Is social media influential politically?

As a political observer, I’m interested in how social media plays a role in politics both from the top-down and the bottom-up. I previously wrote about how politicians are using social media to campaign and reach voters, and with Hilary Clinton using YouTube and social media channels to launch her bid for U.S. presidency, it’s clear that social media is important in politics. But what about from the voters’ perspective? Can they too use social media to affect change?

According to Foreign Affairs magazine, “Since the rise of the Internet in the early 1990s, the world’s networked population has grown from the low millions to the low billions. Over the same period, social media have become a fact of life for civil society worldwide, involving many actors — regular citizens, activists, nongovernmental organizations, telecommunications firms, software providers, governments.”

Further, the article states: “The use of social media tools — text messaging, e-mail, photo sharing, social networking, and the like — does not have a single preordained outcome. Therefore, attempts to outline their effects on political action are too often reduced to dueling anecdotes. … The safest characterization of recent quantitative attempts to answer the question, Do digital tools enhance democracy? … is that these tools probably do not hurt in the short run and might help in the long run — and that they have the most dramatic effects in states where a public sphere already constrains the actions of the government.”

This article was printed in the January/February 2011 edition, and likely written before the Arab Spring happened. It even says that social media technologies were too new to assess, but I think it’s clear, four years later, that social media can be used as political tool for regular citizens. In Canada, we saw that in 2013 with the Idle No More movement.

“Social media allows the people who are actually directly involved and impacted by these kinds of movements … to have their voices heard,” said Erica Lee, then a university student who took part in the movement that saw a rally of 100 in Saskatchewan at the start turn into a national outcry which led to political conversations about the state Canada’s aboriginal peoples were in.

There was also the social media backlash against proposed legislation to allow warrantless searches online, known as Bill C-30, which effectively killed the bill.

Malcom Gladwell notes however that social media is not be all and end all.

“The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, co-ordinate, and give voice to their concerns,” Gladwell wrote. That may be true, but activism still needs activists to create real change, he adds.

“The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.”

Gladwell is correct, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the tools in modern activism are bad. I believe social media is playing a larger role in political movements, and is becoming more influential in the political sphere both in Canada and around the world. Because of its mass appeal, large outreach, instantaneous communication and the technology that allows all of that, social media is an important tool in changing society.

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Every move you make, every step you take, they’ll be watching you on social media

Lesson five talks about future trends in social media to look out for, two being “wearable technology” and another being “big data.” Because of these two, privacy is a huge concern to those online.

“Privacy (which has always been a major concern in social circles) is taking on a heightened level of importance for people. From the EU/UK cookie legislations, which require website owners to disclose the use of tracking cookies on their website, to the controversy over the NSA in the US monitoring online conversations that came to light in 2013, people are more concerned than ever about personal privacy as more and more of our lives are lived online,” the readings states.

In my case, I try not to post too much personal information on social media channels and consciously don’t leave an electronic trail of where I am or who I’m with or what I’m doing. The Facebook “Check In” feature? Never used it. In fact I still have the same Facebook photo that I’ve used since I signed up years ago, and have never posted a status update, nor commented or “Liked” anything on Facebook. Similarly, I didn’t get a Twitter account until last year, when I was on a sabbatical and had the account locked down so that only my family and friends, people I actually talked to regularly, could follow me.

For someone in the media, I know I shouldn’t be averse to social media, but the privacy angle gets me all the time. I don’t really want my private life and every aspect of it to be broadcast on social media, and I certainly don’t want to be checking all the social media feeds 24/7, but I feel I have to in order to really succeed in today’s news industry. I had a job interview once and the employer asked me why I wasn’t on social media. My reply: because I struggle with the personal side of it. I feel authenticity counts for so much when doing social media well (because why else would anyone want to follow me?!), but at the same time I still want to preserve some privacy. I feel it’s all or nothing because it’s tough to do both!

On top of that, I don’t really want these social media outlets to gather all this data on me and use it for some other purpose. The movie Terms and Conditions May Apply outlines this so well. We live in such a connected world now that we don’t even stop to read what we’re agreeing to online when we sign up for things, especially social media platforms. I know it is not all for nefarious purposes, but the Google Ads that show up on a site after I’ve searched for something already creep me out… I don’t want to give more information about myself willingly and so freely on social media outlets. And therein lies my love/hate relationship with social media. I do enjoy using them for personal and work purposes, to keep in touch with people, to learn new information… but the lack of privacy is so difficult to come to terms with. I do have a public Twitter account now, though, so there has been some reluctant ‘progress’ on my part to join this fascinating world! 🙂

Keep calm, and don’t feed the trolls!

Lesson Four in our class speaks to monitoring social media and one part of the readings struck me as interesting. In the section “Measuring the impact of social media,” it asks, “So what’s the impact? What does it mean if someone says something on Twitter about your product? This is still something that is being debated quite a bit but if simplified, can boil down to this: People saying good things = good [and] People saying bad things = bad.”

Sure, people saying good things about you, your product or your organization is good, but does every ‘bad’ thing truly mean anything? No one and nothing is perfect, so we know that there will naturally be some negative comments or tweets regardless of what you do or say online. Some people just have preferences for certain things, and others always love you, no matter what.

