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…

The Green Party video: reaching voters other parties can’t reach?

changethetuneThe Green Party’s ‘Change The Tune’ election broadcast has generated quite a response since it was first released on Wednesday. Most of that reaction – and I include my initial ones – to it was pretty derisory, with lots of political types on Twitter saying it was the worst election broadcast they’ve ever seen, what a terrible idea it was, why didn’t it feature Caroline Lucas talking about policy etc etc

What we didn’t consider was that it wasn’t aimed at us, and indeed wasn’t really aiming to be the traditional election broadcast. How many of them get reported by MTV?


Consider how many people have learnt about it just from that tweet (MTV UK have 1.5m Twitter followers, by the way, much more than all the political parties combined) and look at how many people are talking about it on social media. This is a broadcast that’s succeded on two fronts – it’s got lots of traditional media coverage, but perhaps more importantly, it’s reaching an audience who wouldn’t normally pay any attention to party election broadcasts.

I wrote the other week about John Zaller’s model of how public opinion forms, and this is an important illustration of part of that. One of the important ideas in Zaller is the difference between ‘high information’ and ‘low information’ voters. If you’re reading this blog, then you’re most likely a ‘high information’ voter – that’s not back slapping, just a fact that the sort of person who reads political blogs is someone who’s probably accessing lots of information about the election, has well-formed opinions on many issues but because they have so much information is unlikely to change their views or who they vote for. On the other hand, low information voters aren’t paying much, if any, attention to the election and don’t have many opinions on political issues. However, they’re also likely to be very resistant to political messages delivered in a traditional way even if they see them. They’ll ignore PEBs on TV, won’t be following politicians or parties on social media and will likely ignore political messages they see, especially if they’re from a source they don’t know or trust.

This Green Party video, however, isn’t getting shared by the traditional channels. Sure, it’s being shared and discussed by high-information politicos on Twitter and blogs, but that’s incidental. Because we’re high-information, we’re going to pay attention to things like that, even if it’s very unlikely to change our minds. The problem for most election broadcasts is that’s pretty much the only audience they reach after they’ve been shown on TV. Most people won’t see them on TV, won’t notice them even if one of the few shares of them makes it to their social media streams and will be blissfully unaware that they even exist. The Green video, though, has effectively gone viral with people beyond the usual political suspects sharing it and saying ‘you need to watch this’. Going back to Zaller’s model, this is how it’s reached the Accept stage of opinion formation: because it’s recommended by someone they trust, people will choose to watch it and, crucially, pay attention to the messages in it.

It’s not going to have such an affect as to sweep the Green Party to an unexpected or even a surge in the polls, but it’s got their message out to a lot of people who wouldn’t normally take on political messages. That doesn’t make them more likely to vote, but if they do vote, it’s more likely that they’ll think of voting Green.

Receive-Accept-Sample: How people form opinions

the-nature-and-origins-of-mass-opinionAs we’re now into the election campaign, the entire purpose of which is to get people to form a certain set of opinions and then act on them on May 7th, I thought it was about time I went back to doing another post on a concept from political science that seeks to explain how opinions are formed.

What I’ll be looking at in this post is John Zaller’s 1992 book The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, and the model for public opinion he sets out in, which he terms the Receive-Accept-Sample or RAS model. This is a widely accepted model of how public opinion formed, but not universally agreed upon, and it’s also worth noting that it was published in 1992, so before any widespread use of the internet.

I’m going to try and explain the model as simply as I can, but remember that this is a 300+ page book with lots of charts and tables so Zaller’s arguments are a lot more complex and subtle than the precis of them I’ll provide here. The book is worth reading, or you can also try Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, which takes a more psychological approach to public opinion, but is more up to date and discusses Zaller along with other approaches. (I wrote about it here)
Continue reading Receive-Accept-Sample: How people form opinions