How Social Media, Big Data and Communism Influence Politics
24 May, 2017

In the wake of Ukraine's ban on Russian social media and online networks, many questions remain about the influence of big data and social media on political processes.

Hromadske's Nataliya Gumenyuk sat down with Joshua Tucker, co-author of the award winning politics and policy blog The Monkey Cage at the Washington Post and Professor of Politics at New York University, to discuss the relationship between politics, social media and big data.

Tucker, who uses big data in his academic research, recently co-authored a book titled "Communism's Shadow: Historical Legacies and Contemporary Political Attitudes". He also shared his findings on what big data can tell us about the effects of communsim with Hromadske.

Social Media And Big Data Influence On Politics

Technological changes have brought social media's ability to interfere in politics to the forefront of recent political campaigns. For candidates, social media allows them to communicate directly with the public during elections, without journalists mediating. According to Tucker, what is especially interesting right now is social media's ability to influence mainstream media coverage. US President Donald Trump has been especially successful at using social media to direct the conversation on American news networks.

Facebook is also a powerful political tool because it draws on techniques seen in marketing and allows politicians to deliver finely targeted messages to voters during campaigns. Now, politicians can use micro-targeting to deliver messages that appeal to their base supporters without alienating less committed voters.

Social media also allows people to find others who share their political views and develop their own communities online to share information and coordinate as political actors. However, there is a lot of opportunity for information to permeate across political ideologies, "These internet bubbles are not so hermetically sealed from each other," Tucker explained.

When asked about the "dark side" of big data, Tucker pointed out that breaking into electronic communications is just one manifestation of political competition in the digital age. As such, experts often point to the development of an online economy relating to the use of trolls, bots and defamation campaigns in politics.

The pace of technological development also creates a "cat and mouse" dynamic, Tucker explained. Although social media was intially seen as "liberation technology" that could act as a pro-democracy force, authoritarian regimes were quick to catch up. Democratic states are also learning how to combat online interference. This explains why fake news caught people by surprise during the 2016 American election, but not during the 2017 French election:

"You sometimes get with social media and with these changing interactions between technology and politics, these particular moments where one side or the other has an advantage," said Tucker. "But now you’ve got all the platforms working on ways to eliminate fake news, putting up barriers that are out there. You have campaigns that are aware of these as potential problems and can strategize about how they might deal with them."

Communism's Effect on Politics

Tucker recently published a co-authored book title "Communism's Shadow: Historical Legacies and Contemporary Political Attitudes", which used big data to examine how exposure to communism influences attitudes towards democracy, markets, state provided welfare and gender equality.

The book's major finding revealed that living through communism matters. According to Tucker, additional years of exposure to communism are associated with less support for democracy and markets, more support for state provided social welfare, and less support for gender equality.

Research for the book was conducted using the World Values Survey, drawing on all of the data available to compare the experience of having had communism and not having had communism. According to Tucker, Ukraine falls on the higher end of countries across the study that supported state provided social welfare.

The study also aknowledged that the communist experience varies from country to country, and examined the effects of "home grown" versus imposed communism. As it turns out, the results were surprising, "We suspected that there would be a strong effect for exposure to communism with this homegrown communism than it would be with this imposed communism," Tucker said. "As it turned out, that was not really the case."

You are the co-founder of the “Monkey Cage” which is a very interesting publication of the Washington Post which has combined researchers and journalists, research and data, and its influence on politics. To what extent does big data today influence politics?

To the extent that governments are making more and more data publicly available and transparent, and available to be scrapped off the internet by researchers, this a tremendous opportunity for journalists. This is a whole new subject of ways in which journalists, I think, can learn about things that the state is doing in ways that were never possible before.

So one of the big questions people have been interested in, in the last few months in particular, is the role of this kind of, how is social media impacting elections and how is big data impacting elections. And I think we want to think about this in a few different ways.

One of the big ideas of social media is that social media allows candidates to communicate directly with the public, without being intermediated by journalists, without having to go through the mass media and without having to get someone to cover you, that you can tweet or post on your Facebook page.

This new media technology, of being able to tweet or put things on Facebook or on VKontakte, where that bleeds over into the established media and it’s coverage. And I think this is where President Trump is a kind of mastermind of this new world. He is able to direct the conversation on TV and on our news networks like CNN and Fox News by tweeting.

This is not something that is going to be enjoyed by most politicians. This is something that is probably limited to Presidential candidates, and it may even be limited to particular types of Presidential candidates. Part of why Trump’s tweets attract so much attention is that they’re sort of outside the bounds of normalcy, this is not what you expect from a politician. And I think it’s going to be very interesting to watch in the next year, two years, or three years, as other politicians try to help structure the media conversation by using social media in this way. Whether other politicians will be as successful as he is, if they are not willing to embrace the way that he has chosen to use this media in a kind of shocking way to say things that people wouldn’t have expected from a Presidential candidate.

The incredible power of Facebook is that if you know from your own campaign research that white, 40 to 50 year old voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio are particularly concerned about trade deals, you can go to Facebook and say I want to run ads that reach white, 40 to 50 year old voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio and this is the very specific ad that I want to run that will appear on their Facebook feeds.

