That social media bubble again...

What interests me more right now are the precise mechanics of how a minority seems to have somehow convinced itself that it had turned the tables on the majority… even in the face of hard-boiled evidence to the contrary

It’s a funny world we live in. Until a few weeks ago, social media sites like Facebook were awash with memes and polls suggesting that the people of Great Britain had rued their 2016 decision to leave the EU.

If a second referendum were held today (we were told around a month ago) Remain would win with a majority of anywhere up to two-thirds.

As for Boris Johnson, he was reportedly so terrified of facing the press that he even ‘hid in the fridge’ to avoid an interview with Piers Morgan...

And then, the inevitable collision with reality. Last Friday, the party promising ‘Hard Brexit’ won a general election with the largest majority since the 1980s. It was the first opportunity the British voting public had to confirm or deny the 2016 referendum result; and the outcome speaks for itself.

There has very clearly been no change of heart on the subject of EU membership among the broader British population. On the contrary, the decision to leave has been emphatically reaffirmed. And this should not really surprise us, either; for even as bogus polls and outrageous claims did their best to distort the reality on the ground, there were very reliable indicators that Boris Johnson’s Conservatives were actually cruising towards a comfortable win all along.  

YouGov, Survation, IPSOS and ICM opinion polls had all accurately predicted the basic election result (i.e., a win for the Conservatives), while returning varying margins of victory. How, then, did so many people expect (or at least, realistically hope for) a different result?

I am tempted to answer that with a single word – ‘Facebook’ – but that would probably be an exaggeration. There are, after all, other social media sites such as Instagram and Twitter; and what they all have in common is an overwhelming tendency to mistake opinions for facts, and vice versa.

Obviously there are parallels with the local political situation… but I’ll leave you to work them out for yourselves. What interests me more right now are the precise mechanics of how a minority seems to have somehow convinced itself that it had turned the tables on the majority… even in the face of hard-boiled evidence to the contrary.

Those polls, for instance. While four (4) independent pollsters were busy using tried-and-tested methodologies to gauge public opinion in the UK – and (surprise, surprise) getting it right – other people were engaging in tortuous exercises in wishful thinking.

One such exercise involved extrapolating a different result for the 2016 Brexit referendum, on the basis of: what would have happened had the youth vote been higher?

The syllogism at work here seems to have been built on two premises: a) of the 18-25 age bracket that actually voted, the overwhelming majority voted to remain in the EU; b) the same age bracket also registered the lowest voter turnout of all the other demographic groupings.

Consequently, by simply increasing the youth voter turnout in an imaginary referendum, the result could very easily be overturned. It was as classic a case of ‘If only’ as you are ever likely to see: ‘If only more young people actually bothered voting… we would have won.’

Erm… do I even need to point out the main flaws in that reasoning? There are at least two that immediately leap to the eye.

One: it doesn’t necessarily follow that the rest of the 18-25 age bracket would also have voted to remain, if they voted at all. It could just as easily be that those who voted constituted a minority among their coevals… with the vast majority just not giving a toss either way.

Two: there was never any reason to suppose that a second referendum would attract a larger contingent of young voters than the first. And this goes for the election, too. It is too early to break down the precise voter segments in last Thursday’s vote… but I’m willing to bet that the youth voter turnout will end up being entirely consistent with the poor showing in the 2016 referendum.

Britain’s young didn’t give a shit three years ago; and there was never any indication that they might have changed their minds at any point since.

Yet a lot of people seem to have convinced themselves that things would indeed be different this time round. And again, the evidence points mostly towards the social media’s ‘echo chamber’ effect.

Why would people expect a higher turnout among younger voters this time round, anyway? Probably because of all the pressure they themselves thought they were exerting, with their own Facebook posts.

The more they ranted and raved about the ‘historical importance of the moment’; the more they appealed to youngsters to be ‘responsible’, and for old fogeys not to be ‘selfish’… and above all, the more they saw their own outrage duplicated in similar posts by other people… the more they convinced themselves that their own concerns and arguments were making inroads among the wider public.

What they clearly couldn’t see, however, is that this mirror-imaging effect is actually an illusion. For every time their own comments were ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ – by likeminded people, please note – there would be millions of British voters who would just never see that post at all.

And of the few odd-thousand who did, a sizeable chunk might have disagreed, but not commented; while the vast majority would simply have ignored it altogether.

But to the person doing all the posting, the instant amplification returned almost the clean opposite message. ‘My opinions are important’, they might have thought. ‘Just look at all the effect they are having…’

Another way in which Facebook skews perspectives is the automatic intolerance it breeds for any opinion that is in any way different from one’s own. Rather than engaging with the ‘political other’, sites like Facebook – with their algorithms, which limit our scope of vision to only what we already ‘like’ anyway – encourage people to only ever discuss things with people who already agree with them on everything.

And if, by chance, we still encounter diverse opinions despite all the algorithmically-imposed obstructions… well, there is a growing tendency among social media users to just ‘block’ them out of sight and out of mind. (Note: I have been guilty of this myself, so I know what I’m talking about here).

So instead of attempting to convince those with different views, they will end up having the clean opposite effect: i.e., that of cocooning their own precious opinions somewhere where the people who matter the most will never, ever see them… still less be persuaded by them, which was supposed to be the intention all along.

The overall effect is to slam the door shut to almost any discussion of any kind whatsoever. And yet, perversely, those who slam the most doors always seem to expect their own opinions to ultimately be victorious; to automatically win every argument… even when no actual ‘argument’ ever takes place at all.

Speaking of arguments: Facebook’s ‘meme culture’ doesn’t exactly help, either. Photoshopping Boris Johnsons’ head onto Porky Pig’s body might raise a few laughs here and there… but it’s not exactly going to impart any useful contribution to a debate about the UK”s political and economic future, is it?

For that you need solid, proper arguments; and ironically, sites like Facebook also provide the ideal infrastructure for good political arguments to be made and disseminated.

It is only fair to point that social media does have its beneficial side, too. People have never been more interconnected that they are today; and this aspect can (and does) get put to good uses from time to time.

Ask any event manager or co-ordinator (or even protest organiser, for that matter) whether Facebook has helped or hindered their ability to gather large number of people at certain places, at certain times, for certain purposes.

Likewise, anyone trying to raise awareness for a cause, or to collect money for charity, will be aware of the tremendous potential the social media have to offer.

But to close with an entirely arbitrary analogy from the 1953 Western, ‘Shane’: social media is like a gun; and a gun “is a tool… no better or no worse than any other tool: an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it…”

Remember that, next time you automatically expect your own Facebook post to actually make any form of difference, to anyone in the world, anywhere…

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