive comments in an ongoing feedback loop. Aggression can thus incite aggression in others, but it can also establish a behavioural norm within the community that aggression is acceptable.
How empathy can make or break a troll
Understanding our online behaviour can help us take an active role in shaping the norms and values of our online communities by demonstrating appropriate behaviour.
It can also inform education initiatives for our youngest online users. We must teach them to remain conscious of the disjuncture between our imagined audience and the actual audience, thereby ingraining productive social norms for generations to come. Disturbingly, almost 70% of those aged between 18 and 29 have experienced some form of online harassment, compared with one-third of those aged 30 and older.
What organisations and institutions can do
That is not to say that we should absolve the institutions that profit from our online interactions. Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter also have a role to play.
User interface design
Design of user interfaces impacts on the ease with which we interact, the types of individuals who comment, and how we will behave.
Drawing on psychological research, we can link particular personality traits with antisocial behaviour online. This is significant because simple changes to the interfaces we use to communicate can influence which personality types will be inclined to comment.
Using interface design to encourage participation from those who will leave positive comments, and creating barriers for those inclined to leave abusive ones, is one step that online platforms can take to minimise harmful behaviours.
For example, those who are highly agreeable prefer anonymity when communicating online. Therefore, eliminating anonymity on websites (an often touted response to hostile behaviour) could discourage those agreeable individuals who would leave more positive comments.
Conscientious individuals are linked to more pro-social comments. They prefer high levels of moderation, and systems where quality comments are highlighted or ranked by other users.
Riot Games, publisher of the notorious multiplayer game League of Legends, has had great success in mitigating offensive behaviour by putting measures in place to promote the gaming community’s shared values. This included a tribunal of players who could determine punishment for people involved in uncivilised behaviour.
Analytics and reporting
Analytical tools, visible data on who visits a site, and a real-time guide to who is reading comments can help us configure a more accurate imagining of our audience. This could help eliminate the risk of unintentional offence.
Providing clear processes for reporting inappropriate behaviour, and acting quickly to punish it, will also encourage us to take an active role in cleaning up our online communities.
We can and must expect more of our online interactions. Our behaviour and how we respond to the behaviour of others within these communities will contribute to the shared norms and values of an online community.
However, there are institutional factors that can affect the behaviours displayed. It is only through a combination of both personal and institutional responses to antisocial behaviour that we will create more inclusive and harmonious online communities.
Conspiracy theories are known for connecting apparently unrelated events. Consider the X-Files’ Fox Mulder holed up in his office, frantically joining seemingly random dots. Or the American radio host Alex Jones connecting leaked Clinton emails and fuzzy rover pictures to conclude that NASA is running a child slave colony on Mars.
Cognitive psychologists have often claimed that conspiracy theorists possess a “monological” belief system, in which belief in one conspiracy leads to belief in others. Eventually, they explain every significant event, however unrelated, through the same conspiratorial “logic”.
On such a view, conspiracy theorists are fundamentally irrational, perhaps even pathologically so. But is this an oversimplification?
So-called “big data” approaches to psychology can give a unique perspective on these questions. By using large datasets gathered from social media websites, one can look at people interacting in everyday settings. Importantly, these approaches can capture everybody, not just the most vocal members of a community.
In a recent paper we used online comments to examine individuals who are interested in these types of ideas. We examined a complete set of comments over eight years from the conspiracy forum of reddit.com.
Our dataset included 2.2 million comments from roughly 130,000 distinct user names. Our analyses used topic modelling, a type of linguistic analysis that tries to find common themes across a large collection of documents.
We were able to identify 12 distinct subgroups of individuals who used language in different ways and who varied widely in their interests and their posting habits. What they talked about strongly suggested that they held different beliefs and attitudes about a range of conspiracies.
Eleven of these had consistent enough interests to be readily interpretable. We assigned each of them a name and created aggregate sample comments, as shown in this diagram.
We found that there were posters who fit the “monological” pattern (we dubbed them True Believers), writing at length on a wide variety of different topics. However, they were only the tip of the iceberg. Most posters had more specific interests.
