Opinion: As election season nears, the only thing you can trust online is cat photos

It seems like summer just began, but now we are looking at the start of the PNE this weekend, which is the signal that summer is almost over. It’s also the signal that that silly season is about to really get underway – election time.

As it stands now, the election will be held on Oct. 21. I can only imagine what awaits us the day kids go back to school – the onslaught of ads, flyers, election signs, billboards, you name it. It’s like Christmas for printers who have to produce all that stuff – a little mayhem, followed by a break with some money in the bank.

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What the last few elections have shown, however, is the power that social media plays in a campaign. Starting in 2008 with the historic win of Barack Obama, social media was a key factor in his victory. The same could be said for Donald Trump’s victory, although for different reasons. The level of sophistication on data use and analytics had advanced, and was being used in ways no one had anticipated.

On top of that, other “entities” chimed in with a message of their own, and not necessarily with an ethical lens. I’ve read (on social media, of course) that some bots have already been set up for our coming election. Bots can do all sorts of things, from driving views to re-posting information. All the internet does is read, sort and respond to the commands it’s given, but can pump out tons and tons of information, regardless of whether that information is, true, false or indifferent.

In the old days, before the internet, if someone wanted to take over a country, they would invade and take over the radio and television stations. Now you don’t need to do that, it can all be done remotely, in a dark room, or several dark rooms, around the globe.

The narrative for many years has been the “disruption” of traditional media, and by extension traditional news. As the information industry grows, more players means more competition for an audience, in order to attract advertisers to pay the salaries of those creating the news. News, to a certain extent, is becoming more like entertainment – if you don’t like a show, you go to another one. If you don’t like the reporting of the party you support, you shift to an outlet that is more supportive of the policies of your party. That’s who people tend to follow on social media as well – those who share the same views, reaffirming what you believe, but not challenging the validity of the message.

I remember the Arab Spring, when social media was instrumental in giving repressed populations a voice, a way to organize and change their circumstances through protest. Now it seems it’s been turned the other way, where it’s being used to try and influence the outcome of democratic elections.

As Grandpa Simpson (from the Simpsons) says, “I’m old, I don’t trust anyone except Matlock.” Maybe he’s onto something.

As the election nears, it might be the only thing you can trust on the internet is cat photos. And there are lots of those.

Brad Sherwin, MBA is a long-time resident of South Delta, and has almost 30 years’ experience in marketing, public relations and business strategy. He teaches marketing at Douglas College, coaches hockey goalies and is president of the board of directors at Deltassist.

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