Friday, August 17, 2018

You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet: How Smartphones And Social Technology Will Transform Political Communication

It can be difficult to imagine that just seven short years ago the majority of the US population did not own a smartphone or use Facebook. In 2010 only 27% of Americans had subscribed to Facebook (World Internet Stats), even less used messaging apps. Perhaps more surprisingly in 2011 only 35% of Americans owned a smartphone (Pew Research).

In 2012 the Obama campaign was lauded as one of the most sophisticated ever because of the way it used new technology, data and social networks. In retrospect it was just the beginning. Smartphones had not become the ubiquitous device that they are today. It was difficult to anticipate how smartphones, social media and messaging apps would turn the world of news media and political communication upside down.

In the six years since the Obama campaign the use of smartphones has grown to a point where the overwhelming majority of people get their news and communicate using their smartphones. The nature of social networks is also evolving with greater use of messaging apps to share content. The way people use their smartphones will shape the election campaigns of 2020 and beyond.

Maybe Steve Jobs Really Did Change The World

The launch of the iPhone in 2007 by Steve Jobs may prove to be a pivotal moment in world history. It has changed forever the way people access the internet and communicate. Not that everyone was convinced at the time:

"There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance." said Steve Ballmer of Microsoft in 2007.

The last ten years has seen significant growth in smartphone penetration and also in social network and messaging usage. In 2017 the percentage of the US population with Facebook accounts had grown to 72% (World Internet Stats). The growth of messaging apps has been even more rapid with more people active on messaging apps than social networks each month (Business Insider).

These apps are overwhelmingly used on smartphones, ownership of which has grown significantly. 94% of 18-29 year olds in the US now own a smartphone (Pew Research).

As Clay Shirky (2009) noted "The important questions aren't about whether these tools will spread or reshape society but rather how they do so."

People Get Their News From Smartphones 

Importantly for the news media and political campaigns the number of US adults that now frequently get their news on a mobile device has trebled in the last four years. It has grown from 21% to 58%. This growth shows little sign of slowing down.

According to the latest Chartbeat data over 70% of Google referrals to publishers are now from mobile devices. 

Social Networks Are Not What They Used To Be. The Rise of Dark Social.

Facebook is still the dominant social network but both Facebook and Twitter have  seen user growth flattening off in the US. However, overall social media use is still on the rise according to Pew Research. Social networks such as Snapchat and Instagram are large and growing. 

The most significant growth has been in messaging apps and what is called dark social. 

The top four messaging apps have over 4.1 billion users, and the top three messaging apps each have over one billion users (Business Insider). There are now more people active on messaging apps than on social network apps. 

In recent elections there has been much concern about transparency of political activity and communication on social networks. Facebook ads can be targeted at specific groups and are not visible to the wider public. Equally people can share Facebook content just to their friends or a group. 

What is rarely discussed is that most content is not shared on social networks but in messaging apps. A study by GetSocial, a company that tracks private sharing through copy and paste of urls found that almost two thirds of all content sharing is private or what is often called dark social. This might be sharing via email, messaging apps or private work apps such as Slack or Yammer. 

What Does This Mean For Political Campaigns?

From the current trends we can anticipate the number of people who use smartphones, social networks and messaging apps to get their news and communicate will increase. This has profound implications for political campaigns.

In the new world most people will access and consume news on a smartphone. The mediation of that news by large technology companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple is a growing issue. The algorithms that decide what news to display in Google News or your Facebook feed are making editorial decisions that shape how people view and understand the world. This raises issues of censorship and power. Already conservative groups have accused Facebook of censorship following Trump's election. 

Recent concerns about social media have included data privacy, micro-targeting of political messages, lack of transparency and misinformation. It is easier for misinformation to go unchallenged if it is only seen by targeted groups on Facebook. The rise of dark social and sharing via messaging apps is, by its nature, even harder to track and make transparent. One of the perceived benefits of tools such as WhatsApp is its encryption, security and privacy.

It has recently been reported that people in Donald Trump’s administration are using the messaging app Confide. This app not only encrypts messages but deletes them after they have been read, to avoid tracking and leaks of information. These developments are unlikely to increase the transparency of political communications.

It is unclear if targeted social media messages are effective in persuading people to change their minds to the extent of switching party allegiance. However, for political campaigns social media messaging can be effective in mobilising supporters, reinforcing peoples views, getting them to share content they support, volunteering and donating. One of Sasha Issenberg's observations on Trump's social media campaign is that it primarily targeted Trump supporters. These are people that willingly give their data to the political campaigns they support.

The combination of smartphones, social networks and messaging apps, and their ubiquitous nature, provides political campaigners with more power to reach and mobilise their supporters than ever before.