Indeed, many seemed to be attracted as much to the social aspects of discussing conspiracies as the content of specific conspiracies. The group we called the Meta-redditors, for example, was most notable for their discussion of other forums on Reddit and complaints about moderation policies.
Similarly, there were subgroups (the Downtrodden) who appeared to be communicating about conspiracy theories as a way of expressing general frustration with authority.
Some were suspicious of US foreign policy (Anti-imperalists). Others may be using conspiracy topics as a way to express racist or otherwise socially unacceptable ideas (Anti-semites). There was even a distinct subgroup who appeared to be posting primarily in order to debunk conspiracy beliefs (Sceptics).
This suggests that individuals involved with conspiracy theories may have quite different motivations, beliefs and attitudes. It may not be useful to consider them as a homogeneous group.
What does all this mean for the study of conspiracy theories? It’s complicated.
On the one hand, it has long been known that online conspiracy theorising can have a variety of negative social effects, from political disengagement to actual violence. These are effects we should aim to mitigate.
On the other hand, our study also reveals something more surprising. The vast majority of posters were no more active in the conspiracy forum than they were on other reddit forums. This suggests that, for most individuals, conspiracy theories are not an all-encompassing obsession that overrides other interests, but just one interest among many. Even the most obsessed posters also spend a lot of time discussing Star Wars and trading cute cat photos on other parts of the site.
As noted, many members of online forums appear to use conspiracy theories to express legitimate doubts about structures of power, even if the details may appear striking to us. Reddit’s conspiracy forum links on its front page to a “list of confirmed conspiracies”, many of which are historically accurate. In the 1960s, for instance, the US FBI did infiltrate domestic protest groups to disrupt and discredit them. The public health service in Alabama did conduct long-term medical experiments on African American men.
Hence, we think that conspiracy theorising may be best understood as a symptom of a breakdown of trust in institutions like government and the media. Rebuilding that trust is, alas, a difficult proposal. However, our work suggests that recognising the varied and complex motivations and attitudes of conspiracy believers is an important step forward.
Colin Klein, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Australian National University; Peter Clutton, , Australian National University, and Vince Polito, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Cognitive Science, Macquarie University
In the aftermath of revelations about the alleged misuse of Facebook user data by Cambridge Analytica, many social media users are educating themselves about their own digital footprint. And some are shocked at the extent of it.
Last week, one user took advantage of a Facebook feature that enables you to download all the information the company stores about you. He found his call and SMS history in the data dump – something Facebook says is an opt-in feature for those using Messenger and Facebook Lite on Android.
This highlights an issue that we don’t talk about enough when it comes to data privacy: that the security of our data is dependent not only on our own vigilance, but also that of those we interact with.
It’s easy for friends to share our data
In the past, personal data was either captured in our memories or in physical objects, such as diaries or photo albums. If a friend wanted data about us, they would have to either observe us or ask us for it. That requires effort, or our consent, and focuses on information that is both specific and meaningful.
Nowadays, data others hold about us is given away easily. That’s partly because the data apps ask for is largely intangible and invisible, as well as vague rather than specific.
What’s more, it doesn’t seem to take much to get us to give away other people’s data in return for very little, with one study finding 98% of MIT students would give away their friends’ emails when promised free pizza.
Other studies have shown that collaborating in folders on cloud services, such as Google Drive, can result in privacy losses that are 39% higher due collaborators installing third-party apps you wouldn’t choose to install yourself. Facebook’s data download tool poses another risk in that once the data is taken out of Facebook it becomes even easier to copy and distribute.
This shift from personal to interdependent online privacy reliant on our friends, family and colleagues is a seismic one for the privacy agenda.
How much data are we talking about?
With more than 3.5 million apps on Google Play alone, the collection of data from our friends via back-door methods is more common than we might think. The back-door opens when you press “accept” to permissions to give access to your contacts when installing an app.
