Demos Daily: Vox Digitas

Today’s Demos Daily is a CASM edition guest-edited by our Director of CASM, Alex Krasodomski-Jones:

We are hours away from President Donald Trump’s executive order targeting social media companies. His latest rant revolves around postal voting, a long-time vehicle for accusing his opponents of rigging the forthcoming election against him.

“There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent.”

In probably a first for the major social media platforms, Twitter fact checks it. Underneath the Tweet, a note appears: Get the facts about mail-in ballots. It links to a fact-checking label refuting the President’s claims. 

He’s not happy. Contradicting the President appears to be a sure way to antagonise him, but the innocuous blue label is more than just a personal offense. It is a crack in the facade for the undisputed heavyweight champion of political Twitter, a sign of weakness in those online spaces that were so instrumental in his rise to office, like being bitten by your own attack dog. 

It feels absurd that CASM’s flagship Vox Digitas – pilloried by Mary Beard at the time for its questionable Latin – was just six years ago. It feels like an eternity. Back then, Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller and the team of data scientists at Sussex University led by Jeremy Reffin, David Weir and Simon Wibberley, founded CASM on the belief that spaces like social media platforms would be significant cultural, social and political milieus. But even they might have underestimated just how important these spaces would become. 

Vox Digitas set the agenda for social media research for policy. It made the case that understanding these new spaces was of critical importance for understanding the ways in which society and politics was changing. It sought to open up access to the new tools, technologies and methodologies that think tanks, academia and civil society would need to find their way in this new digital world.

It’s an optimistic read. It dreams of a world where social media platforms provide a point of connection between the people and their representatives. Six years on, we continue to cling to that optimism at Demos: we believe that the web still has the potential to be an immeasurably powerful force for good. But things have changed: oligopolies, authoritarianism, abuse and exclusion threaten to mutilate the web. In the face of these challenges, we continue to stand to articulate, measure and advocate for a good Internet.

Read Vox Digitas here, and the chapterSocial media: a new political theatre for Europe’ below.

Social media: a new political theatre for Europe

A crisis of confidence

Throughout the European continent, there is a profound disaffection with politics and the political system, both towards national governments and the EU. Scepticism and uncertainty about the EU’s future has grown. Anti-EU populist parties have garnered attention and momentum across EU member states, and performed well in the 2014 European elections. The future of the EU depends on the response to these critical events, and more broadly on bridging the real and perceived distances that now divide representative institutions, and those they represent.

Representation through formal democratic participation is trapped in a downward spiral. EU elections have consistently failed to attract the number of voters that participate in national elections. Political parties, sitting at the heart of both national and European elections, are highly distrusted almost everywhere. In Germany 73 per cent distrust them, as do 89 per cent of French citizens and 85 per cent of British citizens. Only around 2 per cent of voters in these countries are now members of a mainstream political party.’ (1)

In the wake of the economic recession and Eurozone crisis, distrust in EU institutions has increased in many countries. Between 1999 and 2009, trust in EU institutions was around 45–50 per cent. Since autumn 2009, trust levels dropped substantially from 48 per cent down to 33 per cent in autumn 2012. (2) The latest Eurobarometer report shows a significant increase in the percentage of respondents who have a ‘negative’ image of the EU. (3) Indeed, in May 2013, Pew Global proposed that the EU was ‘the new sick man of Europe’. (4)

These figures – already worrying reading – may obscure a significant generational divide. Young people are the least likely age group to have voted in the 2009 European Parliament election. (5) Those who did vote, tended to vote against the EU: 74 per cent of the Dutch 18–24-year-olds who voted, voted against the Constitutional Treaty, and 65 per cent of young Irish voters said ‘no’ to the Lisbon Treaty – both significantly higher than other age groups. (6)

However, research shows young people are interested in politics, but perhaps not the way it is done at present. A recent UK survey of 18-year-olds found that many respondents expressed an interest in political affairs when broadly defined, and many said they were keen to play a more active role in the political process. (7) Even though young people have a fairly strong aversion to formal politics and professional politicians, they are relatively active in alternative modes of political participation. (8) One venue for this new type of participation is social media.

