Can one tweet change a person’s mind? No, but a barrage of them might

To save time, I need to build a bot that finds the appropriate xkcd for a post.
There’s lots of annoying responses going around to the issue of social media bots, but one of the most annoying to me is the canard of ‘it’s all stupid, they can’t be influential because who’s going to change their mind on how to vote after seeing one tweet or Facebook post?’ It particularly irritates me because it’s conflating two bad ideas together. First, the idea that our political opinions are fixed and immutable things, near impossible to change, and secondly, ignoring that the sheer quantity of content produced by bots is important in itself.

The first issue is something I wrote about in more detail a while ago but in short if your view of people’s political opinions is that they’re entirely fixed, you’re generally wrong. Part of the problem here is that people with strongly held and developed political opinions of their own tend to assume everyone else is similar to them in their access to and desire to use information on which to develop their opinions. It’s people with high information levels about a subject assuming that everyone else has the same level of information, when in fact most people’s opinion towards most things is what Converse called a ‘nonattitude’, having so little knowledge of an area that any opinion they’re asked to give it on it is effectively random. Almost everyone has some issues on which they’re high information individuals – for some of us it’s politics, for others it’s sport, some know lots about art or cooking or construction or any number of issues where high information individuals might have huge disputes about something, while the rest of us would probably stare blankly at anyone who asked us for our opinion on it.

So while people might have an opinion built up over time about which party they support in political matters, they tend to gloss over the detail of policy, which means that when they’re asked to decide on a specific policy in an environment where their traditional party cues are meaningless – through the medium of a referendum, say – positions are going to be a lot less strongly held and much more subject to change. Our opinions on most issues aren’t a neatly organised filing cabinet, neatly organised and fully cross-referenced, they’re much more like piles of paper strewn across numerous shelves from which we tend to grab whichever looks best at the time. We can have multitudes of different considerations hanging around there, waiting for us to find the right context to consult them in and weigh them against each other.

This is why it is silly to say that one tweet can change the way someone thinks on an issue, in just the same way that it’s unlike that any one leaflet, poster, TV ad, newspaper article, or even blog post might decisively change someone’s mind for good. The aim of anything like that isn’t to change your mind there and then, but to get into your consciousness enough to form a consideration that you will later form an opinion on. Again, this isn’t about seeing something, going to your mental filing cabinet, pulling out a folder and rewriting it, but rather seeing something and sticking it on a shelf for future reference. One consideration alone might not be enough to make you act in a certain way, but a bunch of them developed over time and coming from a number of different sources could well be. It’s why companies don’t just broadcast their adverts once and figure everyone will see it, why billboards remain in place for weeks not hours, and why political parties deliver rainforests worth of paper during election campaigns. It’s not about changing minds so much as it is about getting people to have a balance of considerations that’s favourable to you in their head when they’re asked to make a decision – and once they’ve made that decision, human nature often means they’ll tell themselves that was their opinion all along, and there wasn’t any way they could have changed it…

On Macron, elsewhere

My Political Quarterly article ‘Macron’s lessons for the British centre’ is now available free, so please go read it and tell me how many errors I’ve made in it. It’s based in part on this post I wrote a couple of months ago, so you may find some of it familiar.

Manchester

There’s no election diary today, as there’s no electioneering going on because of what happened in Manchester. It’ll resume at some point in the near future, and I will too. There are lots of words already on what’s happened, and there’ll be lots more to come, and the only advice I’ll give is that if you’re asking yourself ‘is it too soon to write this?’ then yes, it most likely is.

If you want to help in this and future emergencies, then if you can register here to give blood.

2017 General Election Diary Day 24: Unhacked

Today in ‘that title for a post isn’t tempting fate, is it?’

It didn’t take a genius to predict that the NHS would be an issue in this election, because it’s an issue in every election as the parties all attempt to prove that it will be completely safe in their hands, but will definitely collapse in days if anyone else gets their hands on it. What they probably weren’t expecting was that the part of the NHS that would come under most scrutiny during the election campaign was its IT and cybersecurity provision. What’s interesting is that it’s not yet become an election issue, possibly because no one has yet thought that having a policy on NHS iT security was something necessary. It’s also a sudden shock that no one’s quite sure how it’s going to play out, and it’ll be interesting to see if it becomes something important, or if it becomes like the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010 as something that happens in the news at the same time, but only gets peripherally linked to the election itself.

In Northern Ireland, we can now see what’s happening with the various Unionist candidates, and there are a few where the DUP and UUP have co-ordinated enough to ensure that there’s only one of them. The key one where they haven’t, though, is Belfast East. No UUP candidate there in 2015 was one of the keys to the DUP winning the seat back from Alliance’s Naomi Long, and with the UUP now standing there (and the Conservatives too), that gets the seat a place on my list of seats to watch, especially as it’s usually one that declares relatively early.

In other election pact news, it seems that some candidates are now remembering that you can withdraw for a short time after nomination, as there has been news of some Green Party candidates doing that to endorse Labour and Liberal Democrat ones. However, the biggest withdrawal appears to be from UKIP who will be missing from over 200 constituencies where they’ll be calling for people to back the Tories, and one where they’ll be calling on them to back Kate Hoey, who is somehow still an official Labour candidate. Buzzfeed have worked out some of the effects that could have, but as yet no one has produced a ‘coalition of chaos’ graphic to show the range of chaotic individuals from Nigel Farage to Boris Johnson, backing Theresa May. There’s Blukip images from the 2015 Lib Dem campaign, but they’re a bit out of date now.

