We’ve all done it on occasion. You’re halfway through a controversial opinion piece and you scroll down to see the comments. Perhaps you’ll hop onto Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit and see what’s being said about the latest news. Perhaps you’ll even vote in a poll just to see the current results.
There’s something about the raw, unfiltered flood of public sentiment that can cause your heart to race.
For years, websites providing product or service reviews have had to employ safeguards to stop companies or organisations submitting positive reviews about their own offerings, or negative reviews about their competitors.
TripAdvisor, Yelp and Urbanspoon all suffer from this. But have a read through the exclusively awful comments on the Sydney Morning Herald or ABC’s The Drum and you’d be forgiven for thinking the major political parties are paying some of these virulent individuals to share their ‘opinions’ online.
That’s because they probably are. It might not be as nefarious as a whole department of the Liberal or Labor parties being dedicated to posting comments and voting in online polls, but as simple as a parliamentary staffer unable to resist an opportunity to defend their boss in a comment thread.
Most recently, readers of the Australian ‘sub-Reddit’ discovered evidence of an astroturfing campaign by the Liberal Party on the website. Besides the vague sentiment amongst users that there had been an influx of recently created “right wing” leaning accounts on the site, it was evident that some of these accounts were run by the same people, all posting the same Liberal Party talking points, while having the exact same professional background, age, and writing style.
Online polls in particular are troublesome because they can, at a glance, appear to indicate the general popular opinion on an issue or topic. But they are so vulnerable to manipulation that their results are indicative of nothing much at all:
It would appear that Australians aren’t sure of much, or so it would seem if you only glanced over the numbers quickly.
When targeting the important young adult demographic, not only will traditional television and print advertising fail to be effective, but online advertising is often sabotaged by ‘tech-head’ users with ‘Adblock’ and other tools.
The only way political parties can get their message across is when people are simply not expecting it. Hence the online astroturfers, and the frequently rigged polls on popular news websites.
This is the new battleground of online opinion; it’s going to get increasingly hysterical as the election year progresses.