Social media

The way people live their social lives in Europe is changing radically. While trust, engagement and support for our representative institutions continue to fall, there has been a democratisation in how our society produces, shares and consumes information. The explosion of a new, ‘social’ media – those platforms, internet sites, apps, blogs and forums that allow for user-generated content to be published and shared – have created a new digital commons. (9) Around the world, 1.2 billion people use one of these platforms at least once a month. (10) The most well known are Facebook (the largest, with over a billion users), YouTube and Twitter. They are only the most famous members of a much more linguistically, culturally and functionally diverse family of platforms and communities that span social bookmarking, micromedia, niche networks, video aggregation and social curation. (11)

Around three out of four Europeans use at least one social media platform, and 60 per cent of Europeans log into their social accounts every day, (12) 62 per cent use Facebook, and 16 per cent use Twitter. What platforms people use, how often, when and for what reason, and the value they get from them, differ greatly according to background, where they live, how old they are and how rich they are. (13)

Twitter

Twitter – the platform used for this study – is a social media platform that allows users to create accounts and post ‘micro- blogs’ to the site of no more than 140 characters in length. Since it began operating in 2009, its 250 million active users have posted over 170 billion micro-blogs, ‘tweets’. As a platform experiencing extremely rapid growth, the demography – geography, language, age and wealth – of these users is constantly changing. While struggling to keep pace with this changing reality, major studies have found that over 100 languages are regularly used on Twitter. English accounts for around half of all tweets, with other popular languages being Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Indonesian and Spanish (accounting together for around 40 per cent of tweets). (14)

In 2012, Twitter ranked as the third most popular social media site in France, the fourth in the UK, and the fifth in Germany. (15) Approximately 6.6 million people regularly use Twitter in the UK, while in Germany and France the number of active users is estimated to be around 2.4 million and 2.2 million respectively. (16) Other reports present higher figures. (17) In the UK, 55 per cent of Twitter users are female and 45 per cent male. In France, users are 40 per cent female and 60 per cent male. (18)

A new venue for political activism

The role of social media in people’s lives continues to evolve and change. While it was once primarily a social tool for forming friendships and sharing content, it is increasingly a way to consume news, pursue niche interests, form new groups, identities and affiliations, and even coordinate offline activity. People increasingly use social media to engage in politics and political activism. (19) It is also beginning to affect formal politics in the way parties form, organise and communicate, the way in which politicians can get their message out to the electorate, and indeed listen to potential voters. (20)

‘Clicktivism’ has emerged as a new, distinct and exclusively online kind of political activism. In 2011, for the first time, people were more likely to contact a politician or a political party online (8 per cent) than offline (7 per cent). In 2011, 9 per cent of people sent an electronic message supporting a political cause, and the same number commented on politics in social media. (21) Individuals now increasingly participate in online consultations and voting: within a three-month period 6 per cent of people in Britain, 7 per cent of people in France and 11 per cent of people in Germany took part in an online consultation or vote about civil or political issues. (22)

New forms of political affiliation based on social media are also growing quickly. According to recent research by Demos, in the UK there are now more unique Twitter users who follow MPs belonging to a party than there are formal party members. (23) In France, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) has about 205,000 formal members respectively, while President Hollande has 557,741 Twitter followers.

Perhaps more significantly, new kinds of social movements are emerging using social media, and challenging existing parties in a way that was unthinkable a decade ago. The English Defence League in the UK, Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle in Italy, and Jobbik in Hungary are very different movements, but they all use social media effectively and are opposed to the EU, which they see as being distant, out of touch, and unrepresentative of national interests. For example, Beppe Grillo used his popular blog, Facebook page, Twitter feed and meet-up group to coordinate a huge number of supporters, becoming the leader of the single largest party at the latest Italian general election. (24) Other parties have looked for even more innovative ways to reconnect. The Swedish and German Pirate parties have combined an extensive use of social media with a commitment to values such as openness, dialogue and transparency. (25)

The growth of several anti-elitist, populist parties may at least partly be explained by the combination of these two trends. More people are looking for alternatives to the status quo and by offering new, non-hierarchical ways to communicate and organise, social media presents new avenues for political expression and mobilisation. It facilitates collective action on single issues across borders, with low barriers to entry and very few costs. (26) Street-based movements across the continent have also used social media to connect and coordinate disparate groups effectively across the continent.

The Spanish Los Indignados movement is an early example of this new potency. (27) As the demonstrations progressed, participants systematically turned to such platforms to discuss relevant issues and improve the movement’s coordination. In particular, a series of Twitter hashtags and accounts became a reference point not only in providing tactical information about the protests but also in promoting the movement’s message
and narrative. (28)

Listening to the vox digitas

The way these two trends – rising levels of distrust and new ways of coordinating, organising and being part of politics – interact will be crucial for understanding the future of European politics. A whole new space for listening to and engaging with European citizens has opened up.

