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Crowd Control: Social Media 101

Twitter is where the pebble drops in the water. Online media and Facebook are where the ripples spread on the surface, visible to everyone. Private messaging is where the undercurrents flow.

The digital situation is, in truth, more complex than this. However, these principles can be broadly used as a basis for understanding.

Twitter holds a unique position as a platform used by journalists and politicians to drive and respond to narratives in real-time. It is both a source of news content and an instant source of news items – which is why fake news is so easily amplified on the platform. Trends grow and disappear rapidly, often changing several times in a space of hours. It is the most instantly impactive platform due to its shortform nature and is highly effective and triggering emotional responses. By design it traps users in a dopamine cycle.

Anonymous use is more prevalent on Twitter, which has the dual effect of reducing behavioural standards and increasing the cross-pollination of issues across geographical boundaries. This also means there is less trust capital in Twitter content compared to Facebook, subsequently it is more effective in the case of hyper-engaged demographic audience segments. This has the effect of creating echo-chambers and self-containing messaging. The platform design makes itself and its users highly pliable and vulnerable to influence operations.

Facebook is slightly different due to its design. Trust capital is built into the platform due to the fact it relies on real-world human relationships to build digital networks. This creates more influence than in the case of anonymous usage platforms and, as a result, sees more real-world outcomes from online campaigns. Information percolates over a slightly longer timeframe – days rather than hours – and lingers for weeks rather than days.

Private messaging combines the reduced behavioural standards associated with anonymity and an inflated sense of trust capital to create a hugely influential medium operating with a constant flow of information and little or no external control. This is why incidents such as the Whatsapp Lynchings have occurred and disinformation can persist for many months or years: a secret belief shared with trusted friends is self-sustaining, no matter how outlandish it is.

All of these platforms see their own algorithms creating signal amplification based on frequency of messaging, so it is very easy to increase the footprint of information as long as you understand the system will help you.

Layered on top of this, each of these platforms create search engine entries and traffic. So all of the content can serve to increase the traffic to websites and this type of co-ordinated activity is often misunderstood.

In the case of disinformation, for example, not only will a fact-check increase the visibility of the original disinformation on a social network – also bringing it to a larger audience than it would have otherwise reached – but it will also enhance the search engine ranking of the originator. So, if the source of the disinformation is a fake news website using “5G Coronavirus” in its SEO entry, every social media post and fact-check article mentioning those terms will increase the visibility of the original malicous actor.

You must also be aware of the goldfish bowl effect.

Firstly, due to to the segmented audiences and echo chambers, information has a high chance of re-emerging regularly even where it is old or outdated. The algorithm then takes over, sees the past popularity and decides it must be worthy of more attention again. This creates a cycle of apparent “this is new, this is new, this new” and draws people into often circular conversations which serve no forward or strategic purpose.

Secondly, the dopamine cycle addicts people to trending topics, either to boost their own popularity through hashtag usage, or through the triggering of emotional responses (predominantly rage, in which the red mist effect clouds judgment). This means that when a topic starts to gain popularity again people will join in with it, no matter how many times it has been fruitlessly pursued before.

From a campaigning perspective, the goldfish bowl effect is hugely detrimental as it detracts from here and now needs and keeps people discussing and fighting issues which are no longer in play. It is also incredibly easy to trigger people into goldfish bowl patterns of behaviour in order to keep their time occupied and their efforts off-mission.

The more immediacy there is to the platform (the closer to the pebble dropping in the water) the harsher the goldfish bowl effect is.

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