In the news business, there are many people who comment on stories and don’t add value to the conversation. They don’t like the people a reporter has interviewed, they don’t read the entire article and/or don’t understand what is being written, and/or they repeat themselves continuously. For these, I would take the negativity with a grain of salt.

Then there’s the fact that it’s mostly negative things that compel people to comment in the first place. More people will complain about a product or service they received than will people who’ve had good experiences. So, again, can you truly take the bad things that people are saying, especially online, at face value if it always outweighs the good?

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Of course, there are also those trolls online who get off on causing grief for no reason: the trolls.

According to a Canadian study, “trolls are ‘agents of chaos’ that exploit ‘hot-button issues’ to inflame and exploit users’ emotions. … If an unfortunate person falls into their trap, trolling intensifies for further, merciless amusement. This is why novice Internet users are routinely admonished, ‘Do not feed the trolls!’”

Further, the study notes, trolls have similar characteristics to psychopaths and sadists. “Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun … and the Internet is their playground!” the study says.

keep-calm-and-don-t-feed-the-troll-22The Lesson Four reading notes: “The trick is getting more people to say more good things and more than that, turning bad things into good. That comes with engagement.” I think engagement needs to be selective, in that organizations shouldn’t be engaging trolls or those that seemingly have nothing better to do than just complain. I think sometimes ignoring the bad comments can be a good thing.

Five reasons why social media will not take over traditional media

Call me a luddite, a purist, or even a dinosaur, but with all the social media rage these days and their effects on traditional news outlets, it’s difficult to believe that 140-character platforms will institute the death of print, broadcast or even digital news.

Here are five reasons why:

1. Niche reporting is on the rise

It is undeniable that the media industry is changing rapidly and significantly. Today’s digital age has forced media outlets to change the way in which they gather and disseminate news. In a world of 24-hour news heightened by social media, both publishers and journalists are working their way through this new environment, compounded by declining advertising revenue and demand for more content.

As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development notes in its comprehensive report, The Evolution of News and the Internet, “The rise of the Internet and other technologies radically changes how news is produced and diffused. It enables the entry of new intermediaries that create and distribute news, including online news aggregators, online news publishers, mobile news actors, citizen journalism and many more. Information providers with very different trajectories (TV, newspapers and Internet companies) are now competing head-on in a global online news environment.” The news industry is affected by these dramatic changes globally.

Research has shown, however, that while the print news industry is struggling, what is on the rise is niche publishing. “Despite countless doom and gloom reports (usually involving newspaper circulation) print publishing is still flourishing with many niche outfits. The print industry’s obituary has been written too early,” says Rebecca Wesson Darwin, who publishes Garden & Gun in the U.S. In Canada, the magazine Jobpostings grew 30 per cent, mostly in print. Carleton University journalism professor Chris Waddell says he’s not surprised. “He said there’s a long tradition of success in niche publishing. And he expects to continue as traditional mainstream publishers struggle,” Quentin Casey wrote in a Financial Post article in 2013.

2. Even social media users tweet about what the traditional news outlets are reporting

Social media platforms are just that—platforms. They are not the news. Yes, news breaks on Twitter or from a post on Facebook, but the majority of the time, social media are used to market and promote things that are found in traditional media outlets. Tweets usually consist of links back to print and broadcast news outlets.

3. People want more news, not less

Related to reason number two, even if news breaks on Twitter or Facebook, social media users still want to read comprehensive news, rather than the 140-character snippets they see in their Twitter feed.

In fact, “In contrast to the idea that one generation tends to rely on print, another on television and still another the web, the majority of Americans across generations now combine a mix of sources and technologies to get their news each week, according to the survey by the Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.”

Although an American study, the statistics are telling. “The data also challenge another popular idea about the digital age, the notion that with limitless choices people follow only a few subjects in which they are interested and only from sources with which they agree — the idea of the so-called ‘filter bubble.’”

The survey notes:

There are relatively few differences by generation, party, or socioeconomic status in the level of interest with which people report following different topics.

These are some of the findings of the nationally representative telephone survey of 1,492 adults conducted from Jan. 9 through Feb. 16, 2014.

The data from the survey, which was designed to probe what adults distinguish most in their news consumption in the digital age, offer a portrait of Americans becoming increasingly comfortable using technology in ways that take advantage of the strengths of each medium and each device.

There are five devices or technologies that majorities of Americans use to get news in a given week. The average American adult uses four different devices or technologies for news.

4. Without formal media, there would be chaos

This is a slight exaggeration, but could be true. The idea of the “citizen journalist” is on the rise with increasing technology and instantaneous social media feeds, but the role of a trained journalist working for a traditional media outlet is one that cannot be understated. Not only are there democratic implications for the need for professional journalists, but there are also legitimate logistical considerations to be taken into account.

For example, journalists and media outlets work under the long-held belief that what they report is the truth. If “news” is coming from everywhere, from every Joe or Jane Citizen Journalist, how do you filter out credible sources and stories? Media only survive because of their credibility and adherence to certain principles and therefore are trusted actors in a democratic society. (Full disclosure: I’m a professional, working journalist!)