The legitimacy of democratic governments rests on more than just electoral victory. The challenge continues to secure and sustain representative government day by day. Representivity is vitally sustained by finding ways to understand people’s attitudes accurately, and reflecting them in what the institution does. The Harrisburg Pennsylvanian opened the era of political polling in 1824; readers preferred Andrew Jackson for president over John Quincy Adams. (29) Just over a hundred years later, George Gallup’s first national scientific poll opened the way for a method that, evolving from postcards to the telephone to the internet, remains with us today. (30)

Today, European citizens’ opinions are measured by the Eurobarometer, a cross-national longitudinal survey conducted by the European Commission, which has been running since 1973, with all results available on an online database. It is run twice a year and consists of a number of standard questions that are asked in every ‘wave’ (such as life satisfaction questions) plus a number of thematic one-off or episodic questions. Eurobarometer is powerful and useful, and many of the questions it sets are explicitly written to inform or support particular policy decisions. However, as with any research method, it has limitations. It suffers from considerable lag with events. For example, it cannot tell us about immediate reaction and responses to quickly changing events across the continent – such as how citizens respond to major announcements, events, or crises (such as the Cyprus bailout in early 2013).

Europe now has a digital voice that is loud and passionate, and will continue to increase in importance. Taken together, social media is simply the largest body of information about people and society we have ever had – huge, unmediated and constantly refreshing bodies of behavioural evidence that are, in digital form, inherently amenable to collection and analysis. (31) Listening to this digital voice is a new way for European institutions to understand Europe in motion: to gauge public opinion, attitudes and beliefs in a way that can help reconnect people to politics. It can expose relationships, dynamics, processes, tipping points, information on causes and consequences that were previously unseen. (32)

Turning this potential opportunity into something useful and useable is difficult. Research that produces trustworthy insight – evidence – into attitudes is based on the use of methods that are accepted and widely used by people who practise and use research. The attitudinal research methods used and trusted today to inform important and difficult decisions – from large scientific polling to in-depth qualitative ethnographies – have a long tradition of methodological development behind them. These form defined and codified bodies of good practice that identify the many threats to the accuracy or validity of the research.

Social media research – especially monitoring Twitter – is young. It is composed of a scattering of isolated islands of practice, rather than consolidated bodies of common experience. Private-sector companies, academic institutions and the third sector use it, applying very different research techniques from the computer sciences to ethnography, and with aims ranging from understanding networks of millions to the deep, textured knowledge of an individual. Consequently, there is no accepted or recognised body of best practice capable of satisfying the evidential standards of decision-makers. (33)

To be powerful and useful, methods to listen to the digital voice need to demonstrate what new and different kinds of insight can be gained through these approaches, and how their strengths and weaknesses compare to other ways of learning about people’s opinions and views.

Twitter is often used to share information rather than express opinions

Over half of every stream, and in many cases substantially more, were tweets that shared a link to a site beyond Twitter. A substantial number of these links were to media stories, and a substantial number of tweets linking to media stories contained no additional comment by the tweeter themselves.

 


(1) European Commission, Eurobarometer survey on trust in institutions, Nov 2013, http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/ cf/showchart_column.cfm?keyID=2189&nationID=6,3,15,& startdate=2012.05&enddate=2013.11 (accessed 24 Apr 2014); I van Biezen, P Mair and T Poguntke (2012) ‘Going, going… gone? The decline of party membership in contemporary Europe’, European Journal of Political Research 51, no 1, 2012, pp 24–56.

(2) J Birdwell, F Farook and S Jones, Trust in Practice, London: Demos, 2009.

(3) European Commission, ‘Public opinion in the European Union: first results’, Standard Eurobarometer 78, Dec 2012, http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb78/ eb78_first_en.pdf (accessed 10 Apr 2014).

(4) Pew Research Center, ‘The sick man of Europe: the European Union’, 13 May 2013, www.pewglobal.org/ 2013/05/13/the-new-sick-man-of-europe-the-european-union/ (accessed 10 Apr 2014).

(5) European Commission, ‘Two years to go to the 2014 European elections’, Eurobarometer 77, no 4, 2012, www. europarl.europa.eu/pdf/eurobarometre/2012/election_2012/ eb77_4_ee2014_synthese_analytique_en.pdf (accessed 11 Apr 2014).

(6) P Huyst, ‘The Europeans of tomorrow: researching European identity among young Europeans’, Centre for EU- studies, Ghent University, nd, http://aei.pitt.edu/33069/1/ huyst._petra.pdf (accessed 11 Apr 2014).

(7) M Henn and N Foard, ‘Young people, political participation and trust in Britain’, Parliamentary Affairs 65, no 1, 2012.

(8) Eg J Sloam, ‘Rebooting democracy: youth participation in politics in the UK’, Parliamentary Affairs, 60, 2007.

