Social media didn’t need to change how people voted



If you can persuade people that their side is going to win without their vote, then perhaps just enough of them won’t bother to show up that you can steal the win.


The two countries that I spend most of my time in (the UK and US) continue to recoil from the effects of narrowly won campaigns that didn’t turn out how the pundits predicted. Social media is credited (by which I mean blamed) for much of this. But the narrative that I’m seeing seems incomplete, and hence doesn’t ring true – no wonder there’s so much cognitive dissonance around this issue.

Activating voters

The role of social media in bringing people into a campaign first came to light during Obama’s run in 2008. Widespread use of social media itself was pretty new then, but the ability for politicians to connect with voters without intermediaries was and remains hugely powerful. I have no doubts that Trump connected better with his base as a consequence of his positive use of social media, and I also think Leave were more savvy than Remain in the Brexit referendum[1].

I use the term ‘positive’ here without any value judgement of a particular side or campaign, but rather for the ability of a politician to connect with their voters in a direct and authentic way that activates them to vote in their favour.

Depressing voters

Michael Moore used the term ‘depressed voter’ in his 5 reasons Trump is going to win:

… it will be what’s called a “depressed vote” – meaning the voter doesn’t bring five people to vote with her. He doesn’t volunteer 10 hours in the month leading up to the election. She never talks in an excited voice when asked why she’s voting for…

This becomes the negative side of influencing the electorate:

  • You’re going to win anyway – so treat yourself to that lie in
  • They’re all as bad as each other – what’s the point in voting

It doesn’t need to appeal to anything besides apathy and indifference, and it’s negative because it stops a voter from voting. Whatever their intention might have been, it doesn’t show up at the ballot box.


As we continue to pick over the outcome of these votes there’s a ton of analysis about who voted which way, and why, and how they might have been influenced by social media campaigns. And then things start getting murky over how those campaigns were orchestrated and financed.

But things get even murkier if we look at who didn’t vote, and why, and how they might have been influenced by social media campaigns. And how those campaigns were orchestrated and financed.

But wait… there’s more

The role of polls and pollsters, and the interplay with social media is only just starting to be examined. The simple lesson here seems to be that the only poll that matters is the actual vote, and anything else might well be part of a disinformation campaign or an elaborate con.

Update 5 Jul 2018 – A couple of days after I posted this Cory Doctorow published Zuck’s Empire of Oily Rags on the same topic. He doesn’t focus on the negative aspects I note above, but the general narrative is (in my opinion) spot on. The line that I expect will be quoted most is:

Cambridge Analytica didn’t convince decent people to become racists; they convinced racists to become voters.

What may also happen here is that they convinced decent people to be apathetic about voting.


[1] This observation extends to just about everything to do with modernity. Remain ran a campaign that wouldn’t have been out of place in the 19th century, and were completely outplayed by Dominic Cummings and his understanding of stochastic processes (branching histories) and OODA loops.

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