And when you combine that with the sort of huge big data sources that are out there, that allow campaigns and marketers to learn about preferences of citizens, this allows for this kind of “sneaky feeling” that you’re being targeted by exactly what’s important to you.

What we always see is this idea that the politicians target not really the people who disagree with them but rather motivating those who would agree with them anyway.

Do you run your campaign so that you try to turn out the base, you try to get voters who are your supporters but make sure they go and vote, or do you try and convince the wavering voters that they should vote for you? This has always been a challenge because there are different messages. The things that appeal to your base may not appeal to your voters in between, and the voters that you’re trying to capture in the middle, especially if you’re trying to capture voters from other parties, may not appeal to your base. What social media allows you to do, or anything that does this micro-targeting of advertisements is that whereas previously if you ran a television ad that everyone is going to see, you had to balance between these two things. If I’m going to target ads on social media, that I know are only going to my base, I can make them much more designed for my base. So to the extent that you would think, and this may or may not be the case, that what the base wants to see is stuff that is more  polarizing, that is more negative about the other party, it allows you to deliver those messages to your base without subsequently, or hopefully from the politician’s point of view, without contaminating those wavering voters that you’re trying to win over with a message they might not like.

So about this idea of polarizing society and this idea of us living a bubble. And it’s very popular to say that today we live in these bubbles, when maybe we used to live in a bubble but we just didn’t know it?

On the one hand, there is a lot of evidence that social media allows you to find like-minded people. If you’re the most extreme person in your village, and previously you had views that were far off the mainstream, previously you might think well nobody shares my views. Social media allows you to find lots of other people who can share your views, and this is for good and for bad...If you have a view that’s not shared by a lot of people in your community, previously you would not be able to find people who shared that view. Now social media allows you to find people, and you can build your own communities online where you share that information, and ultimately you can coordinate with people in those communities to be political actors in a way that you probably couldn’t have. Now we might think that in authoritarian regimes some of those people who have those minority views are people who were pro-democracy, who were previously excluded from the political conversation because the state didn’t want those voices heard. So when people talked about social media as “liberation technology”, it allowed pro-democracy activists to find each other and coordinate. In other situations, where generally the people who are excluded from having voices like this are more extreme voices.

On the other hand, when you look at communities like Facebook, like Twitter, there are so many people on Facebook in the United States at least. People join Facebook, they make their friends on Facebook not just based on political reasons but based on who their kids go to school with, their cousins and their family and their friends from when they were growing up. So actually, what turns out is there’s a lot of opportunities for information to permeate across different political ideologies. Now that, in turn, can actually, if you are concerned about this topic of “fake news” and misinformation, that can actually make things more likely to spread because these internet bubbles are not so hermetically sealed from each other.

The hacking of campaigns and using these tools and skills to have influence on the political process. As well, of course it’s a different story but there was recently this great article in The Guardian about the companies like Cambridge Analytics, where really this data is used by political campaigners with a very clear message and there are all these things they can use, hacking, paid commercials, defamation campaigns, trolls, bots. Can we really speak about the dark side of that, what do we really know about it?

This idea of trying to break into other campaigns email accounts, it’s illegal, and it’s new because this is sort of different, you are breaking into electronic communications. But we also have to be aware of this history of this kind of political competition. So conceptually the idea that you’re trying to smear your opponent, and you’re not just having a civil discussion about the issues but you’re also trying dig up dirt about your opponent, this has been going on for a long time. But there are some things that are very different about it in the electronic era.

What are these new tools, if we’re talking about trolls, bots, defamation campaigns? And really what do we know about particular companies that are doing that? Political PR was always there, but how has it’s nature changed?

There is discussion among experts on this. When we think about communications related to politics online, there are different ways that actors who are upset about the conversations that are going on online, or that seek to influence it, can try to change that conversation. We have heard lots about the great firewall of China where you have posts that are removed and censored. But another technique is to try to alter the climate online by altering conversation. And that’s where you get into bots and trolls. Where if you’re an actor you can not just say we’re going to restrict people’s access to internet content you can say no, we’re going to hope people are coming to the internet, but when they come to the internet we’re going to make sure they see our messages. And I think what you’re seeing right now is that we’re in a particular moment where there is a strong power where small voices can be amplified greatly online, by the kind of media ecosystem where they’re embedded. Where you can have small numbers of people sharing information that’s harmful to one candidate or another, in a political context, or person, and that information can then be magnified by bots, magnified by trolls, but then you see the media then covers that story that that’s going on. And then the mainstream media picks up that first media that’s covering it.

With these technological developments happening so rapid fire, if you think about the distance from the printing press, to radio, to television, and now the changes that are going on on almost a yearly and sometimes monthly basis, in what kind of internet connections are available. Live streaming television wouldn't have been imagined however many years ago and now we have video and we have Youtube and all these things going on. It creates a real cat and mouse dynamic. Where one player makes a move, the other player catches up. So the idea that social media was “liberation technology” that it would help pro-democracy activists around the world deal with less democratic regimes, for a period of time that was probably right because these authoritarian regimes that these activists were using social media to organize against were not aware of this as a threat. But once they become aware of it as a threat, they take steps. My personal take is that the fake news that we saw in the US election in 2016 took a lot of people by surprise. It won’t take a lot of people by surprise the next time it comes. It already didn’t, it took fewer people by surprise in the French elections when this happened. So you sometimes get with social media and with these changing interactions between technology and politics, these particular moments where one side or the other has an advantage, but now you’ve got all the platforms working on ways to eliminate fake news, putting up barriers that are out there. You have campaigns that are aware of these as potential problems and can strategize about how they might deal with them.

