In the new robopolitics, social media has left newspapers for dead | Damian Tambini

Much of the success of the Brexit and Trump campaigns was due to Twitter, Facebook and co. Who needs mainstream media when you’ve got algorithms?

The debate about post-fact politics misses the point. The Brexit and Trump campaigns deliberately exploited the crisis of journalism and the rise of social media. We are witnessing the birth of robopolitics: the mechanised reproduction of campaign messages by campaign machines that bypass normal journalistic verification.

Internet campaigning is smart. Why waste money spraying your message all over the country in the hope that it somehow splashes those that will count? The superior targeting of social media campaigns is why the UK ad revenue of Google and Facebook now exceeds that of all newspapers in the country combined. It is also why all the main campaigns – but particularly the pro-Brexit campaign – embraced social media.

LSE researchers recently interviewed Leave.EU campaign director Andy Wigmore. He described the moment when they realised social media was the key. “Originally we were going to spend £5-10m on [newspaper] advertising. We were going to do a TV advert, we were going to do bulletins, posters you name it, flyers. But we discovered quite quickly that the cheapest and most effective way we had of communicating a message was social media. We told the agency we were going to plough everything into social media.”

Mechanised, data-driven robo-campaigns are not necessarily concerned with persuading everybody, or even the mainstream, of the virtue of the proposal under consideration. They start with the outcome – in this case increasing the number of votes to leave the EU among groups likely to vote – and work back from that. Messages were tested for their ability to motivate people to vote. This explains why messages that were subsequently proved to be entirely untrue – such as the claim that leaving the EU would recoup £350m a week to spend on the health service – were doggedly repeated by the campaign.

One key difference between this new mode of campaigning and the “spin” of the past is that the relationship of dependence between journalism and political campaigns has been upended. There is no filter. It didn’t matter that journalists “revealed” that claims were untrue or crazy. Campaigners used the controversy to engage directly with electors via social media, shrugging off the questions of sceptical journalists.

‘Internet campaigning is smart. Why waste money spraying your message all over the country in the hope that it somehow splashes those that will count?’
‘Internet campaigning is smart. Why waste money spraying your message all over the country in the hope that it somehow splashes those that will count?’ Photograph: Mark Richardson/Alamy Stock Photo

Another development is targeting and message selection. Politicians have always followed the maxim “know your audience”, and adjusted their talks for whomever was present, but a messaging machine driven by ever more finely grained knowledge of the audience tunes “dog-whistle” politics to new heights. Each of the Brexit campaigns employed message-targeting to ensure effectiveness. The ground war in the campaign was in many ways a battle of the databases.

Messages are delivered by increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence. The prototype is the Twitter bot, which constructs profiles of followers and targets tweets to selected audiences sometimes through paid promotion and sometimes through careful planning, timing and use of hashtags. Less visible are the algorithms that determine which messages – you will almost certainly not receive the same ones as your neighbours – appear on your Facebook timeline, Twitter feed or Google search page based on a complex melding of rules, payment and data based on your previous activity. Ultimately, each of the campaigns became bots, testing messages for effectiveness and then – without the intervention of conscience, fact or ideology, deploying them in the most cost-effective way.

The truth is, newspapers in most parts of the world are desperate. They were always vulnerable to populist instrumentalisation: it is the transgressive that sells papers, and the Farage/Trump play was to push the boundaries of propriety in part because what is outrageous is newsworthy, and thus guarantees free coverage. But the old populist contrarianism was a pact between the media and the populist. Robopolitics involves the mainstream media briefly, but then discards them.

Campaigners gleefully celebrate the end of the authoritative filter of journalism. As Wigmore says: “It didn’t matter what was said in the press. The more critical they were of us when we published these articles to our social media, the more numbers we got. So it occurred to us that actually Trump was on to something because the more outrageous he was, the more air time he got, the more air time he got the more outrageous he was … We are now anti-establishment full throttle.”

The populist revolutions of 2016 were caused by inequality and a corresponding sense of anger and worthlessness, not by the media. But understanding the precarious state of the media does help us understand the “post-fact” populist form they have taken.


Damian Tambini

The GuardianTramp

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