(9) D Zeng et al, ‘Social media analytics and intelligence: guest editors’ introduction’, in Proceedings of the IEEE Computer Society, Nov–Dec 2010, p 13.

(10) Emarketer, ‘Where in the world are the hottest social networking countries?’, 29 Feb 2012, www.emarketer. com/Article/ Where-World-Hottest-Social-Networking- Countries/1008870 (accessed 11 Apr 2014).

(11) Social-media-prism, ‘The conversation’, nd, www.google.co.uk/imgres?imgurl=http://spirdesign.no/wp-content/ uploads/2010/11/social-media-prism.jpg&imgrefurl=http://spirdesign.no/blog/webdesignidentitet-og-trender/ attachment/social-media-prism/&h=958&w=1024&sz=301&tbnid=EFQcS2D-zhOj8M:&tbnh=90&tbnw=96&zoom=1&usg=__V XussUcXEMznT42YLhgk6kOsPIk=&docid=ho9_RAXkIYvcpM&sa=X&ei=9QBXUdeYO-iJ0AXdyIHYAg&ved=0CEoQ 9QEwAg&dur=47 (accessed 11 Apr 2014).

(12) F Ginn, ‘Global social network stats confirm Facebook as largest in US & Europe (with 3 times the usage of
2nd place)’, Search Engine Land, 17 Oct 2011, http://searchengineland.com/global-social-network-stats-confirm-facebook-as-largest-in-u-s-europe-with-3-times-the-usage- of-2nd-place-97337 (accessed 11 Apr 2014).

(13) Emarketer, ‘Twitter is widely known in France, but garners few regular users’, 30 Apr 2013, www.emarketer.com/Article/ Twitter-Widely-Known-France-Garners-Few-Regular- Users/1009851 (accessed 11 Apr 2014).

(14) For a map of current Twitter languages and demographic data, see E Fischer, ‘Language communities of Twitter’,
24 Oct 2011, www.flickr.com/photos/walkingsf/6277163176/ in/photostream/lightbox/ (accessed 10 Apr 2014); DMR, ‘(March 2014) by the numbers: 138 amazing Twitter statistics’, Digital Market Ramblings, 23 Mar 2014, http:// expandedramblings.com/index.php/march-2013-by-the- numbers-a-few-amazing-twitter-stats/ (accessed 10 Apr 2014).

(15) Slideshare, ‘Media measurement: social media trends by age and country’, 2011, www.slideshare.net/MML_Annabel/ media-measurement-social-media-trends-by-country-and-age (accessed 11 Apr 2014).

(16) Emarketer, ‘Twitter grows stronger in Mexico’, 24 Sep
2012, www.emarketer.com/Article/Twitter-Grows-Stronger- Mexico/1009370 (accessed 10 Apr 2014); Inforrm’s Blog, ‘Social media: how many people use Twitter and what do we think about it?’, International Forum for Responsible Media Blog, 16 Jun 2013, http://inforrm.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/ social-media-how-many-people-use-twitter-and-what-do- we-think-about-it/ (accessed 11 Apr 2014).

(17) Eg M Bamburic, ‘Twitter: 500 million accounts, billions of tweets, and less than one per cent use their location’, 2012, http://betanews.com/2012/07/31/twitter-500-million- accounts-billions-of-tweets-and-less-than-one-per cent-use- their-location/ (accessed 11 Apr 2014).

(18) Beevolve, ‘Global heatmap of Twitter users’, 2012, www. beevolve.com/twitter-statistics/#a3 (accessed 11 Apr 2014).

(19) European Commission, ‘Political participation and EU citizenship: perceptions and behaviours of young people’, nd, http://eacea.ec.europa.eu/youth/tools/documents/ perception-behaviours.pdf (accessed 11 Apr 2014).

(20) S Creasey, ‘Perceptual engagement: the potential and pitfalls of using social media for political campaigning’, London School of Economics, 2011, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/ polis/files/2011/06/PERPETUAL-ENGAGEMENT-THE- POTENTIAL-AND-PITFALLS-OF-USING-SOCIAL- MEDIA-FOR-POLITICAL-CAMPAIGNING.pdf (accessed 29 Apr 2014).

(21) WH Dutton and G Blank, Next Generation Users: The internet in Britain, Oxford Internet Survey 2011 report, 2011, www.oii.ox.ac.uk/publications/oxis2011_report.pdf (accessed 3 Apr 2013).

(22) Ibid.

(23) J Bartlett et al, Virtually Members: The Facebook and Twitter followers of UK political parties, London: Demos 2013.