“Communism’s Shadow” that’s your book’s name and it’s researching the legacy of communism on democratic countries and how it influences democracy, gender and the economy. So really, being now in Ukraine we are absolutely curious, what are you findings?

What we did in the book was we looked at attitudes towards fundamental questions, so what citizens think about democracy, what they think about markets, what they think about social welfare, whether they think the state should provide social welfare and what they think about gender equality. And what we discovered is that when you look at attitudes in postcommunist countries, so the former Soviet Union and East-Central Europe and you compare those attitudes towards those found in the rest of the world, to citizens living outside of the postcommunist world, we found that there was systematically less support for democracy, less support for markets, more support for state provided social welfare, but interestingly not more support for gender equality among post communist citizens. So we had looked at these particular areas because we were interested in the legacies of communism and these areas, thinking about multi-party governance, states vs. markets, state provided social welfare and social equality, these were kind of fundamental tenants of communism. So we found in three of these four cases the differentials we expected. And then the question was what could explain for these differences. And in the book we look at two sort of general classifications of explanations.

Why it is that people who lived through an authoritarian regime and probably have victims in their families, really would be that way and how it differs from countries like Spain, France or Chile where you have popular but never governing communist movements, where you still have this sentiment. How do you explain all of that?

We didn’t know what we were going to find. There could be the possibility it could be the opposite that we were going to find a reaction to communism and you would find a democratic surplus in more people supporting democracy in postcommunist countries than you did in the rest of the world. That wasn’t what the data revealed. We looked at data from hundreds of thousands of interviews with people around the world, over two decades. And we did not find that evidence that there was this surplus in support for democracy.

This is exactly why Ukrainians are sometime surprised when you go to social networks and see you have these excuses for communism or not understanding why decommunization is taking place in Ukraine and why it’s supported.

We were not comparing attitudes about communism, the way the study was set up we needed to compare attitudes about fundamental concepts of government and politics. When we did look at social welfare and attitudes towards state provided social welfare, Ukraine was in the higher end of countries, across the entire study and it was about in the middle of postcommunist countries, so it was not the highest level for state provided social welfare but not the lowest level either.

We see that Russia is the country that has inherited the Soviet legacy and they openly speak about that. Ukraine is somewhere, where sometimes we think that we have owned it or sometimes we say that Ukraine was a victim and was occupied. Can we discuss how that can influence democracy and other things in this part of the world?

A year of exposure to communism in one country in one time is probably not the same as a year of exposure to communism in another country at another time. So we added in all sorts of factors. We looked at did exposure to Stalinism have a greater effect than say exposure to communism under Perestroika? And a propos the question you just asked, one of the things we looked at was whether home grown communism, so communist regimes that came from within, Russia, the Czech Republic, was different from imposed communism. And we suspected that there would be a strong effect for exposure to communism with this homegrown communism than it would be with this imposed communism. As it turned out, that was not really the case. We found very little evidence for that and in some cases we found the opposite evidence, where there was even stronger exposure effects in places where it was imposed than where it was homegrown. Which might be suggestive of places where communism was imposed, there was maybe more generous provisions of social welfare benefits to try and sort of buy over the population.

There is this global perception that under communism women were emancipated, and they were emancipated. Honestly we should confirm that we as Ukrainians, when we see in some other societies with access to labour, and the fact that women in Ukraine were always working, in comparison to some countries like Austria where they didn’t receive pensions until the end of the ‘60s it’s pretty surprising. What have you found?

So that was what we thought. Social equality was an important part of communist doctrine and there were obviously real attempts in communist societies to try to provide for gender equality. But what we found when we looked at the data is that this surplus of support for gender equality, the way we found it in a surplus of support for state provided social welfare, does not exist. If anything, there’s actually in the postcommunist era less support for gender equality than there is in other countries though it’s not very strong evidence in that regard. We think that there’s a sort of stronger gap between rhetoric and reality in terms of gender equality than there is in these other issues.

So if you think about markets, you know communism really was state run economic despite some variation you know in individual countries. You know in terms of democracy you can say what you will about rhetoric but these really were single party states almost exclusively. And the state did provide rather generous social welfare benefits in most cases under communism. But when you turn to gender equality, there was a lot of talk about gender equality but you rarely if ever saw women in the politburo, you rarely if ever saw women in leadership positions in industry. There was a lot of emphasis of women entering the labour market, but if you talk to people who study this, the question is was labour at home shared across men and women, most of the time the answer will be no. Women were in the labour market but were also carrying out a great deal of responsibility at home. So we think that’s one explanation that might be this gap between rhetoric and reality.

/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk

/Text by Eilish Hart