by Jamie Stewart

Social media platforms are incredibly powerful in spreading news and information, generally for the greater good. However, it can be used by those wishing to propagating misinformation and fake news, especially during high-impact events.

A worrying trend in reporting, is the compiling of publicly available social media data to infer and report on public opinion. Even worse is the reliance of politicians and other decision makers when they misguidedly or disingenuously use such data to justify changes to policy and legislation.

I reported in my last email the 98% of respondents to the Scottish Governments consultation improving the Protection for Wild Mammals in Scotland were generated by five online campaigns managed by Animal Rights activists and referred to “public concern and doubts”.

Let’s be clear here, ‘social media influence’ is a marketing term that describes an individual or a group's ability to affect other people's thinking in an online community. Whereas ‘public opinion’ consists of the desires, wants and thinking of the majority of the people. It is the collective opinion of the people of a society or state on an issue or problem.

The problem is, what we can discern from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram is not exactly what is typically thought of as ‘public opinion’. Just because social media posts are freely available doesn’t mean they accurately represent what the public thinks or feels. That would be the 2% of respondents to the Scottish Government consultation who took the time to record their names and addresses.

The Internet has opened up new ways of finding and forming tribes and attributed names to match, netizens and slacktivists or at they used to be known, “keyboard warriors”.

Social media platforms have given these tribes a sense of togetherness. Analysis has shown us that netizens are more likely to connect with those who share similar views, while algorithms learn what they like and feed them more and more of the same, feeding their insecurities and empowering them to react, at least digitally. However, the last top ten most shared online petitions, including some tasty topics such as “EU referendum”, “Prevent Donald Trump’s visit to the UK” and “Free childcare for working parents”, all failed to have an impact.

Critics of online campaigns will be delighted by these results, which appear to demonstrate that sitting at home and banging on your keyboard can’t really provoke social or political change.

Why then is the Scottish Government using such questionable “public concern” to change the law?

With this in mind, we are calling upon members to write to and visit their constituent MSP, regional MSPs and to the Rural Affairs and Natural Environment minister offering their “public opinion” and outlining their concerns to the Scottish Governments.

Meanwhile, in the real world… the Scottish Countryside Alliance will be attending the Scottish National Party and Scottish Conservative Party spring conference and will be at the forthcoming GWCT Scottish Game Fair. Please come and say hello.  

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