Then the data harvesting machinery begins its work – often in perpetuity, and without us knowing or understanding what will be done with it. More importantly, our friends never agreed to us giving away their data. And we have a lot of friends’ data to harvest.
The average Australian has 234 Facebook friends. Large-scale data collection is easy in an interconnected world when each person who signs up for an app has 234 friends, and each of them has 234 and, so on. That’s how Cambridge Analytica was apparently able to collect information on up to 50 million users, with permission from just 270,000.
Add to that the fact that the average person uses nine different apps on a daily basis. Once installed, some of these apps can harvest data on a daily basis without your friends knowing and 70% of apps share it with third parties.
We’re more likely to refuse data requests that are specific
However, this can be changed by making a data request more specific – for example, by separating out “contacts” from “photos”. When we asked participants if they had the right to give all the data on their phone, 95% said yes. But when they focused on just contacts, this decreased to 80%.
We can take this further with a thought experiment. Imagine if an app asked you for your “contacts, including your grandmother’s phone number and your daughter’s photos”. Would you be more likely to say no? The reality of what you are actually giving away in these consent agreements becomes more apparent with a specific request.
The silver lining is more vigilance
This new reality not only threatens moral codes and friendships, but can cause harm from hidden viruses, malware, spyware or adware. We may also be subject to prosecution as in a recent German case in which a judge ruled that giving away your friend’s data on Whatsapp without their permission was wrong.
Although company policies on privacy can help, these are difficult to police. Facebook’s “platform policy” at the time the Cambridge Analytica data was harvested only allowed the collection of friends’ data to improve the user experience of an app, while preventing it from being sold on or used for advertising. But this puts a huge burden on companies to police, investigate and enforce these policies. It’s a task few can afford, and even a company the size of Facebook failed.
The silver lining to the Cambridge Analytica case is that more and more people are recognising that the idea of “free” digital services is an illusion. The price we pay is not only our own privacy, but the privacy of our friends, family and colleagues.
Vincent Mitchell, Professor of Marketing, University of Sydney; Andrew Stephen, L’Oréal Professor of Marketing & Associate Dean of Research, University of Oxford, and Bernadette Kamleitner, , Vienna University of Economics and Business
Australians over the age of 40 can now calculate their risk of developing melanoma with a new online test. The risk predictor tool estimates a person’s melanoma risk over the next 3.5 years based on seven risk factors.
Melanoma is the third most common cancer in Australia and the most dangerous form of skin cancer.
The seven risk factors the tool uses are age, sex, ability to tan, number of moles at age 21, number of skin lesions treated, hair colour and sunscreen use.
The tool was developed by researchers at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute. Lead researcher Professor David Whiteman explained he and his team determined the seven risk factors by following more than 40,000 Queenslanders since 2010, and analysing their data.
The seven risk factors are each weighted differently. The tool’s algorithm uses these to assign a person into one of five risk categories: very much below average, below average, average, above average, and very much above average.
“This online risk predictor will help identify those with the highest likelihood of developing melanoma so that they and their doctors can decide on how to best manage their risk,” Professor Whiteman said.
After completing the short test, users will be offered advice, such as whether they should see their doctor. A reading of “above average” or “very much above average” will recommend a visit to the doctor to explore possible options for managing their melanoma risk.
But Professor Whiteman cautions that people with a below average risk shouldn’t become complacent.
“Even if you are at below average risk, it doesn’t mean you are at low risk – just lower than the average Australian,” he said.
An estimated one in 17 Australians will be diagnosed with melanoma by their 85th birthday.
The test is targeted for people aged 40 and above as this was the age range of the cohort studied.
However, melanoma remains the most common cancer in Australians under 40.
Professor Whiteman said that the test may be useful for those under 40, but it may not be as accurate, as that wasn’t the demographic it was based on.
But he added complete accuracy couldn’t be guaranteed even for the target demographic.
“I don’t think it’s possible that we’ll ever get to 100%. I think that’s a holy grail that we aspire to, but in reality, cancers are very complex diseases and their causality includes many, many, factors, including unfortunately some random factors.”
