More and more of our life decisions are made online. What to buy. Where to eat. Who to date. We turn to the internet for advice on toilet training the toddler, cleaning concrete or cooking pork chops. And, increasingly, we want it to tell us how to vote.
During the 2020 general election, established news websites such as RTÉ and The Irish Times attracted record numbers of visitors. And younger voters in particular were drawn towards emerging, less-formal online sources: YouTube, memes, satirical videos, Facebook groups, WhatsApp, Instagram influencers and online political quizzes.
Online culture is fundamentally reshaping the political landscape. But, as the available sources of information expand and diversify, so too does the risk that genuine confusion and deliberate misinformation will slip in, or that personal data may be compromised. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed, sensitive data about individuals’ political leanings can be a highly valuable commodity.
Students were “really, really engaged” in the election, much more so than in previous elections, says Caelainn Kerrigan, students’ union president at NCAD, when we meet on a frosty morning at the college, two days before the vote. “I think a lot of that actually goes down to social media.”
Online, she says, “you couldn’t really get away from it. You have no choice but to be engaged and to be informed.”
She has noticed that there was a big trend towards students taking online political quizzes, “which was great for them to be able to make up their own mind on who they were voting for. And get information that they wouldn’t have really gotten otherwise.”
She later texts me the name of the most popular quiz among students: Ireland.Isidewith.com. I make a note to check it out.
Instagram played a significant part during the campaign in helping young people make up their minds. Influencers on the platform proved a hugely popular resource, she says. “People look to them for everything else – for lifestyle issues and relationship problems. They listen to them,” she says. So why not turn to them for advice about voting?
Writer Stefanie Preissner – who inherited her passion for politics from her late grandmother – is on holidays when I get her on the phone. Specifically, she’s sitting on a veranda in the sun, still answering election-related questions posted by her Instagram followers. She thought the interest would have died down by now, but “people have been messaging me, just being like, what is going on?”
The anonymity offered by Instagram allowed people to ask questions they would be embarrassed to ask publicly, she says. She has found herself being asked to explain everything from what a coalition is, to why Mary Lou McDonald is not already taoiseach. She encountered a lot of confusion too. Someone messaged her asking “how to vote to get Michael D out”.
Careful to keep her own views out of it, Priessner – creator and writer of Can’t Cope/Won’t Cope – employs inventive analogies to explain complex concepts. A coalition is like “when five of you leave Coppers, and you want to get a taxi, but the taxi can only go if there’s eight of you. But if you’re going to Castleknock, people who are going to Dundrum are just not going to get in with you.”
To help fill in the gaps and figure out where their political allegiances lie, some turned to online political quizzes
In the beginning, “a lot of people were just like, just tell me who to vote for. The idea that someone would outsource democracy to, I don’t want to be reductive of my career by saying I’m a social influencer, but in this capacity, that’s basically what I am,” alarmed her, she says.
So she started posting daily Instagram stories during the election campaign, each one attracting around 8,000 viewers. Young people “see voting and being engaged as a civic duty”, she says. But she worries that they’re not being well served by an education system that leaves them in the dark about some of the basic facts about our democratic system.
To help fill in the gaps and figure out where their political allegiances lie, some turned to online political quizzes, including whichcandidate.ie, and the one Kerrigan mentioned: Ireland.isidewith.com.
Whichcandidate.ie is run on a not-for-profit basis by Rory Costello of the University of Limerick. It helps users identify which candidate in their area aligns to their views. Fifty five per cent of its users are under 35. Over the last week and a half of the election campaign, it got more than a quarter of a million site visits – 70,000 on election day alone. He attributes this to “people who had a sense who they were giving the first preference vote to doing a final check to sort out their second and third preferences”.
Costello is aware of the limitations of such a tool. “I’m conscious not to present it as advice on who to vote for. Your policy alignment is one factor, but the candidate’s track record, whether you approve of the party and its leadership, should come into play too,” he says.
“In general terms, it’s better that people search out information than go in completely blind,” he says.
“But you do need to be aware and use common sense in terms of assessing who’s providing you with the information, and try to look for reputable sources.”
Whichcandidate.ie “doesn’t collect any identifiable information on users of the website at all”, he adds.
The other quiz popular with students is the Irish politics quiz on Ireland.Isidewith.com, which describes itself as “an independent, self-funded, non-partisan, voter education website”. Since it was founded by two room-mates in 2012, the site – dubbed “the viral Buzzfeed personality quiz of voter education” by the Washington Post – has attracted 68 million users worldwide.