5. Video didn’t kill the radio star

Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 13th century, and print products, especially news media, have had a long run in terms of being the main source of news for people across the globe. When radio was invented in the late 19th century and became popular in the early 20th century, it could stand to reason that the public would no longer read papers. They still did. When video broadcast news started in the 1950s and the 6 p.m. news became a nightly staple in many homes, people thought that would kill both radio and print. Both are still going strong, in addition to video, and in addition to online products, and now social media.

The online world will not take over traditional news products, but rather complement them, as can be seen in the New York Times’ case:

In March 2011, after years of watching print ad sales fall, The New York Times began charging readers for access to stories on its website. But this wasn’t like the paywalls of old. Under the new system, the Times would give readers 20 free stories before the paywall kicked in. What’s more, stories accessed through social media were still available to those who had exceeded their limits.

The plan was greeted with no small amount of skepticism, and in some cases outright mockery. But it worked. A year in, more than 450,000 readers had subscribed to the Times digital edition. In March 2012, the paper cut back the number of free articles to 10. Readership continued to climb. By the end of the fiscal 2012, the company had 640,000 paid digital subscribers to The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. That year, thanks largely to all that new digital money, the company brought in more revenue from circulation than from advertising for the first time.

There you have it. Thoughts?

Technology and social media in political campaigns

I recently covered the Manning Centre’s Networking Conference for my newspaper, and attended a panel called Technology and politics in the 21st century. Industry Minister James Moore, Treasury Board President Tony Clement and Colin McKay from Google spoke about how technology and social media have changed the political campaigning landscape.

I remember when I was in high school and got my first email address in 1996. It was a Hotmail address that I still use today for junk mail and lists. I was struck however, when Moore said that 1997 was the first federal election where political parties had websites, followed by the 2000 election campaign in which tech-savvy individual campaigns got their own website. In today’s digital age, it seems like those things have always been with us.

Moore went on to describe how technology changed the game in 2004, when “almost everyone had websites that were not controlled by the party.” This was also the start of personal blogs, which sometimes got a few candidates in trouble because they were posting their unfiltered thoughts on the internet, and without approval from the central party command structure. He described the 2008 election as the Facebook campaign, and the most recent one in 2011, it was the Twitter campaign. In this federal election year, he said, the challenge for candidates and political parties will be unlike any other when it comes to using technology to reach voters and win campaigns.

With the many different social media outlets and technology avenues available for political candidates, there will likely be a decentralization of political party campaigns, Moore said.

“Decentralization, the opportunities for decentralization of the dissemination of information in unique ways for individual candidates in ways that make sense for their districts has never been more diversified before in Canadian history, which is a great thing, but the challenges and risks for political parties therein is extraordinary. You have this tiering away of national campaigns,” Mr. Moore told attendees of the Manning Centre Networking conference on March 6. “Broadcasting is dying, narrowcasting is growing. … The challenges in 2015 will be unlike any campaign before in a candidate’s history as on a local and national level we try to engage in two different approaches of whole cohorts of voters.”

Looking back at the evolution of how political parties reached out to voters is interesting. In a way, politicians are more accessible to their constituents given the instantaneous nature of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. But in a way, also, perhaps the significance of politics and public policy has been lost, whittled down to 140 characters and selfies at events to prove engagement. And, the question must be asked, are they really engaging the general public, or has social media become an “echo chamber” of sorts, as more people seek out information online that conform to their own world view?

It’s a discussion that the traditional media might be worried about having. Former Sun News Ottawa bureau chief David Akin tweeted about this issue today with former CBC reporter Elly Alboim and others:

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I believe Akin is right. Alboim and Gerald Butts also make some good points:

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So, has social media become an echo chamber in which users are merely looking for information that reinforce their views? If so, how does this allow politicians to truly engage voters, and gain new support rather than just talking to people who already share their vision?

Clement said that one of the biggest advantages for politicians to use social media is so that they can engage, speak and interact directly with voters. “Part of what we do as politicians, how we both react and try to be proactive, I think it’s now incumbent upon us, if we want to be successful politicians, successful in our job at projecting ideas and principles, we need to keep on top of technology,” he said, noting he now has an Instagram account which he uses as a different way to communicate to his constituents and Canadians in general. “It’s become part of a table of how I can talk about my day and interact with people that I didn’t use two years ago.”

In today’s digital age, each major political party is using “big data to craft their message, to target their message, to communicate  on particular issues to audiences,” Clement said. “We’re living in an age where things are changing rapidly.”

All of the technology, however, cannot replace going door-to-door and interacting with people in real time, face to face, Clement added. I think this is key. With all the technology out there, I think people still want information and they still want to have meaningful conversations.

As McKay from Google said, there is an appetite for more information in politics as people go online to search for information. He noted that people check on candidates or issues at least 14 times before making a decision on who to vote for. Additionally, “how to vote” was the one search in Canada last year in the “how to” category, he said.

“Digital tools are allowing voters to connect with politicians,” Mr. McKay said, noting that politicians are able to reach more people through social media than the traditional media. “The web is changing policy and political outcomes. … The landscape has changed.”

Indeed, it has.