The prognosis for melanoma patients is significantly better when it is detected earlier. The University of Queensland’s Professor of Dermatology H. Peter Soyer explained that the five-year survival rate for melanoma is 90%. But this figure jumps to 98% for patients diagnosed at the very early stages.
“At the end of the day, everything that raises awareness for melanomas and for skin cancer is beneficial,” Professor Soyer said.
Dr Hassan Vally, a senior lecturer in epidemiology at La Trobe University, said the way risk is often communicated is hard for people to grasp. But he said this model would provide people with a tangible measure of their risk of disease, and point them towards what they may be able to do to reduce it.
“Everything comes back to how people perceive their risk, and how can they make sense of it.
“If it makes people more aware of their risks of disease that’s a good thing, and if that awareness leads to people taking action and improving their health then that’s great.”
We all seem worried about privacy. Though it’s not only privacy itself we should be concerned about: it’s also our attitudes towards privacy that are important.
When we stop caring about our digital privacy, we witness surveillance apathy.
And it’s something that may be particularly significant for marginalised communities, who feel they hold no power to navigate or negotiate fair use of digital technologies.
Read more: Yes, your doctor might google you
In the wake of the NSA leaks in 2013 led by Edward Snowden, we are more aware of the machinations of online companies such as Facebook and Google. Yet research shows some of us are apathetic when it comes to online surveillance.
Privacy and surveillance
Attitudes to privacy and surveillance in Australia are complex.
According to a major 2017 privacy survey, around 70% of us are more concerned about privacy than we were five years ago.
And yet we still increasingly embrace online activities. A 2017 report on social media conducted by search marketing firm Sensis showed that almost 80% of internet users in Australia now have a social media profile, an increase of around ten points from 2016. The data also showed that Australians are on their accounts more frequently than ever before.
Also, most Australians appear not to be concerned about recently proposed implementation of facial recognition technology. Only around one in three (32% of 1,486) respondents to a Roy Morgan study expressed worries about having their faces available on a mass database.
A recent ANU poll revealed a similar sentiment, with recent data retention laws supported by two thirds of Australians.
So while we’re aware of the issues with surveillance, we aren’t necessarily doing anything about it, or we’re prepared to make compromises when we perceive our safety is at stake.
Across the world, attitudes to surveillance vary. Around half of Americans polled in 2013 found mass surveillance acceptable. France, Britain and the Philippines appeared more tolerant of mass surveillance compared to Sweden, Spain, and Germany, according to 2015 Amnesty International data.
Apathy and marginalisation
In 2015, philosopher Slavoj Žižek proclaimed that he did not care about surveillance (admittedly though suggesting that “perhaps here I preach arrogance”).
This position cannot be assumed by all members of society. Australian academic Kate Crawford argues the impact of data mining and surveillance is more significant for marginalised communities, including people of different races, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds. American academics Shoshana Magnet and Kelley Gates agree, writing:
[…] new surveillance technologies are regularly tested on marginalised communities that are unable to resist their intrusion.
A 2015 White House report found that big data can be used to perpetuate price discrimination among people of different backgrounds. It showed how data surveillance “could be used to hide more explicit forms of discrimination”.
According to Ira Rubinstein, a senior fellow at New York University’s Information Law Institute, ignorance and cynicism are often behind surveillance apathy. Users are either ignorant of the complex infrastructure of surveillance, or they believe they are simply unable to avoid it.
As the White House report stated, consumers “have very little knowledge” about how data is used in conjunction with differential pricing.
So in contrast to the oppressive panopticon (a circular prison with a central watchtower) as envisioned by philosopher Jeremy Bentham, we have what Siva Vaidhyanathan calls the “crytopticon”. The crytopticon is “not supposed to be intrusive or obvious. Its scale, its ubiquity, even its very existence, are supposed to go unnoticed”.
But Melanie Taylor, lead artist of the computer game Orwell (which puts players in the role of surveillance) noted that many simply remain indifferent despite heightened awareness:
That’s the really scary part: that Snowden revealed all this, and maybe nobody really cared.
