Don't feed the trolls
Social scientist Todd Graham studied the way people talk politics in the comments on The Guardian’s website.
Despite the popular portrayal of comments online as uninformed and irrational, Graham found that discussions were less heated outside of explicitly political forums.
The general public has largely learned how to deal with ‘trolls’: people who instigate arguments online. Nowadays, they are ignored, reported or moderated away.
Graham says that journalists and politicians alike could benefit from knowing where to look online for reasonable political discussions.
More personal engagement by politicians on social media is also an important but as yet underutilised tool.
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Todd Graham has been studying the way people talk online for years now. He started out as a social scientist, but he currently works in the journalism department of the university. One of his most recent studies was the way people talk politics in the comment fields of the English newspaper, The Guardian. ‘I’ve been studying the way politics emerge in everyday spaces. Those comment fields became quite popular around 2008 and 2009, and they are a good way to analyse how people talk politics online.’
And that’s important, he stresses. People who would never have met in the old days due to living on opposite sides of the country or being part of different social circles can now encounter each other on the Internet and exchange opinions.
‘Exchange?’ That seems unlikely, given the popular perception of the comments sections. Media tends to write about how anonymous comment fields are the place where people rant, swear and throw mud – and that worries politicians, too. The Internet is not usually seen as the place to go when you are seeking a thorough discussion or a well thought-out opinion.
‘Well’, says Graham, ‘that idea seems to be driven by the hype of journalists’ perception. My study concentrated on the way comment fields were used in the environmental section. It’s a hot topic because of global warming and also one that comes up in many different parts of the paper – news, science or opinion pieces.’
Social media and the president of the US
One thing is for sure: politicians aiming for young voters know they can’t afford not to be active on social media. After Barack Obama won the elections of 2008, many attributed his success to social media, calling it the Facebook Election. More than 70 per cent of Americans under 25 had voted for him.
Now, Hillary Clinton seems to have picked up on that trick, too. On 10 June, she joined Instagram, the second most popular social network following Facebook: 44 per cent of Americans between 18 and 29 years old are on Instagram. In less than an hour, she had more than 10,000 followers and 1,000 likes for her very first post.
And what was her first post? It was a picture of a clothing rack of the pantsuits in the patriotic colours of red, white and blue with the caption, ‘Hard choices’. Within a week, she has amassed 258,000 followers.
Of course, Clinton is also on Facebook – her page has over 900,000 likes – and on Twitter, she has 3.6 million followers.
Her Republican opponent, Jeb Bush, falls behind in the social media realm. He only has 182,000 likes on Facebook, 196,000 followers on Twitter and 12,500 on Instagram.
To his surprise, he found there was actually a lot of interaction going on. Rather than just shouting at the journalist who wrote a given story, people were analysing what was going on and reacting to each other. What was also interesting was that those people were well informed. Whereas journalists tend to rely on companies and government sources, the commenters referred to peer-reviewed articles.
‘I realise, of course, that this study may be a special case’, he says. ‘The topic researched may have influenced the outcome, just as the choice of The Guardian may have.’ Different newspapers have different audiences, he realises. Still, The Guardian was a good choice because they keep up with modern technology. Also significant: ‘Other research on the topic shows the same results.’
The old idea of the Internet as a place where trolls rule is outdated, he thinks. Not that that has never been true, but things change quickly online and the public is still adapting. People have learned how to deal with trolls, Graham says. Nowadays, they are ignored, reported or moderated away. ‘You see people caution each other: ‘Don’t react to commenter 1789. He’s a troll.’’
That’s also the reason why he doesn’t see the need for the policy that many newspapers have nowadays of only making it possible to comment through Facebook. The assumption is that if people can’t comment anonymously anymore, they will behave more politely online. ‘And that’s true. However, people weren’t flaming that much anyway.’
Journalists can benefit from paying more attention to what is going on online by participating in the discussion and getting new angles on a story. More journalists are starting to do it, Graham notices. ‘They also use it to see if their ideas hold up in an argument.’
Dutch politicians on social media
Dutch politicians have found social media in the last few years, too. However, taking full advantage of the possibilities that social networks offer is no easy task. What is really important is that Twitter and Facebook posts have to be interesting to the public, have a consistent message and are updated regularly.
Take VVD chairperson Halbe Zijlstra: he doesn’t have a Facebook page, but he does have a Twitter account with almost 14,000 people following him. Sadly though, his last update is from 1 October.
His colleague, Diederik Samsom from the centre-left PvdA party, is far more active. He uses Facebook to voice his ideas on political subjects and draw attention to relevant opinions and articles. People often react and discuss the situation on his Facebook page. His Twitter account has more followers but is less active: he posted frequent updates around the campaign to help Nepal, following the earthquake in May.
Then, of course, there’s Geert Wilders from the right-wing extremist party, PVV. He is very active on social media. He has over 432,000 followers on Twitter and tweets every day about his opinions, his visits abroad, retweets a lot and reacts to his followers. He’s a lot less active on Facebook, usually updating about once a month to please the 35,000 people who like him there. A lot of discussion takes place on his page too, for example the alleged attempt to ‘strangle Israel’.
But politicians should find a way to engage with Internet commenters, too. A lot of relevant political talk is going on online, but not necessarily where you would think, Graham says. If politicians go looking for comments online, they should actually avoid official websites. ‘Those are echo chambers where people only go to get their own ideas reinforced.’
The places to look are those not focused on politics at all, such as websites like the popular netmom.com, which Graham studied, or TV Spy. Those website focus on childcare and education, and – in the latter case – on TV programmes. In the threads where people ask questions, a lot of political talk is going on. ‘Especially in these times of austerity and cutbacks’, Graham adds.
Rather than being drawn together by their political ideas, it may be the fact that they all love Call the Midwife or have small children instead. On sites like these, people can find others that have the same problems as they do, such as health care, and ask questions. They can also use the Internet for activism by creating protest groups or signing online petitions.
That’s a good thing, Graham says. When people talk politics, they tend to become politically active, too. And the next step after that is ‘regular’ political behaviour, like voting.
So why is it, with all that political talk online, that politicians constantly complain about the public not being interested? ‘That might be because when people do contact politicians, they tend to get disappointed. They talk, invest a lot of time, and then nothing happens’, Graham thinks.
It’s also true that politics is still old school. New personalised forms of political participation are developing rapidly, but politicians don’t yet seem to know how to tap into that. ‘The engagement is there’, Graham says. ‘But the politicians have to find new ways of listening to the citizens and developing close relationships with them. They have to evolve too, because that’s what it’s all about in the social media: close, interpersonal relations.’