How social media lost the election

November 24, 2016 23:28

In the aftermath of the general election, many of the losers were easy to identify. Miliband and Clegg were gone by lunchtime. The pollsters, initially embarrassed, somehow managed to justify their incompetencies in a way that only those armed with reams of data could. But in and among the many failures of General Election 2015, or perhaps that should be #GE2015, it was a disaster for social media.

Anyone on Twitter in the weeks leading up to May 7 would have been excused for believing that, if the opinion polls were wrong, it was only in that they failed to predict a Labour landslide.

The message was clear. Good people support Labour. Selfish, heartless, disabled-hating, poverty-promoters support the Tories. On every analytical metric, Labour led the field. Ed's reds had more followers, growing at a faster rate with a greater share of the conversation than any other party. As polling day approached, the Conservatives were the only party to fall below 50 per cent for "positive tweet sentiment". Labour hit 62 per cent, the Liberal Democrats 78 per cent. Imagine if that had been reflected at the ballot box.

In pinpointing what went wrong, a dig just beneath the surface is both revealing and informative. While more than a third of the tweets of Conservative supporters were also following Labour, the figure drops to less than a quarter in the other direction. Twitter has evolved into a leftist cocoon and those who dare to dissent from that particular party line have been drowned out. The Labour argument won on Twitter because it was not worth expending energy trying to fight it. Why bother putting the case for the Conservatives when the response would be hysterical and often vitriolic? There were a few who dared but on the whole it was easier to keep quiet. Even as the result became clear, timelines were filed with disbelief and disdain. "How could you do this to us?" This was a sentiment that showed how detached the Twitterati had become from reality.

Yet the election result should not have surprised anyone who has ever tried to fight for an unpopular standpoint on social media. Take Israel, for example. There have been many times that I've turned to social media to gauge opinion on events in the Middle East, only to be first vexed and then upset by the barrage of hatred.

This was particularly evident last summer but is the case whenever Israel is in the news. Try and respond and, in all likelihood, you will be shouted down. A few deep breaths later and the anger turns to despair as those putting the case for Israel slink off and hope for the best.

Yet, on reflection, I think that, to some extent, our fears are misplaced. Perhaps there's no need to really worry about what George Galloway, David Ward or indeed any of the micro-polemicists think about the important issues of he day. It has been proven that, in its current guise, social media amplifies a certain world-view at the expense of context, nuance and dissenting voices.

The BBC's motto, "Nation shall speak peace unto Nation", is a heraldic aspiration, grounded in the notion that, through open communication, barriers between people are removed.

Far from taking this forward, social media has allowed it to regress. Facebook and Twitter had their credibility knocked during the election campaign. They might be great for posting pictures of the kids on the beach and excellent for breaking and sharing news. But if you want an open, fair and free debate on the issues that really matter to you, don't try and do it in 140 characters or less.

November 24, 2016 23:28

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