Diarmaid Mac Mathúna : “People are starting to realise that algorithms are influencing what we see.”

Diarmaid Mac Mathuna is a Communication Expert on Digital campaigns and content strategy, and Director at Indiepics. He participated in the ESMH event Virality and influencers in digital communication on 3 April in the European Parliament.

This interview is part of a report on the workshop.


What percentage of your work is with the private and the public sectors?

It is a mix, I would say half and half. What is great about that is that you can combine the latest thinking and experiences from both. One of the interesting things we are seeing now for example is that disinformation has started to affect brands. The whole issue of vaccine hesitancy has been having an impact on pharmaceutical companies, which are becoming worried, as it literally hits their sales. So, they have started to invest in research to combat disinformation, or at least understand it.


Do you have any comments in terms of the workshop?

What I found very interesting was that in many ways we were echoing the same advice for people who want their content to ‘go viral’. We all talked about how people are building a sense of community online, finding their own identity, trying to differentiate themselves, to look good to their peers …


However, it could be said that your presentation was the most optimistic one …

I was trying to hit a hopeful tone, because I genuinely believe we can use social media for good. We rather lost our way in recent years. It is natural to feel a bit overwhelmed by the negative things that are happening on these platforms and the disinformation, but I think we do have to remember that a lot of people are using these platforms for good. We also have to understand what the bad things are too. That is why we came up with this ‘MEDIA’ framework that relates to monitoring, evaluating, downgrading, informing, and occasionally attacking.


What exactly do you mean by attacking? It sounds controversial …

I mean, sometimes you have to attack an issue head-on. A good example is Brian Cox, an English physicist presenting television programmes in the UK. He gets very angry with people who believe the earth is flat (I get angry too). But Cox engages with those people online – the problem is that means all his Twitter followers get to see the original flat earth comment. Because Twitter’s algorithm saw that Cox commented on a post it concluded it is important, so it will prioritise that. This way you end up bringing the myth or the false fact to a wider audience by accident. You have to be very careful when you attack things head-on.


So is it sometimes wiser to employ strategic silence?

Yes, they say ‘don’t feed the trolls’ on Twitter. I think there is truth to that.

Diarmaid Mac Mathúna


To what extent is there awareness about the possibilities of machine learning?

At a base level, I think people are starting to realise that algorithms are influencing what we see.


How do you think algorithms impact viral content?

I think they are fundamental to how the information is shared. What is interesting, though, is the interplay between what humans like and what algorithms like. Humans like very short pieces of content that gives them answers immediately, but, if you publish a blog post that is very short, Google will think it is poor quality. Humans think it is good, the algorithm thinks it is bad. The result is that, if you want your blog post to appear in search engines, you have to write a very long blog post. As a reader, I need to take a long time to get to the answer, because what you are trying to do is make me spend a lot of time on the page and scroll all the way down, with Google tracking those signals. What happens then is the algorithm shows it to more humans. We are at this very weird place today, where you have to solve problems for both humans and algorithms. If you want humans to see it you have to convince the algorithms that humans will like it.


In terms of influencers, how do you see this trend changing the way people do politics? Can you think of any good examples of politicians successfully using their influencing personas to advance their political careers?

I find the whole area of personal branding very interesting. It is no longer the domain of celebrities, an example that comes to mind is Donald Tusk. He has been using his personal Twitter feed in an interesting way. He might make a comment in his speech that makes you think it is by accident, but then he will tweet it immediately and then you know that he really meant it – particularly in the context of Brexit. He has built a brand around himself and people are intrigued by what he might say next.

 

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