This Present Madness

Social media is now entrenched in our civil society. Digital communities have given power to people and increased participation in democratic processes. Politicians are well aware of the importance of including social media platforms in their campaigns.

In 1993, Rheingold foresaw that this technology would miss its mark if not ‘used intelligently and deliberately by an informed population” (Rheingold 2000). However Rheingold did not foresee how controversial an ‘informed population’ would become.

‘Gunk’ Image courtesy of Michael Leunig

Social media added a powerful element to the voters’ voice outside the ballot box, giving balance to politicians, mainstream media and journalists (Enli 2017). In 2016, platforms became the battleground for ‘fake news’ in US election campaign. Axel Bruns, QUT, says the Twitter hashtag #auspol is part of Australian political furniture, and used by consumers to engage in political debates (Bogle 2016).

Social media is used primarily as a marketing tool in politics, as the need to control the message overwhelms any forum for enlightened public debate. Politicians are able to speak directly to voters without constraints of media ‘interpretation’, and attempt to control how the public perceive them. Even Trump’s so-called amateurish approach to Tweets is a deliberate statement of his authenticity. A performance, originally establishing his ‘outsider’ position (Enli 2017).

Compare approaches made by Australian pollies throughout our revolving door of Prime Ministers, from shaving cuts to budgie smugglers, and you see who maintains distance behind staffers or connects directly with constituents. It is imperative for anyone in politics to have a social media presence when campaigning for votes, especially engaging with the younger audience. Without authenticity, candidates wont hold up to their more intense scrutiny.

Choosing the platforms is a matter of horses for courses: be more sociable on Facebook, more serious on Twitter, use humour on Tumblr, and policies on LinkedIn. Get the platform wrong and you’ll look like a goose. Or worse, you’ll lose the audience and become a trending joke. Platforms are notorious for kicking politicians around, whether in a seriously degrading way, such as Reddit, or humorously by the teenage mimics on TikTok.

‘Globalisation’ Image courtesy of Michael Leunig

However the red flag is more serious. Social media in politics and civil culture has a darker side. Knowing where your information comes from drives democracy (Arvanitakis 2017). Far from a free flow of information, the algorithms are set to feed each individual with their own bias. Social media platforms are highly controlled media environments, making excellent use of the human tendency to “look for evidence that supports belief systems we already have in place” (Ohler 2017). Our own confirmation bias means we become part of the machine that spreads misinformation and disseminates ‘fake news’.

‘Disgusting Lies’ Image courtesy of Michael Leunig

To find truth about controversial stories, it is imperative to read from diverse sources. This begins with a rare desire to know the truth. Suffering from information bombardment, it’s easier to follow what ‘our team thinks’. It’s the opposite of critical thinking (Ohler 2017). Social media plays a significant role in how we learn political information as we don’t question information forwarded by people we trust (Bode 2016). Politicians also know that even disinterested people will learn without any involvement as a by-product of using social media (Bode 2016).

And it gets worse. In 2018 Cambridge Analytica was shut down because of their use of private data to manipulate US 2016 election through targeted social media posts. Using psychographics, the ‘persuadables’ were exposed to curated unmarked political messages. These methods were used to sway over 100 elections in 30 countries (Ghoshal 2018).

We are far from an ‘informed population’. We are digital citizens facing a crisis in media literacy, meanwhile, this present madness threatens our democracy.

Alexander Nix (Cambridge Analytica) explains psychographics


MDA2009 Assignment 1B Politics and civic cultures


Arvanitakis, J 2017, ‘If Google and Facebook rely on opaque algorithms, what does that mean for democracy?’, ABC News, Viewed 11 April 2020, <;

Bode, L 2016, ‘Political News in the News Feed: Learning Politics from Social Media’, Mass Communication and Society, Viewed 12 April 2020, <;

Bogle, A 2016, “#auspol: The Twitter hashtag Australia can’t live without”, Mashable, Viewed 12 April 2020, <;

