Chris Trotter bemoans that although in theory the Internet should be producing the best-informed voters in history, in practice it appears to be producing the opposite

Chris Trotter bemoans that although in theory the Internet should be producing the best-informed voters in history, in practice it appears to be producing the opposite

By Chris Trotter*

The internet is a strange beast: part pussycat, part junkyard dog. For every “Oooh!”  elicited, an “Ugh!” is never more than a couple of clicks away No other human invention has had the power to communicate so much information, so quickly, to so many receptive audiences. In theory, the Internet should be producing the best-informed voters in history. In practice, it appears to be producing the opposite. After reading Plato’s “Republic”, the Roman poet Juvenal famously quipped “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Who will watch the watchmen? Were he around today, Juvenal might well demand to know: “Who is fact-checking the fact-checkers?”

It’s not that all the information we encounter on the Internet is “fake news”. Most of it is dead accurate and enormously helpful. Our globalised financial and industrial systems could not function without the near instantaneous transmission of reliable data which the Internet makes possible. When it comes to politics, however, we are, more often than not, dealing with people’s opinions, or, even worse, their ideological convictions. Dealing with these requires a very different set of skills. Foremost among them being the interpretative skills we acquire from face-to-face encounters with our fellow human-beings. And therein lies the problem with politics communicated through the Internet. We are never entirely sure who we are talking to.

When I was a young man (we’re talking 40 years ago!) I travelled the length and breadth of New Zealand alongside my fellow citizens on inter-island ferries, trains and buses. Mostly, however, I used my thumb. I still marvel at how willing Kiwis were in those days to offer complete strangers a free ride in their cars and trucks. Mostly, they did it for company. Someone to talk to on what would otherwise be a long and conversationless journey. Partly, though, it reflected the either direct or inherited memories of economic depression and war. Those profoundly collective experiences had embedded the notion that, on your home ground, an outstretched hand (or upraised thumb) was not something any decent citizen should ignore.

So we talked – these drivers and me – about everything under the sun. It was on those journeys that I first learned to listen attentively and sympathetically to my fellow New Zealanders. Some of the things they said were utterly hair-raising. Much of what they believed to be true was anything but. Even so, when you’re travelling in someone else’s vehicle for free, it is neither polite (nor particularly wise) to be too vociferous in the defence of your own pet likes and dislikes. What these experiences also taught me was that, generally speaking, more wisdom arrives through one’s ears than exits via one’s mouth. For a young man in his late-teens that was a truly life-enhancing lesson.

What I also learned was that good people can have bad ideas. Certainly, the sort of person willing to give a stranger a lift has already demonstrated a generous and caring nature, so my sample was skewed. Those lacking in empathy and generosity were the people who drove straight past without so much as a rueful shake of the head. That said, however, in the year or so leading up to the General Election of 1975, it was impossible not to notice the subtle shift in the mood of my benefactors. Increasingly, they wanted to talk about politics, or, more accurately, about what had gone wrong with politics. The rising level of impatience – shading into sullen mistrust – of the Third Labour Government was unmistakable. Equally unmistakable was the positive tone that entered their voices when they talked about Rob Muldoon.

Long before that fateful night in November 1975, when the election result was declared, I had known that National was going to win. My very own, personally conducted, opinion poll – augmented by all those one-on-one focus groups conducted up and down State Highway 1 – had told me.

It’s that certainty: that “in your bones” grasp of the overall direction-of-travel of contemporary politics; that the pollsters purport to offer those with the money to commission their surveys. It is also what the focus-group moderators claim to be bringing to the table: the interpretation of that sudden shift in tone; that dark expression flitting across a participant’s face when, without warning, a fraught issue is raised, or a controversial name mentioned.

Would that it were true. Lately, however, the pollster’s art has failed – and failed spectacularly – to adequately apprehend the sudden and dramatic mood-swings in voters all around the world. Think Brexit. Think Trump. Think Scotty Morrison!

More and more, voters worldwide have begun to look upon polls as a sort of Establishment trick: a means of making them feel that they’ve got it all wrong; that their own judgement can’t be trusted; that it’s safer, always, to follow the herd. Well, they’re not buying it. They’re putting their faith in family and friends. Who needs the “guidance” of the Establishment and its “lying mainstream media” when you have Facebook and Instagram and Twitter?

Are they aware that these vast global data gatherers already know more about them than any pollster could hope to discover? Don’t they realise they’re in a global focus group numbering more than a billion participants: daily amassing more data-points than the stars in the night sky? And those “friends” of theirs; those people that they “follow”; are they really their friends? Are they even real at all?

Reports emerged over the weekend of a Polish “troll farm” employing dozens of people to manufacture and manage hundreds of bogus social media accounts designed to promote the products, services and causes of their clients. Yet further proof that, thanks to the power of the Internet, political consultants and PR experts are now able to replicate something frighteningly close to the encounters I experienced as a youthful hitch-hiker all those years ago.

