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…