Enli, G 2017, ‘Twitter as arena for the authentic outsider: exploring the social media campaigns of Trump and Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election’, European Journal of Communication, 32(1), pp. 50–61, Viewed 12 April 2020, <;

Ghoshal, D 2018 ‘Mapped: The breathtaking global reach of Cambridge Analytica’s parent company’ Quartz, Viewed 12 April 2020, <;

Ohler, J 2017, ’Confirmation Bias and Media Literacy’ Connections, Consortium for Media Literacy, Viewed 11 April 2020, <;

Rheingold, H 1993, “The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier” (Paperback 2000) The Digital Citizen, Wired, Viewed 12 April 2020, <;


Leunig, M 2020, “Cartoons”, Works, © Michael Leunig, Viewed April 2020 <;

Nix, A 2016, “Cambridge Analytica – The Power of Big Data and Psychographics”, YouTube, viewed March 2020, <;

4 thoughts on “This Present Madness

  1. Thanks for an interesting read! I was particularly taken by your point about information bombardment and how we choose to take the path of least resistance which only reaffirms our biases. I had never thought about it that way before and of course, it IS the opposite of critical thinking, as you say. It was also interesting to read that our social ties influence us because we trust information from those people. This may in part explain the success of Donald Trump, who has built up a lot of social capital with his supporters, despite failing to deliver on many of his promises.


  2. Hi Wendy,
    More fascinating reading – well-written and absorbing. One of my little obsessions is the role that social media plays in democracy. Yes, social media is used as a marketing tool by politicians, and as you say, enables politicians to ‘market their message’ directly to the voting public, without the intervention or mediation provided by traditional ‘third party’ gatekeepers like journalists, censors, field experts and fact-checkers.This, as you say, gives them control over the message. To me, this comes back directly to power relations in society – one part of power is controlling the information your ‘subjects’ hear, see, read and can access. This use of social media my be creeping a little bit towards dictatorship – in dictatorships a big part of their strategy is controlling information. The Trump election is an example, and in the future may become a ‘teaching moment’ for political campaigners.

    Although the digital sphere offers so much to advance democracy, to unite people, to generate support for worthwhile activism, like most things human, it has a dark side – it can be manipulated by people like politicians and marketers to ‘tell us what we want to hear’, to affirm already-held beliefs. In a previous unit Eli Pariser’s talk on Filter Bubbles was included. I don’t understand everything about algorithms, but enough to know that they are used to ‘feed’ you information based on your previous searches – as you write: ‘the algorithms are set to feed each individual with their own bias. Social media platforms are highly controlled media environments, making excellent use of the human tendency to “look for evidence that supports belief systems we already have in place” (Ohler 2017).’

    Like Rick says, this may explain Donald Trump’s success – he goes directly to the people. This may be part of another problem, though – by using that tactic, he has convinced many Americans that by speaking to them, he is also speaking for them. I hope Americans have learned a valuable lesson about not voting – that democracy is not a right like bearing arms, but something that must be fought for.

    See TED talks, El Pariser –

    Thank you for such engaging reading!


  3. Hi Jo,
    Thanks for your comment. The algorithms are evolving faster than we can understand them, but there’s enough ‘out there’ that should shake off public complacency. For more algorithm understanding, apart from the Alexander Nix clip (above), have a look at the movie ‘The Great Hack’ ( Cambridge Analytica may be gone but the use of psychographics is alive and thriving.


  4. Hi Wendy,
    Very interesting read. You wrote “Our own confirmation bias means we become part of the machine that spreads misinformation and disseminates ‘fake news’.” I made a similar comment in my blog which included how the lack of a range information, which is what the algorithm wants, only disadvantages users in which they are unable to see inconsistencies and the ability to fact check the information provided to them. This, like you said, of course, leads to a further spread of the misinformation as people share things blindly – so long as they agree with it.
    It’s interesting that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg does not seem to care whether false information is advertised in political campaigns through his site either. ( Because, as you said “Knowing where your information comes from drives democracy.”


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