Forget about polls, newspaper editorials, current affairs programmes, posters, pamphlets and billboards. None of them can offer the same feeling of connection, or provide the same insights, that emerge naturally from a conversation between one human-being and another. Even when people may not be talking to the human-beings they think they’re talking to? Even when voters may not be connected to a human-being at all?

Yes, even then. When we are no longer able to tell the difference, what does it matter?


*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. His work may be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com. He writes a fortnightly column for interest.co.nz.

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Not sure what Trotter is going on about here. People never listen when you talk to them in real life yet when you write a comment it is often minutely examined and interpreted in all sorts of interesting ways. I wouldn't swap the Internet for more face to face conversations, no way.

In a face to face conversation there is always some sort of sexual or power dynamic going on. Not so on the Internet where the the message itself is usually the main focus.

... yes ... most of us have the good sense to nut out the fact from the fiction online ... for instance , the claims against US President Donald Trump for corruption are fake news ... stands out a mile ... and the paranoid ramblings that Queen Elizabeth is a shape shifting reptile from a planet far far away are in fact true ... she is ...

I'm pretty sure it has always been like that. Crazy religious beliefs, witch burning has gone on for ever for example. I'd say on balance the Internet has been the greatest tool ever for exposing falsehoods. So many lay experts on hand and actual experts to call out the BS.
This article and your comment is just more pathetic Boomer angst about the Internet.

Youth, including more of my generation, have woken up to the fact that main stream media has been corrupted by the establishment. It has been used as a means to brainwash to masses, and continues to do so.

Your are right in that the paradigm shift has been the internet and social media, which has provided an alternative view of reality. Youth have been engaged by this more than most, and with their high levels of un and underemployment who could blame them. Western democracy is failing them.

While Asia has benefited with more jobs, I'm not sure its improve the quality of life for many. What most people seem to have forgotten is we are living on a planet of finite resources.

I'm not sure anything has changed.
More a follower of the saying, the more things change the more they stay the same.
One of my favourite hates is people saying that the internet has changed things at a faster rate than ever before. Bollocks, many times the world has changed more and faster, the six years of WWII is a good comparison the changes then are unimaginable now.
I do agree that the internet engines are carralling us into echochambers.

Young people in particular are getting their own specially curated news feed complete with comments supporting their points of view. There are no opposing ideas in their feeds, and things have got very tribal online. They have lost the art of arguing, and just abuse anyone who disagrees with them. eg If you were to only get your news from Facebook you would believe that anti-vaxxers and vegans are a large majority of the population. These tiny tribes seem to have thousands of activists who hang out online spamming articles and supporting each other, and making themselves appear much greater in number, than they are in real life.

I would argue this is a much larger problem for older less tech-savvy generations who believe their news feed is an accurate portrayal of public opinion and have no idea they are being played for fools.

Interesting that in the UK those people who didn't have smartphones or use the internet were far more likely to vote for leave even after adjusting for differences in demographics, suggesting they were less informed and/or swayed by mainstream media.

Or of course they may be better informed and not swayed by social media.

Although its hard be well informed in the UK if you rely on the largest papers (Mail & Sun) when they pedal misinformation.

Or maybe they were frogs that remembered being placed in the cold pot in 1975, rather than being born into the rapidly heating water of late-stage EU. It is an oft repeated lie (more media bias) that Brexit voters are all ignorant or thick. I know (through an acquaintance) some exceptionally smart city of London financial whizzes (7 figure salaries) who voted and campaigned quietly for Brexit. The economic demise of the EU is inevitable at this point given enormous and growing PIGS+France indebtedness and massive youth unemployment. Does it makes sense for the UK to go down with that ship? Or is continued depression of working class wages by large numbers of eastern european immigrants the ideal that all Brits should aspire to?

This describes well the talkback radio / mainstream media crowd. Also, FYI young people don't really use Facebook particularly much anymore, and certainly not for news. That's the domain of ranty uncles and aunties these days. The feed example is a wee bit obsolete. This is a wee bit sheltered a perspective.

Fact is, the internet and sites on it have very much broadened the availability of information and perspectives, to the extent that the usual players have become worried and even start attempting to game other content platforms to regain some control. And robust, logical rhetoric and debate are far more alive online than they are in the guise of Hosking et al.

Fake news has always been with us and the recent discovery of it is almost amusing.
Try reading media about the Syrian war. Syrian, Russian, Israeli and Iranian. All totally different and opposing.
A great example would be the recent Trump statements about suppressing ISIS. You would think from the US media that the Syrian government did not exist.
The good thing about the internet is that before it you would have had no way of finding out about the difference. No you can, even if you have to work for it.

... not many people know this , but there was a " silent spring " in 1986 when all wild birds across the world died ... and were replaced by the governments with feather coated drones ... & a miniature camera on each one ...

They are watching us ... be afraid ... be very afraid ...

Twitter banning political ads is interesting, maybe a new phase of the Internet's development.

