I’m reading an article in The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/10/what-facebook-did/542502/) about the effect Facebook (may have) had on the 2016 election of Donald Trump as the USA’s 45th President. The article itself has many reasons for us to be very wary of the information we are presented with in our social media bubbles. And it got me thinking about all the ways it can be ‘gamed’ (or worse) to skew our view of the world.
Let’s start by saying I’m not a massive conspiracy theorist. I choose to believe that the algorithms the social platform geeks cook up are genuinely intended to serve up valuable content that we will be pleased to see and will enhance our lives. That’s not to say I think they always get it right though. At best it seems to create an ‘echo chamber effect’ where everyone’s preaching to the converted, and we don’t get to see a real diversity of opinions and attitudes. And at worst it can lead to views becoming increasingly entrenched, coupled with massive cognitive dissonance when we finally do get to see some conflicting material.
Fans of the US TV show “Homeland” will remember the “Sock Puppet” plot, where hundreds of geeks sat in a darkened room, controlling thousands of online profiles, inciting their social media “friends” to outrage about political issues. It’s not far-fetched; in the Atlantic article, ad agencies admit to using FB Ads to skew political results in specific swing counties. So we know what people see on their social media feeds can either change or reinforce their views.
And what that means is that if a foreign government wanted to affect the result of a democratic process, they wouldn’t need to hack into anything. They could simply set up a massive sock puppet operation. OK, they’d need to be a bit clever with their routing – it’s fair to assume that a whole load of connections from Moscow or Beijing servers befriending US voters in swing states might raise a digital eyebrow or two in Menlo Park. But that’s a whole lot easier than hacking a mainframe.
The trouble with (and the effectiveness of) sock puppet campaigns is they appear to be people like us. And we tend to have an inherent trust of ‘people like us’. In many ways that’s not too much of a problem when all it does is create the “echo-chamber effect” – our social media feeds being full of stuff we already agree with. That simply reinforces what we already think. It might save the odd ‘swing voter’ from flipping, but the overall effect is limited.
But there’s a much bigger potential danger in the combination of sock puppets and the ‘people like us’ effect. ‘Sock puppets like us’ if you like. And that’s when our sock puppet friends start to subtly change their views. We like them, they’re people we get on with, we have shared interests. If they start to have doubts about our favoured candidate/policy/party, maybe we should also have doubts? When they ‘come across’ some convincing argument to weaken our position, we’re probably going to take more notice. More notice, even, than if we came across that new information ourselves.
All sorts of things are going on here, from Cialdini’s consistency to Maslow’s belonging. I wrote a blog some years ago back in my Ecademy days (the first real business social media platform, sadly now defunct through lack of funding), called “Where should you focus your efforts for greatest effect?” about how we are more likely to be swayed by our moderate opponents, especially if we consider ourselves to be moderate too. And that’s even more likely when they used to be just on our side of the argument.
That social media connection of yours may appear to be a socially-conscious mother of two from Wisconsin, with ideas and attitudes you can align with. But for all you know you could be getting subtly influenced by Boris from Bratsk, or Supremacy Steve. So my advice is to be very wary of any online connection who you haven’t met in person. You really have no idea who they are, so before you allow someone’s reasonable argument to sway you, pick up the phone or jump on skype, and find out what they *really* stand for.