By now, we’re all familiar with the problems of an open communication network which allows global reach. It’s easy to game our reptile brains to spread misinformation, hate speech and propaganda. It allows countries to interfere in the democratic communication processes in other countries. At best it serves as a kind of opiate for the masses, providing distractions that take people out of their communities. It’s a tool for capitalistic expansion and the control of knowledge and information flows. And to top it all off, the ads it serves are terrible.
In Canada, we survived our 43rd election, with the incumbent liberal government securing a minority parliament after a roller coaster 40 day campaign. Many election watchers were glued to their television sets, streaming video, or news websites last night in order to experience the results as they slowly rolled in. But how did voting day play out on Twitter? I tracked the two most popular election related hashtags: #elxn43 and #cdnpoli on Tweet Archivist to find out.
#cdnpoli most mentioned users
As can be seen in the wordcloud above, opposition leader Andrew Scheer was more often mentioned in conjunction with the hashtag #cdnpoli than incumbent Justin Trudeau, or the other party leaders, Jagmeet Singh or Elizabeth May. Parody website The Beaverton was mentioned more often than other news sites. Notably, the Bloc Quebecois was the seventh most popular user mentioned in association with the hashtag #cdnpoli. This may be a reflection of the growing popularity of the Bloc, which manifested in the Quebec centric party winning more seats than expected this election.
#cdnpoli trending hashtags
Of course, the election specific hashtag #elxn43 was most often associated with the #cdnpoli hashtag, as well as expected tags like #canadavotes, #vote, and #canadaelection. More surprising is the presence of #ableg – the hashtag for the Alberta provincial legislature, which was the 15th most popular hashtag. And Denmark, which seems to be driven by retweets of a specific tweet about renewable energy in Denmark, posted by a user affiliated with Greenpeace who was urging people to vote for clean energy.
#elxn43 most mentioned users
Looking at the #elxn43 hashtag, Jagmeet Singh, NDP leader was the most mentioned user. Followed by the other leaders, with opposition leader Andrew Scheer getting a few more mentions than incumbent Trudeau. The parody news site The Beaverton was still the most mentioned news outlet. Other frequently mentioned users include candidates for each party, and the names of some of the political parties. Included are also Jason Kenney, who is the leader of the provincial conservatives in Alberta, and the user @FairQuestions who is a Vancouver writer who has accused environmental groups of being against the oil and gas industry in a deceitful way.
#elxn43 trending hashtags
for #elxn43, #cdnpoli was the top most mentioned co-occurring hashtag. Outside of election specific hashtags like #canadavotes, #electionscanada, and #canadvotes2019, notable hashtags include #trudeaumustgo, which was the 6th most popular hashtag, and #trudeaulesstuesday, which was the 10th most popular hashtag. Also notable? #alberta was in the top 20.
Did Twitter Activity Suggest the “Blue Wave”?
While the incumbent liberal government maintained official governing status this election, albeit with a minority instead of majority government, some pundits suggest that a blue wave of conservative voting swept through the prairie provinces allowing the conservative government to pick up several seats more than they had going into the election. Given the alberta and conservative party focus on Twitter during election night, can we say that Twitter presaged a blue wave?
about 42% of Canadians are on Twitter, but fewer than that are regularly active on the site. We don’t know if Canadian Twitter users are more likely to vote than non-Twitter users, but we do know that journalists and political candidates tend to be more active on Twitter than regular users. It could be that journalists and political candidates with insider information were amplifying sentiment in Alberta and the other prairie provinces which was an accurate reflection of feelings on the ground. Or it could be somewhat of a coincidence that conservative sentiment was so prevalent on these hashtags during election night.
If we were judging by number of mentions alone, it certainly seems like the conservatives would have been the winning party. Interestingly enough, conservatives did get a slightly higher proportion of the popular vote than the incumbent liberals did, though it’s difficult to say how much of this is accurately reflected on Twitter, and whether the connection is due to more than chance alone.
What we can say is this: Twitter and other social media accounts have been accused of a left wing bias. If the Twitter activity on election night was any indication, this claim is unfounded. In fact, one could say that those opposed to what they see as left leaning policy are getting more traction on the platform if we look at trending mentions and hashtags co-occurring with popular election hashtags. Like other claims of a “left wing media” the idea that social platforms penalize users with right or conservative messages seems unfounded.
