Interview with Michael Bossetta, assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Media at Lund University.
Can you talk a bit about your academic background and how it relates to social media?
Michael Bossetta: I initially started my Phd in populism but then moved on to researching Euroscepticism in online forums. Me and a colleague were looking at the differences between Denmark and Sweden, how people were talking on these online forums about Europe. While there was some forum activity in Sweden we realised there was none in Denmark. This was around 2013–2014 and we soon realised most of the Danish activity was actually on social media. What’s interesting is that looking at social media data, the most active citizens are the ones that tend to support so-called populist parties.
So do you see a connection between that statistic and the infrastructure and business models of social media platforms? Someone might argue the kind of interactivity they promote is quite reductive or a simplistic version of reality?
Michael Bossetta: I wouldn’t go as far as to say platforms are driving that simplification. If you look at some countries right now, the front runners are people with no concrete policy positions. But social media are another broadcast medium that circumvents legacy media or if you are really lucky everything you do gets amplified by the latter.
Do you have any examples of when politicians, political parties or movements have used social media in a productive way in terms of the impact it had on broader society or the same platforms being used in less productive or negative ways?
Michael Bossetta: I see the idea of authenticity, where people get to see and know the person they are electing, as a positive example. Ocasio-Cortez and Trump and are such examples. There are also more ways for people to get involved in political campaigns, for example through the use of organising apps. But there isn’t as much interactivity actually between the politicians and the public. I think there could be more crowdsourcing of ideas. Projects like live streams, questions and answers, ideas that give a more down to earth glimpse of what’s going on, are positive steps.
In terms of negative examples, there has been coordinated activity by bots and false amplification but it quickly gets to the question of whether or not social media give a voice to some of these more extremist ideas. I believe it is too easy to blame all this to the rise of technology when there are many other trends, such as the externalities of the internet itself or the commercialisation of legacy media, trending towards sensationalism. Those are the more fundamental issues, and I think platforms just magnify some of the structural cleavages that already exist.
In terms of familiarity and the way some politicians are trying to project it through Instagram or Twitter, is that what politicians are about? Isn’t it distracting from the actual issues?
Michael Bossetta: Even though I see authenticity as a positive, we should bear in mind people can manipulate that too. Authenticity can be constructed and then you’re leading people to think you are someone that you are not. That’s the danger.
Have you thought of the issue of regulation? Would you recommend any specific changes to accommodate more productive political dialogue?
Michael Bossetta: I think there should be some research into what are the best technological structures to facilitate meaningful dialogue. One concrete thing would be to regulate the opening up of data so researchers can study it and take a look at issues such as under what conditions does inflaming happen, how do people become radicalised over time or how can it be reversed. How can people be nudged in directions that support constructive dialogue? Is it even possible?
How do you see micro-targeting in political processes in general?
Michael Bossetta: I am a bit laissez-faire. To an extent, targeting is necessary because the platforms have made it so. If you have 1 million followers and you post something just organically, it’s going to reach less than 5% of them or something similar. Platforms are incentivising people to pay, it’s part of their business model. But the question is, is it only politics that people shouldn’t be micro-targeted by? Is it ok for companies to do that? This problem is even more crucial in the US. Essentially, because of the primary system, when people register to vote, it gives campaigns better data to inform their targeting strategies. I think in the UK there is some aspect of this but in most of the EU countries there is not. You are not allowed to use this data and parties are not allowed to store it over elections to trace people’s activity. Campaigns can target more effectively in the US because you give them better data.
So would you say unregulated exchange of data between data brokers, parties and political actors has dangerous implications?
Michael Bossetta: It’s a difficult question because for example, if you’re doing a Google search for an issue that aligns with a candidate’s policy position and then the same candidate identifying you as part of their strategic voters targets you, that creates awareness. Obviously there is a problem if this candidate promotes two different policies to two different people. That’s a tension that’s growing in academia, whether or not these technologies are good or bad. On one hand they increase participation which is through the roof in most Western democracies. The question is what kind? Deliberation is down – this kind of consensus making – but participation is up.