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I’m right, you’re wrong, and here’s a link to prove it: how social media shapes public debate

Politicians and their staffers are now highly attuned to the power of social media. AAP/Lukas Coch

Social media has revolutionised how we communicate. In this series, we look at how it has changed the media, politics, health, education and the law.

Once upon a time different political perspectives were provided to the public by media reporting, often through their own painstaking research.

If an issue gained attention, several perspectives might compete to inform and shape public opinion. It often took decades for issues to make the transition from the margin to the centre of politics.

Now, within minutes of any event, announcement or media appearance, we are able to get those perspectives thousands of times instantly via social media. There are constant reactions and debates, often repeating the same arguments and information.

It’s the communication equivalent of being at a football match compared to a dinner party. While meaningful exchanges between individuals are possible on social media, there’s so much noise that it’s difficult to make complex arguments or check the validity of information.

Social media is a superb medium for immediacy, reach and intensity. This makes it a great asset in situations where timeliness is important, such as breaking news. But it has serious limitations in conveying tone, nuance, context and veracity.

The pros and cons of social media

The ability for people to engage in arguments at a distance on social media has revealed an appalling lack of civility in many deep pockets of misogyny, ethnic antipathy, and general intolerance for difference.

These are attributes of users, not the technology, but social media gives them a volume that they otherwise would not have. But these loud, often angry, voices also prevent many more people from taking advantage of its participatory potential.

The level of hostility encountered in many debates is a powerful deterrent for many. Nonsense and profundity, truth and fabrication, have equal rights on social media. It can be a frustrating and bewildering place, and a great waster of time.

Nonetheless, with the dedication and commitment of a few passionate supporters, small and more marginalised groups are able to create a public presence that previously would have required years to establish through community meetings, lecture tours, fundraising events and lobbying.

A group like the Free West Papua movement, established in 1965 but outlawed by the Indonesian government, has successfully used social media to generate global support.

Other cause-related issues – such as animal-rights activism – that were previously confined to the margins of public attention have benefited from the greater reach social media allows.

Communications technology has also enabled social media to amplify many debates about long-standing issues, such as domestic violence, by allowing people to share their stories and engage in debates. These in turn can place pressure on politicians to act and contribute to critical offline discussions.

Just how powerful is it?

The influence of social media on politics and public perception is indisputable, but the extent of that influence is yet to be determined.

While social media was initially dismissed by some politicians as trivial, few make that argument now. Social media analytics are scrutinised with the same intensity as polls, and politicians and political parties follow social media exchanges closely.

But while political organisations and the media emphasise the volume of emotive, ephemeral and instantaneous messages produced for social media, they increasingly overlook context, complexity and causation.

So, the Australian election result, for example, was a surprise, particularly the level of support for One Nation. Similarly, the UK referendum result on its membership of the European Union was a shock. The US election is covered as though the tweets of candidates are providing the policy settings for an entire administration. The outcome of a referendum in Colombia was a surprise.

These outcomes are not directly caused by social media – they’re far too complex to make that claim – but social media is a powerful contributing factor.

But we should be aware of its limitations

There is a clear danger in focusing on social media as the primary agenda-setting medium for public debates while ignoring the deeper, complex social roots of conflicting ideas or positions.

While social media may create awareness, real political change requires actual decision-making, which takes time and reflection.

Social media debates on politics quickly devolve into binary positions, between which repetitive messages bounce back and forth, often without resolution. The marriage equality issue in Australia is an example of an issue that has benefited from social media communication. But without a strong political will for change, the issue has stalled as real politics have come into play.

Politicians and organisations now devote considerable time to social media. Shouting at each other, and exulting in the ability to gather followers, be liked, retweeted or shared, the danger is in being oblivious to the people who either do not use social media, or use it sparingly or infrequently.

Consequently, social media activity gives a greater illusion of impact precisely because of the attention it is given by people spending so much time on it.

News, gossip, and political debates occur in all human societies. Whether it’s tribal councils (so creatively co-opted for reality television), the Roman Forum, Town Hall debates (now televised to global audiences), the public bar, the coffee shops of Europe, and so on, social communication about politics is hardly new.

The need and desire for people to discuss decision-making and power, share news, pass on jokes, lampoon their leaders, provide information and so on is a defining characteristic of our species. Social media is the most obvious contemporary manifestation of this characteristic.

The recent power failure in South Australia showed the best and worst aspects of social media. It allowed people to communicate useful and important information quickly in the midst of the storm, but a political debate began almost immediately, and just as quickly devolved into binary positions. A complex issue was reduced to a slanging match, and the real issues were obscured.

Where to from here?

Social media is another form of communication that adds to the many we already have. How we adapt political debates and decision making to it is a work in progress.

One response would be a greater focus in education on logic, statistics and rhetoric to make social media communication more reliable, effective and hopefully, more civil.

For now, perhaps we could start with an algorithm to determine how many thousand posts on social media are equal to one conversation in the bar or coffee shop. Or develop a pearl of wisdom filter based on the quality of the message, and thereby boost national productivity by saving hours of time scrolling through 10,000 posts that essentially say the same two things.

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