Yesterday, I was asked to appear on a CBC lunchtime call in show to discuss the issue of fake news during election time. Apparently, Vancouver-based polling firm Research Co recently conducted a poll in which two out of five Canadians reported that they had seen “fake news” online. In this case, Research Co defined “fake news” as “stories about current affairs that were obviously false”.
Now we can take Research Co to task for their imprecise definition of fake news here. Many Donald Trump supporters, for example, think that mainstream and reputable news outlets report stories that are “obviously false” and unfortunately, truth seems to rest in the eye of the beholder these days. However, that’s a much longer discussion for another blog post.
What I’d like to do today, is assume that we are seeing false, exaggerated, or misleading news more often than we used to, and I’d like to look at one important driver of misinformation during this particular Canadian election, using the recent rumours about Justin Trudeau, our current Prime Minister as a sort of case study of the ways media manipulators try to bait established media outlets to spread rumour and innuendo.
Pop quiz: What do climate change and social media privacy have in common?
If you said, “a distracting and inaccurate focus on individual actions” you’re correct! Congratulations! Pat yourself on the back and pour yourself a congratulatory beer, glass of wine, coffee, or soda.
Popular opinion is that fake news and distrust of the mainstream media was mostly a problem during the 2016 US election and the ill-fated Brexit vote in the UK. However, before either of these things happened, we actually saw anti-news sentiment in small pockets of Canadian social media chatter. During our last election in 2015 people were beginning to use the hashtag #CdnMedia to criticize mainstream media sources and accuse journalists of working for the Liberal government. As we enter another election year, we may want to learn from what happened before, as I suspect this type of chatter will only become a bigger player in 2019.
In my sustainability communication work, I’m always interested in the new and innovative methods that are being developed to teach people about climate change science and policy. Recently the Canadian Energy Policy Solutions Simulator came across my desk. This simulator, developed by the Pembina Institute, allows the user to see the emissions savings of different policy instruments that the government could introduce, and how close these different policies may or may not help Canada get to our emissions reduction targets.
These companies make money by ensuring we spend as much time on their platforms as possible so they use various tricks like creating an illusion of choice, hijacking our natural tendencies as social animals, and producing the compelling draw of variable rewards to capture and hold our attention. In his article, Harris makes suggestions for why each of these tactics is problematic for people, community, and society, and he also suggests different ways we could design and approach technology in our lives. I’d like to build on his ideas specifically with respect to weaponized misinformation and propaganda. Harris doesn’t really get into this in his article, but I’d like to suggest why I think the hacking of the human mind has left us far more vulnerable to this type of message manipulation.
When social media platforms hack our brains for attention, they have also super charged the propaganda, misinformation and black ops tactics that were already being deployed at a slower grassroots scale. Just as we are wired to seek variable rewards from social media notifications, we are wired to respond to emotionally charged (particularly negative) posts. The human mind, evolutionary speaking, is optimized to ignore the mundane but attend to threats to ourselves or our tribes. Thus when we see a viral video showing a confrontation between two groups, one of whom we identify with, we will be likely to pay attention to the video and then share it with our tribe without thinking critically about what is not shown on the video.
This type of uncritical engagement with media is not particularly new either. As anyone who has taken a media studies class can tell you, we tend to trust what we see with our own eyes, which is why video is so successful a medium for building and reinforcing cultural norms. But as social media platforms use popularity and auto play to hold our attention, they also facilitate the spread of video, increasing the global scale at which they can effectively influence people’s views.
So as Harris points out, we are all being hacked for our attention. And as the companies hack our brains, they pave the way for propagandists to do so as well. This adds additional weight to Harris’ call for a social media bill of rights, and I would add, suggests that we need to carefully think through the question of regulation for platforms and whether we need to develop an international and enforceable standard of practice.
Well most of us have, anyway. The infamous addendum to your Twitter bio. Come on, you know it – it goes something like this: “RT’s are not endorsements” or “RT’s do not equal endorsements” or something along those lines.
Heck, I have one myself, you can check it out on Twitter if you look up @SocMedDr. It serves as a little disclaimer. A little “I may not have done my homework, but I liked a tweet so I retweeted it, don’t hassle me later” disclaimer.
And today, I’m going to tell you why I think we’re all wrong to do this. Especially now in an age of online information operations and fake news.