The Facebook trap
Surveillance apathy can be linked to people’s dependence on “the system”. As one of my media students pointed out, no matter how much awareness users have regarding their social media surveillance, invariably people will continue using these platforms. This is because they are convenient, practical, and “we are creatures of habit”.
Facebook has very cleverly figured out how to wrap itself around our lives. It’s the family photo album. It’s your messaging to your friends. It’s your daily diary. It’s your contact list.
While some people are attempting to delete themselves from the network, others have come up with ways to avoid being tracked online.
Search engines such as DuckDuckGo or Tor Browser allow users to browse without being tracked. Lightbeam, meanwhile, allows users to see how their information is being tracked by third party companies. And MIT devised a system to show people the metadata of their emails, called Immersion.
Surveillance apathy is more disconcerting than surveillance itself. Our very attitudes about privacy will inform the structure of surveillance itself, so caring about it is paramount.
Although racism online feels like an insurmountable problem, there are legal and civil actions we can take right now in Australia to address it.
Racism expressed on social media sites provided by Facebook and the Alphabet stable (which includes Google and YouTube) ranges from advocacy of white power, support of the extermination of Jews and the call for political action against Muslim citizens because of their faith. Increasingly it occurs within the now “private” pages of groups that “like” racism.
At the heart of the problem is the clash between commercial goals of social media companies (based around creating communities, building audiences, and publishing and curating content to sell to advertisers), and self-ascribed ethical responsibilities of companies to users.
Although some platforms show growing awareness of the need to respond more quickly to complaints, it’s a very slow process to automate.
Australia should focus on laws that protect internet users from overt hate, and civil actions to help balance out power relationships.
Three actions on the legal front
At the global level, Australia could withdraw its reservation to Article 4 of the International Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Such a move has been flagged in the past, but stymied by opposition from an alliance of free speech and social conservative activists and politicians.
The convention is a global agreement to outlaw racism and racial discrimination, and Article 4 committed signatories to criminalise race hate speech. Australia’s reservation reflected the conservative governments’ reluctance to use the criminal law, similar to the civil law debate over section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in 2016/7.
New data released by the eSafety Commissioner showed young people are subjected to extensive online hate. Amongst other findings, 53% of young Muslims said they had faced harmful online content; Indigenous people and asylum seekers were also frequent targets of online hate. Perhaps this could lead governments and opposition parties to a common cause.
Secondly, while Australian law has adopted the European Convention on Cyber Crime, it could move further and adopt the additional protocol. This outlaws racial vilification, and the advocacy of xenophobia and racism.
The impact of these international agreements would be to make serious cases of racial vilification online criminal acts in Australia, and the executive employees of platforms that refused to remove them personally criminally liable. This situation has emerged in Germany where Facebook executives have been threatened with the use of such laws. Mark Zuckerberg visited Germany to pledge opposition to anti-immigrant vilification in 2016.
Finally, Australia could adopt a version of New Zealand’s approach to harmful digital communication. Here, platforms are held ultimately accountable for the publication of online content that seriously offends, and users can challenge the failure of platforms to take down offensive material in the realm of race hate. Currently complaints via the Australian Human Rights Commission do elicit informal cooperation in some cases, but citizen rights are limited.
Taken together, these elements would mark out to providers and users of internet services that there is a shared responsibility for reasonable civility.
In addition to legal avenues, civil initiatives can empower those who are the targets of hate speech, and disempower those who are the perpetrators of race hate.
People who are targeted by racists need support and affirmation. This approach underpins the eSafety commissioner’s development of a Young and Safe portal, which offers stories and scenarios designed to build confidence and grow skills in young people. This is extending to address concerns of women and children, racism, and other forms of bullying.
The Online Hate Prevention Institute (OHPI) has become a reservoir of insights and capacities to identify and pursue perpetrators. As proposed by OHPI, a CyberLine could be created for tipping and reporting race hate speech online, for follow up and possible legal action. Such a hotline would also serve as a discussion portal on what racism looks like and what responses are appropriate.