Twitter's ban won't work. The ads will just be mass produced by AI comment creation tools that can make responses crafted to look like they are replies to other messages, may even be enabled by and sold as a service by the platforms themselves. US political ad spend is expected to hit nearly $10billion next year. That's a huge market and social media platforms will be falling over themselves to cash in on it.

People with different backgrounds hardly mix any more, so polarisation is inevitable. You could also chuck in the sociological theories that posit that only one particular political view is legitimate and that anyone that holds a different one should not be heard. The internet is the steroids that makes this dynamic particularly toxic.
The internet is just a tool. Troll farms a tiny sideshow that people of a particular political persuasion like to blame for their failure to convince voters of the merits of their arguments. Maybe we need to look hard at our education system to ensure it promotes more tolerance of intellectual diversity.

The historically counter-culture left are now establishment, controlling essentially all 'sense-making' institutions (media and academia) - due to intolerance in hiring/association (when left get any control they tend to purge wrong-thinkers). Having moved so far from center it's no wonder that the population have stopped listening to them, and they're fomenting strident opposition, boosted by martyred 'cancelled' and dissenting voices censored, demonitised and deplatformed on youtube, reddit, twitter, paypal, patreon et al, For a majority now the main stream media and academia and the far left-skewed twitterverse (25% registered twits are journos) represent a censorious anti-freedom and disturbingly anti-democratic enemy controlled by a fringe elite servicing an economically protected urban white-collar class who at best don't care for the best interests of the 'deplorables'/provincials/blue collar classes and at worst are actively hostile to them. I've seen tradies listening to Jordan Peterson podcasts. The left does not represent the general public anymore.

Astroturfing was already a big problem with armies of paid astroturfers working during last presidential election but the coming 2-4 years will see the rise of pervasive social media AI astroturfing - on the back of the scarily human like GPT-2 conversational text creator developed by Open AI. Comment sections, facebook, reddit will be broken forever by these propagandizing/advertising computer programs that are nearly indistinguishable from humans - China Russia and other state actors will have them, and soon so will any well funded campaign or corporation.

there is definitely a big disconnect between some politicians and what people want to hear,i am sure if simon bridges on his "get to know the people' tour of Nz had travelled by bus and train and hitching, he would not be putting out beneficiary bashing speeches notable for the barking dog background, but maybe the dog is his spirit animal as he tends to bark up the wrong tree ..

No better example of today's media having abandoned objective journalism and embraced their position in the intelligentsia and its current quest for power and influence than a stuff editorial today:
https://www.stuff.co.nz/about-stuff/because-journalism/117083058/the-imp...
Mark Stevens, Stuff Editorial Director, seems to think that role of the media is to push any agender that they deem righteous using their influence. No need for any mandate or expertise they can just force their agenda by controlling the conversation without any need to take responsibility for the consequences. (The example he uses are some of less controversial example of the media's use of the it's influence.)
No wonder people are choosing to go anywhere else regards of quality or bias for their news than suffer though the self importance and righteous.

It's always been a challenge finding out the truth. There are always different versions of things, even in the same language or same household. Governments have generally lost the people's respect. Even ours. No one believes anything they tell us. It is all/only one side of the story, but when in power, it's your story which gets to be pushed.
Differences are essential, especially in a democracy. It's by differing (or keeping our mouth shut) we get to learn, as the article points out. Differences create great societies, diverse societies & the opportunity to live your life in your own way. That's taken for granted in NZ but on a global scale, is quite special actually. And if you don't believe me I could list a hundred countries where trying to do exactly this is very difficult if not impossible. Good honest debate is a critical function in any democracy, but dialogue is often best.

Richard Fernandez has a good riff on the Distrust of Gubmint/Elites - the gist is that what we now have is a severe and intractable 'knowledge inequality'. It's simply impossible for most people to understand How Fings Work anymore - and that's the real change. So, in abandoning the quest for that knowledge, magical thinking and other breeds of irrationality flood in to fill the void. And, yes, our human default 'tribalism' setting is defaulted to.....

Seems a dangerously elitiist reading of the tea leaves of the "people who don't agree with me are thick" vein. I think a bigger factor is that most people have now had many many instances where they have discovered they were mislead by supposed expert or informed authorities, and that has almost entirely killed trust in just about every formerly respected institution. That's a good thing as the population is less credulous than it ever was before, nullius in verba, but it makes it harder for the people who imagine themselves to be our betters to lead the masses - hence the growing tide of crude propegandising (much aimed at weak-minded adolescents) that is now being used in all discourse to try and induce the hoi polloi into supporting various power hungry groups.

That's a good thing as the population is less credulous than it ever was before

We've definitely seen an erosion of respect for genuine expertise, but I don't see less credulous populations than in the past. We've been living through some of the largest mass weaponised information campaigns ever. And nowhere near just at young people, by any means. Young people have left the likes of Facebook and weaponised information on there is hitting far more older than younger folk.