Haven’t quite got the time to do a full minor party of the day feature, but am wondering what’s happened to Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol who stood in a few constituencies last time. Part of that is prompted by the announcement of Liberal Democrat legalisation policy today (the full report is here) but mainly because I spotted West Tyrone has a candidate from “Citizens Independent Social Thought Alliance” which seems an odd attempt to get the same acronym.

But we do have time for (strong and stable) Election Leaflet Of The Day, which in this case is actually two (strong and stable) letters from the same (strong and stable) candidate, one Theresa May who appears to be standing (strongly and stably) in both Leeds North East and Bolton West. Yes, it’s the generic (strong and stable) Tory letter to postal voters, (strongly and satbly) personalised to the recipient and mentioning the (strong and stable) constituency they’re in, but definitely part of the (strong and stable) national campaign, not the local.

Remember, if you don’t see the fnord, it can’t hurt you.

A new Medium

Just a quick announcement to let people know that I’m now cross-posting articles from here to Medium, so if you use it you can follow and recommend my writing there. Click here to see my stories.

This will still be the principal place for my blogging, but having another outlet doesn’t seem to harm the number of readers I get, and might even raise my profile.

Top posts of 2016

It’s not been the busiest of blogging years for me, but there have still been a few posts here. Which were the most popular?

Most popular overall was actually from 2014: Why do people join political parties (and why don’t they do it now?) This is a post that’s managed (thanks to a vaguely clickbaity title) to get itself high up in Google searches for various terms and it’s rare for a day to go by without it getting some hits.

Of posts actually written this year, the top five turned out to be:

5) Is Will Quince MP psychic? The answer may surprise you – but it probably won’t.
4) The Mandela Effect: because it’s easier to assume alternate universes than faulty memories Some of you have no memory of hearing of this blog post before now.
3) Why I’m stepping back up and running for Council again And if you don’t want to know the result, don’t click here.
2) Why the 2014 coup against Clegg was botched Yes, I wrote about 2014 events in 2016, because that’s how up to the minute my political commentary is.
1) Open to your ‘legitimate concerns’ Open Britain has been underwhelming me (and many others) from the start.

So that was 2016. Now let us never speak of this again.

Elsewhere

meiI’ve written a piece for the Mile End Institute on the Richmond Park by-election and how it might change British politics. At some point I may write a generic companion piece to that and many other bits of writing by me and others on ‘why this event will cause few if any changes to the way things are’. But you can assume the content of that without me writing it, I’m sure.

Coming soon: Nick the PhD student

As regular readers of my blog and followers of my life might remember, about a year ago I completed a Masters in Politics at the University of Essex. I’d started the Masters partly on a whim, figuring that it would be good to take advantage of having one of the leading politics departments in the country on my doorstep, but as I went on with it I discovered that I really enjoyed being a student again, particularly in getting to research new areas and explore political systems.

While the Masters came to an end last year, I decided that I didn’t want that to be the end of my studies and decided to look into the prospects of doing a PhD, picking up some of the threads I’d found while researching my Masters dissertation and going further in exploring them. Luckily for me, it turns out that other people think that’s an area worth exploring too, and so from the end of September I’ll be a PhD student (and graduate teaching assistant) in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. (I’m not leaving Colchester, though, so I’ll also be a commuter…)

My research proposal has the title ‘centre parties and the structure of competition’. My plan is to look at centre parties in various electoral systems and look at how the structure of competition within a political system (an idea originally developed by the late Peter Mair) relates to them. I’m aware that no PhD research proposal tends to survive intact from its first meeting with your supervisor, so the details will likely change over the coming months and years, but I’ll be looking at questions like what defines centre parties (and the Duverger/Sartori question of whether they exist at all), how they interact with parties and party blocks to left and right, and what factors lead some to be successful while others aren’t.

The Finnish doctoral hat and sword.
The Finnish doctoral hat and sword.
However it develops, I’m sure it will lead to many interesting points that I’ll be sharing either here or elsewhere, and hopefully in three or so years time I’ll be able to enter a room and get a ‘Hi, Dr Nick‘ response. Because what’s three years of study worth if you can’t get a weak Simpsons joke out of it at the end? It’s either that or transfer to Finland so I can work towards my doctoral hat and sword.

Seeking inspiration

You might have noticed that posts have been a bit thin on the ground here for the past month or so. Some of it has been because I’ve been focusing on job/PhD applications and interviews amongst other things, but it’s also been because there’s not been much that’s inspired me to think ‘ehy, I should blog about that’.

So, here’s an open call for some crowdsourced inspiration. What things are there that you’d have liked to see me blog about, but haven’t? What posts have I written ‘I’ll write more about this some other time’ in, then to your disappointment, completely failed to follow up on? What things have made you think ‘I’d like to know what Nick thinks about this’?

Comments are open for your suggestions, requests, demands and ideas. I can’t promise that I’ll follow them all up, but I will try my best. I remain utterly shameless, so any requests that are accompanied by promises of large cash payments will be given priority.