Anti-racism workshops (some have already been run by the E Safety commissioner) have aimed to push back against hate, and build structures where people can come together online. Modelling and disseminating best practice against race hate speech offers resources to wider communities that can then be replicated elsewhere.
The Point magazine (an online youth-centred publication for the government agency Multicultural New South Wales) reported two major events where governments sponsored industry/community collaboration to find ways forward against cyber racism.
The growth of online racism marks the struggle between a dark and destructive social movement that wishes to suppress or minimise the recognition of cultural differences, confronted by an emergent social movement that treasures cultural differences and egalitarian outcomes in education and wider society.
Advocacy organisations can play a critical role in advancing an agenda of civility and responsibility through the state, the economy and civil society. The social movements of inclusion will ultimately put pressure on the state and in the economy to ensure the major platforms do in fact accept full responsibilities for the consequences of their actions. If a platform refuses to publish hate speech or acts to remove it when it receives valid complaints, such views remain a private matter for the individual who holds them, not a corrosive undermining of civil society.
We need to rebalance the equation between civil society, government and the internet industry, so that when the population confronts the industry, demonstrating it wants answers, we will begin to see responsibility emerge.
Governments also need to see their role as more strongly ensuring a balance between the right to a civil discourse and the profitability of platforms. Currently the Australian government seems not to accept that it has such a role, even though a number of states have begun to act.
The Cyber Racism and Community Resilience Project CRaCR explores why cyber racism has grown in Australia and globally, and what concerned communities have and can do about it. This article summarises the recommendations CRaCR made to industry partners.
This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative between The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.
Log on to Facebook or Twitter and you’re likely to see a deluge of political posts – a humorous meme or viral video skewering politicians like Donald Trump, the latest hashtag slogan in response to breaking news, maybe even a social movement symbol as an updated profile picture.
The sharing of political opinion on social media is now ubiquitous. But what does it mean for democracy?
For years, debate has raged about the significance of symbolic, expressive political activity at the level of the everyday citizen.
Critics fear it is simply self-satisfying “slacktivism”. It gives people an easy way to feel they’re contributing to a cause while substituting for more intensive political participation.
Conversely, optimists see a flourishing of civic engagement on the internet that gives people an accessible entry point into politics. If it helps them to develop a sense of political identity and agency, that enables more participation down the line.
These contrasting positions both have merit. Yet are those who take them asking the right questions in the first place?
By evaluating online political expression only in terms of possible impacts on traditional political activity, we risk sidestepping a far more crucial set of issues.
Myriad organisations and institutions see this citizen-level expression on social media as being far from just a private or personal affair. It is increasingly valued for its aggregate promotional power. The marketing professions know this as electronic word of mouth.
Political groups of all stripes promote social media participation to amplify the reach and credibility of their persuasive messages. Although each individual act of posting, linking, commenting and liking may look insignificant up close, at a macro level they add up to nothing less than the networked spread of ideas.
There is enormous power here for mass persuasion, one viral share at a time. We dismiss this power at our peril.
During the 2016 US presidential election cycle social media soared to new heights of prominence in the political media landscape. It appears we are finally starting to recognise this power for what it is.
Further reading: Trump, the wannabe king ruling by twiat
For instance, controversy over fake news on sites like Facebook has drawn attention to how peer-to-peer sharing can influence public opinion and even the course of elections (in this case by spreading false and defamatory messages about Hillary Clinton that consolidated her image problems). New research has highlighted how:
… far-right groups develop techniques of ‘attention hacking’ to increase the visibility of their ideas through the strategic use of social media, memes and bots.
The so-called alt-right celebrates its “meme magic” in propagating white nationalist ideology online in service of Trump. The pro-Clinton “Correct the Record” political action committee admits to paying people to post on social media during her primary battle with Bernie Sanders. We are seeing the persuasive value of citizen-level political media coming into sharp focus.
We need to reflect on how we each use this power. That involves thinking through the consequences of what we share online and how it can both strengthen and harm democratic values.
