Don’t believe everything that you breathe
In which I attempt a not-entirely ironic mash-up of Beck’s “Loser” and the Red Peak flag debacle to consider whose voices dominate social media
In the halcyon days of 2015, we apparently had so few real problems that we could afford to hold a pointless referendum on the New Zealand flag. The referendum was established carefully: an expert panel was commissioned to engage with the people, flag designs were sought and earnestly considered, and in accordance with the law passed by Parliament four flags were chosen by the panel to be voted on by the public. Then social media got involved. The resulting shambles isn’t just an embarrassing historical footnote. It’s also a good example of something illustrated by recent British research: social media might be like the air that we breathe, but it’s dominated by a small subset of influential voices.
Back in 2015, social media unrest had started to build when the panel’s four chosen designs were released, perhaps because they all looked more like designs for a beach towel than a flag. The Twitterati sprang into action, an online petition was launched, and in response to this public pressure a fifth design, known as Red Peak, was added to the panel’s shortlist via emergency legislation. Speaking in Parliament, Green MP Gareth Hughes said the change was “about this House listening to the public and listening to the groundswell of support.” But despite this digital groundswell and the significant advantage of being the only option that looked like an actual flag, Red Peak crashed and burned in the eventual referendum.
How could such an apparently popular choice fail so badly? Recent British research sheds some light on this apparent conundrum. It turns out that vocal social media users are not exactly a representative cross-section of society. The researchers found that a group they called Progressive Activists make up 13% of British society, but are “culturally influential” despite their small size. Members of this group are typically highly educated, more likely to be earning a high income, and more likely to live in a city. They’re “motivated by the pursuit of social justice … embrace diversity … [and] favour government policies that intervene in markets to achieve better outcomes for society.” It also turns out that Progressive Activists “post political content on social media … more than four times as much” as any of the other groups the researchers identified, and they “have strong views and take stances that sometimes put them at odds with the rest of society.” In other words, their voices are not representative, but they’re most likely to be the ones you’ll hear online on issues like immigration, climate change, inequality—or the national flag.
Source: M. Juan-Torres, T. Dixon, and A. Kimaram, “Britain’s Choice: Common ground and division in 2020s Britain” (More in Common, October 2020)
I’m not aware of any equivalent New Zealand research into the political profile of social media users but I suspect we’d find a similar progressive dominance of social media here, especially among influential users with large followings. This matters because social media is increasingly like oxygen not only for our personal lives but for our public discourse. According to one report, 75% of New Zealanders are active social media users and we spend an average of 1 hour 45 minutes per day using social media.
Of course, we may be less trusting about the role of social media now than in 2015—we can’t unsee @realDonaldTrump—but somehow I suspect that social media is here to stay, and likely to continue influencing our politics. We can try, however, to prevent that influence from distorting democratic procedures by cultivating a healthy scepticism of the role we allow it to play, which starts with understanding who is using social media to their advantage.
We should also remind ourselves that we have other tools at our disposal to understand what the public is really thinking, like research surveys that are properly designed to be representative, and we have carefully crafted democratic procedures that allow people to engage with matters of national interest with appropriate checks and balances, like Select Committee submissions.
Social media may have the veneer of representation, but proper research and democratic procedures offer the reality. Next time a controversial issue is roiling the public square, it would be far better to trust these avenues than the social media atmosphere that most of us are constantly inhaling. Or, as Beck once said, don’t believe everything that you breathe.