(24) J Bartlett et al, New Political Actors in Europe: Beppe Grillo and the M5S, London: Demos, 2012; J Birdwell and
J Bartlett, Populism in Europe: CasaPound, London: Demos, 2012; J Bartlett, J Birdwell and M Littler, The New Face of Digital Populism, London: Demos, 2011.

(25) C McPhedran, ‘Pirate Party makes noise in German politics’, Washington Times, 10 May 2012, www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/may/10/upstart- party-making-noise-in-german-politics/?page=all (accessed 11 Apr 2014).

(26) T Postmes and S Brunsting, ‘Collective action in the age of the internet: mass communication and online mobilization’, Social Science Computer Review 20, issue 3, 2002; M Castells, ‘The mobile civil society: social movements, political power and communication networks’ in M Castells et al, Mobile Communication and Society: A global perspective, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2007.

(27) G Blakeley, ‘Los Indignados: a movement that is here to stay’, Open Democracy, 5 Oct 2012, www.opendemocracy.net/georgina-blakeley/los-indignados- movement-that-is-here-to-stay (accessed 11 Apr 2014).

(28) N Vallina-Rodriguez et al, ‘Los Twindignados: the rise of the Indignados Movement on Twitter’, in Privacy, Security, Risk and Trust (PASSAT), 2012 International Conference on Social Computing (SocialCom), www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~nv240/ papers/twindignados.pdf (accessed 11 Apr 2014).

(29) GT Madonna and M Young, ‘The first political poll’,Politically Uncorrected, 18 Jun 2002, www.fandm.edu/ politics/politically-uncorrected-column/2002-politically- uncorrected/the-first-political-poll (accessed 11 Apr 2014).

(30) For example, are federal expenditures for relief and recovery too great, too little, or about right? Responses were as follows: 60 per cent too great; 9 per cent too little; 31 per cent about right. See ‘75 years ago, the first Gallup Poll’, Polling Matters, 20 Oct 2010, http://pollingmatters. gallup.com/2010/10/75-years-ago-first-gallup-poll.html (accessed 11 Apr 2014).

(31) Thereby avoiding a number of measurement biases often present during direct solicitation of social information, including memory bias, questioner bias and social acceptability bias. Social media, by contrast, is often a completely unmediated spectacle.

(32) VM Schonberger and K Cukier, Big Data, London: John Murray, 2013.

(33) Early and emerging examples of Twitterology were presented at the International Conference on Web Search and Data Mining 2008. It is important to note that there is a large difference between what are current capabilities, and what are published capabilities. We do not have access to a great deal of use-cases – including novel techniques, novel applications of techniques or substantive findings – that are either under development or extant but unpublished. Academic peer-reviewed publishing can take anywhere from six months to two years, while many commercial capabilities are proprietary. Furthermore, much social media research is conducted either by or on behalf of the social media platforms themselves, and never made public. The growing distance between development and publishing, and the increasing role of proprietary methodologies and private sector ownership and exploitation of focal data sets, are important characteristics of the social media research environment. Good examples include P Carvalhoet al, ‘Liars and saviors in a sentiment annotated corpus of comments to political debates’ in Proceedings of the Association for Computational Linguistics, 2011, pp 564–68; N Diakopoulos and D Shammar, ‘Characterising debate performance via aggregated Twitter sentiment’ in Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2010, pp 1195–8; S Gonzalez-Bailon, R Banchs and A Kaltenbrunner, ‘Emotional reactions and the pulse of public opinion: measuring the impact of political events on the sentiment of online discussions’, ArXiv e-prints, 2010, arXiv 1009.4019; G Huwang et al, ‘Conversational tagging in Twitter’ in Proceedings of the 21st ACM conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia, 2010, pp 173–8; M Marchetti-Bowick and N Chambers, ‘Learning for microblogs with distant supervision: political forecasting with Twitter’ in Proceedings of the 13th Conference of the European Chapter of the Association for Computational Linguistics, 2012, pp 603–12; B O’Connor et al, ‘From tweets to polls: linking text sentiment to public opinion time series’ in Proceedings of the AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media, 2010, pp 122–9; A Pak and P Paroubak, ‘Twitter as a corpus for sentiment analysis and opinion mining’ in Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Language Resources and Evaluation, 2010; C Tan et al, ‘User-level sentiment analysis incorporating social networks’ in Proceedings of the 17th ACM SIGKDD Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining, 2011; A Tumasjan et al, ‘Election forecasts with Twitter: how 140 characters reflect the political landscape’, Social Science Computer Review, 2010. See also RE Wilson, SD Gosling and LT Graham, ‘A review of Facebook research in the social sciences’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7, no 3, 2012 pp 203–20.