The citizen marketer
Sharing political opinion on social media must be understood in no small part as participation in political marketing. Its practitioners have long circulated persuasive media messages to shape the public mind and influence political outcomes.
This understanding calls for a new kind of media literacy. It requires individuals to acknowledge their own position in circuits of media influence and take seriously their capacity to help shape the flow of political ideas across networks of peers.
We should no longer think of political marketing — or its conceptual forebear, propaganda — as something only powerful elites do. We must recognise that we are all now complicit in this process every time we spread political messages via media platforms that we personally control.
Many citizens are keenly aware of their capacity to persuade their peers through their online posting. They have embraced the role of social media influencer. Most often, they focus on trying to rally the like-minded or undecided, rather than winning over converts from the other side.
This citizen marketer approach to political action can be seen as an outgrowth of the more established concept of the citizen consumer. A citizen consumer deliberately uses their spending power as another way to influence the political sphere.
They may, for instance, buy only environmentally friendly products, or boycott companies whose CEOs donate to campaigns and causes that the consumer opposes. Similarly, we are seeing citizens use their power as micro-level agents of viral media promotion and word-of-mouth endorsement to advance a wide range of political interests and agendas.
There is an enormous opportunity to democratise the flow of political media messages and publicise causes that lie outside the mainstream.
Consider recent activist movements, often built around viral hashtags like #occupywallsteet and #blacklivesmatter. Here, citizens are co-opting the tools and logics of social media marketing to advocate for political ideas that are typically poorly represented in the corporate mass media.
By recognising the potential value of our own grassroots political marketing power, we can gain a foothold in a political media landscape that elite interests traditionally dominated.
Perhaps even more importantly, cultivating a sense of responsibility for what we share on social media puts us in a better position to navigate the emerging digital ecosystem in which these elite actors are capitalising upon — at times even exploiting – our electronic word of mouth.
Further reading: Snowflake model is transforming political campaigns
Know what you are posting, and who you are posting for
Nowadays, major election campaigns and large-scale issue advocacy organisations have professional digital marketing teams. One of their tasks is to spur the promotional labour of everyday citizens to maximise the virality of their messages, whether these people are truly aware of their participation in political marketing or not.
In addition, for-profit political news sites like Breitbart and The Daily Kos have become dependent on social media shares to boost clicks and advertising revenue, as well as to advance their proprietors’ often-partisan agendas.
In this environment, it is crucial that we make informed decisions when we lend our promotional labour and word-of-mouth endorsement to institutional actors and the interests and agendas they represent.
At times we may be eager to act as “brand evangelists” for candidates, parties, advocacy groups or news agencies whose political goals align with our own. At other times developing media literacy might cause us to pause and reflect before we amplify the latest trending political message.
Back in 2013, Facebook users posted a red equal sign as their profile picture to express their support for same-sex marriage. Some had no idea the symbol was the logo of the Human Rights Campaign. This organisation has had a controversial status in the LGBT movement because of its past treatment of transgender issues.
Would these citizens still have posted the image if they knew they were participating in a viral marketing campaign for an organisation that was not universally supported by the LGBT community, and whose message of equality has drawn criticism for emphasising assimilation over radical structural change?
Or would they have chosen instead to amplify an image and an organisation with a different shade of meaning?
These kinds of important conversations can only be opened up if we start to develop a critical literacy of the citizen marketer approach and how it is transforming what it means to be an active participant in our media-dominated, postmodern political reality.
If we see our online political expressions as mere “slacktivism”, a simple private matter, or just having fun with friends, then we become more vulnerable to manipulation by forces that seek to exploit our citizen marketing power to serve agendas that we may not share.
If we become more aware of our position in these circuits of power, we will be better equipped to resist this manipulation.
The link below is to a Flipboard online newspaper I curate called ‘Cricket Monthly.’ This link is to issue 003 – July 2014.
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The link below is to a Flipboard online newspaper I curate called Australian News – this is issue 2014:07c.
For more visit: