On Sunday, October 15, Austria was electing it’s next parliament. It was a dirty campaign with lot’s of scandals, mainly between the two biggest parties, the Austrian Socialist Party (SPÖ) and the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) shaping public believes and – ultimately – the electoral outcome. For the full story check out this very well written article on Politico.
Similar to the last US elections, in which a lot of attention was focussed on Hillary’s #emailgate, in Austria there was a huge focus on dirty campaigning, fake Facebook pages and information leaks. Of course, these incidents had a huge impact on voter’s decisions and political commentators are asking: Who did this scandal do harm to? In the end the answer unfortunately has to be: trust in democracy. Which brings me to my major question of this comment:
What is the driving force behind public believes?
It seems like people were discussing more about these relatively small incidents instead of taking a more macro view on their decision who to elect. From my perspective, taking a long-term view would actually be beneficial when electing the country’s leaders for the next 4 years.
Why does this happen? Why do real issues and political programs hardly find their way into those discussions? And: Why do the right wing populists again take advantage?
I think there are 3 main reasons that are responsible. And all of those reasons are interconnected and create a system that makes filtering the right information and finding trustful sources really hard, while sensationalist marketing becomes state-of-the-art in shaping public believes and the content & party programs drift into the background:
The rise of social media marketing makes it easy to target audiences, however it’s designed to generate as many clicks as possible and not to make people think critically. This, in the end, leads to so-called clickbait, where there is no focus on content anymore but only on sensation and gossip. Further we all tend to consume information that is easy to understand, as it’s a lot less exhausting for our minds and a lot easier to adopt and recite. And finally, journalism increasingly finds itself in a conflict-of-interest situation, as gossip sells better than in-depth stories on political topics.
The rise of social media marketing
No well designed campaign can be successful without a social media strategy. As we already saw in the US elections, the French elections and the German elections, the populist’s advantage in those kind of media is shrinking – social media has definitely reached the main stream election campaigns.
The budget on those Facebook campaigns is mainly spent on clicks. Or, in other words, on how many people actually visit the respective websites. It naturally follows that content is designed in a way that generates the most attention, which means as sensationalistic as possible. Scandals and gossip prove especially powerful, which creates a thin line between serious content and lurid headlines.
Through targeting it is easy for marketer to tailor content to the user’s attitudes. An example: If I like organizations like Greenpeace, Amnesty and Artists like Bob Marley I will definitely see more content from eg. the green party than if I’m a fan of FreiWild and Breitbart News. And – even better – an intelligent marketer can then directly address the concerns of those groups: environmental protection and immigration for my blunt examples. However that means on the other hand, that you will hardly discover disconfirming or critical content in your feed.
When Alexander Nix’ talk on psychographics was released, it created a lot of buzz and fear: Could you really target and tailor your message to the Facebook audience that specifically and play with people’s attitudes and concerns that well? Although there have been articles that Cambridge Analytica’s (Nix’ company) methods didn’t influence the US elections in any major way, I think we have to accept this new reality: Our attitudes and believes are not private anymore and will be used to expose us to tailored content and ads more than ever. And this does not only apply to “regular” ads but also to gain political advantage or better said to shape public believes.
By design this system is greatly build to amplify existing believes and to confirm viewpoints that are already held by the viewer. In the end people feel treated even more unfairly, get even more anxious and feel even more hate(d). And it gets even worse: As suggested by Gresham’s law the bad behavior will drive out the good in the long run, or in other words: everyone who won’t adopt this kind of campaigning will be left behind.
Easy to understand content
Lately I read an analysis, which party’s written program is easiest to understand. However, the issue I see is, that no one is actually reading this stuff. Peter Pilz in Austria jumped 4.5% without a written program at all, which now gives him 8 seats in the parliament. In Germany the right-wing AfD had the program that was hardest to understand and still got 12.6% of the votes. Personally, I have to admit that I also never read a party’s program at all.
So if the voters don’t pay attention to the party’s programs, what does actually shape public believes?
Of course, the answer is mainstream media. Particularly the boulevard press (krone.at or oe24.at in Austria) was and is capitalizing on the political scandals by publishing story after story after story. Even the “high-quality” papers like derstandard.at were mainly talking about Silberstein’s dirty campaigning affair in the last weeks leading to the elections than actually focussing on serious content.
All the journalists who criticized their US colleagues on being tricked by Trump during the US campaign now got tricked on their own in exactly the same way.
Don’t get me wrong at this point: Scandals like dirty campaigning deserve their fair share of attention. However, I think that more serious content would deserve a lot more attention, as this will be the guideline for government’s work for the next 4 years.
Journalism’s conflict of interest
Which brings me to my final point: Why do even those quality newspapers fall for sensational content sometimes?
The simple answer is, that Austrian newspapers are very, very late to the internet-party. Their main sources of revenue are falling apart as newspaper sales are slowing and they hardly have a digital strategy which ensures sustainable revenue with paid content. So they complain that the quality of profession is suffering instead on acting on the problem.
To pay their bills, they have to rely on ads on their websites. That means, they have to aggressively publish content that focusses on driving traffic on their sites, as the number of people who is relying on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram as their preferred „News Feed“ medium is increasing. Who gives a s*** about quality if hardly anyone is exposed to it?
The main challenge
I think we have to ask ourselves as a society what we want. We complain that our government does not advance reforms and is quarreling constantly, but we are also not willing to put in enough time and effort to do an educated decision on election day. We solely rely on our intuitions and emotions which is mainly shaped by easy-to-consume content and headlines.
We can’t change how politics or journalism are made, but we can change our own approach to educate ourselves. As this is a decision on the future of our country, it’s definitely worth the time to look behind marketing & scandals. In the end it’s us, who decide which medium we consume and where the money will be flowing. And it’s on us to influence public believes.
Let’s keep the discussion flowing: What’s your opinion on shaping public believes? How did you educate yourself? Any ideas how to go about it?
- Cover image by Roman Zach-Kiesling (Creative Commons License)
- Matthew Karnitschnigg on Politico on “Austria’s House of Cards”
- Trending Topics on “Nationalratswahl Analyse 2017”
- Alexander Nix talk on The power of Big Data and Psychographics
- The Guardian on “Did Cambridge Analytica influence the Brexit Vote and the US elections?”
- Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street Blog on Gresham’s Law
- Elke Ziegler, Ö1 Science on “Wahlprogramme „mittelmäßig verständlich“”
- krone.at, oe24.at on providing good examples for my point 24/7
- derstandard.at for being my #1 news medium in Austria – keep it up guys!