Today’s voters appear to think less critically, demand less of the media, and are more easily manipulated.

 

Since the era of social media began, one would have thought that it would have resulted in a series of Arab Awakening-type uprisings around the world, and that people power would have dominated the political landscape on an ongoing basis. Instead, the era has been characterised by the enduring rise of strong men such as Duterte, Erdogan, Maduro, Sisi, and Xi. These individuals represent a new type of “democratic” authoritarian—able to manipulate public sentiment for their own benefit, rather than being conquered by it, by using a new weapon: social media. It is equally counter-intuitive that social media has also helped to “zombie voters”—bombarded by mountains of information, seemingly incapable of discerning fact from fiction, increasingly disinterested in the news, and more politically apathetic.

Today’s voters should in theory be smarter, savvier, and more sophisticated, but instead they appear to think less critically, demand less of the media, and are more easily manipulated. It is easy enough to point a finger of blame at foreign powers for interfering in national elections, but the ultimate finger of blame should be pointed at zombie voters. Although the impact of smartphones and social media on voters remains an emerging area of research, if the US is representative of what is happening elsewhere in the world, a 2017 Pew study found that 67% of Americans receive at least a portion of their news from social media, an astounding 74% of Twitter users stated that the primary way they digest news was from Twitter (up from 59% in 2016), and 66% reported getting their news from Facebook.

Equally alarmingly, a 2016 Pew study concluded that approximately 60% of Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube users got their news online mostly by chance—while doing other things online—and were less likely to be able to say that they were actually searching for news. Pew also found that just a quarter of social media news consumers regularly click on links to news stories via social media. While exceptions to this general rule of course exist, consumers of social media may be broadly characterised as having the attention span of a gnat, and appear to be far more interested in being entertained than understanding the world around them.

This is consistent with other disturbing trends, such as that newspaper readership fell globally by more than 35% between 2010 and 2017, with the average amount of time spent reading newspapers across the world averaging just 14 minutes per day. By contrast, the average amount of time spent consuming information online in 2017 was approximately five hours per day—more time than people generally spend watching television. Is it any wonder, then, that the world’s strongmen are able to gain power and hold it with relatively little opposition? The average voter is too busy either engaging in online gaming or watching YouTube videos to be “bothered” by pesky things such as elections.

It is also worth noting that the rise of the strongman has occurred at the beginning of the era of smartphones and social media—not after they had become part of the fabric of society for decades or generations—which implies that Zombie Voter Syndrome is only likely to get worse with time. It is hard to imagine that with the above referenced patterns already firmly entrenched in global society that the average adult will take a greater interest in the world and become more inclined to demand more of their leaders as a result of smartphones and social media. More likely, the self-absorbed, hedonistic, and mindless consumption of garbage on the web will become even more firmly deeply-seated with time.

There was genuine hope among oppressed people around the world that the courage, strength, and perseverance of the individuals who participated in the Arab Awakening would translate into similar political movements elsewhere—driven by social media—but, strangely and sadly, that has not occurred. Based on the information consumption patterns that have been established, and the rise of the strongman in the era of social media, the average voter appears less likely to become more politically engaged or demand more from their media or leaders in spite of social media. This is hardly encouraging.

In the decades and elections to come, there will naturally continue to be active engagement by political candidates and voters alike via social media, but if the 2016 US presidential election is anything to go by, the majority of voters may be more likely to become engaged because of the “entertainment value” of doing so, rather than the calibre of a candidate or the inherent value of his or her platform. The real concern for polities going forward is not just the threat of future election manipulation by foreign powers, but the zombie voters who cannot discern fact from fiction, a politician of quality versus an entertainer, or a policy platform that is in their long-term interest versus a sugar rush.

That would require a radical change in online information consumption behaviour, which seems rather unlikely to happen. Rather, we should expect that, in the decades to come, politically-oriented information will become even more manipulated, and the zombie voters who consume it will become even less interested in it. That would be good news for strongmen and bad news for the people who might be inclined to oppose them.

Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and author of Virtual Terror.

 

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