The results of the political party quiz on the Irish site show that 24.49 per cent of users identified as Sinn Féin voters, which is in line with voting in the actual election, though results for the other parties are less accurate.
I decide to take the quiz. The pop-up cookie warning says that “we do not sell personally identifying information about you with third parties”, which is reassuring.
Less reassuringly, there’s no opt-out. Once I’m in, it’s hard to see the relevance of some of the questions. “Should Ireland assassinate suspected terrorists in foreign countries? Should drug traffickers receive the death penalty? Should girls be allowed to wear the niqab or burka in Catholic schools?”
I track one of its two co-founders, Taylor Peck, down to his home in Orange County, California, where he is beginning his day as I am ending mine. Ireland is “one of our top 10 countries worldwide”, he says, and the recent general election gave a huge boost to traffic.
After our conversation, he emails me the analytics. “From December 3rd, 2019 to February 8th, 2020, we had 1.38 million users in Ireland complete the iSideWith political quiz.”
The questions are compiled by a team of 12 researchers working remotely all over the world, though none is in Ireland. Along with questions relevant to Irish users, they try to include “issues that we cover in other countries that may not be as popular in Ireland”. Isidewith.com’s appeal is that it’s a free resource that is politically unaffiliated, and allows users to make corrections, Wikipedia-style, he says.
The business model is donations via Patreon, grants and some banner ads. “Sometimes – it’s harder in Europe – but in the United States, the candidates or the party will pay us to run ads on our site”, which they can target to users of a particular persuasion.
The data itself is presumably very valuable, I suggest. “We try to keep it very, very transparent,” he says. The data published on the site “is always kept anonymous. It’s just basically down to the geography and the postal code, how people are voting in different things. We never sell the data,” he adds again.
“If we did something stupid like that, nobody would come to our site anymore.”
If he was approached by, for example, a political party, the only kind of data he might consider selling, he says, “is geography data of a certain issue based on postal code”. If they wanted “more granular stuff I would consider offering it to them. I don’t think there’s a price for this stuff yet, you know, or a marketplace.”
I ask what he means by geography data and postal codes. Is he talking about IP addresses? “Our data is just hashed and anonymised. So it’s encrypted, but we use that and we use the postal code of your IP address to publish the anonymous data on the maps,” he says.
I ask if he’s familiar with GDPR. “We’re GDPR-compliant,” he says immediately.
“Isidewith.com is saying in its policy that they’re going to provide info about how you use their site in a way that enables people to target ads to you on other sites. The concern is that if you reveal your political opinion on this site, this may be used to target the advertising that you see on other websites. It’s explicitly envisaging the kind of microtargeting that people have been very concerned about as undermining electoral integrity,” he says.
Asked about the service, the Irish Data Protection Commission issued the following general statement. “Any organisation, whether based in the EU or not, that targets products and services at individuals based in the EU involving the processing of their personal data is subject to the GDPR. This requires them to be accountable and transparent with service users.
“An organisation must have a legal basis to justify the processing of personal data, such as the consent of the individual concerned or a contract with the individual . . . They must also be fair and transparent with service users and inform them of the reasons for collecting their personal data, what it will be used for and how long they intend to keep it.”
Political parties themselves have been extending their efforts to reach the new cohort of digitally native voters online – something that was even more important during a campaign fought in the depths of winter.
Figures published this week revealed that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil spent more during the campaign. But the view of online analysts was that Sinn Féin spent less, but used it better. During the final week of the campaign, Sinn Féin spent €15,725 compared with Fianna Fáil’s €31,955 and Fine Gael’s €57,208, data published on Facebook ad library shows.
A higher spend was no guarantee of better results. A video by Fine Gael lampooning Fianna Fáil “looking for policies” was deleted within 12 hours of being posted, after it was widely ridiculed. Another one featuring Fine Gael politicians saying “no” to a Sinn Féin coalition was turned into memes by the other parties.
Attempts by established political parties to create viral content are notoriously difficult to get right, says transparency campaigner Liz Carolan. “Young people are more digitally native,” she says. They are more discerning and often better at weeding out fake news, she adds.
YouTube has turned a younger generation into voracious news consumers, allowing them to watch clips of Trevor Noah as easily as a segment on RTÉ. However, “more than half the videos watched on YouTube are decided by the algorithm. And YouTube will prioritise based on factors which are easy to game. So for a long time, it has inadvertently led people towards extremist, polarising rhetoric,” she says.
She’s in favour of Instagram influencers creating good-quality, informative political content, and takes the view that some public funding could be made available to support it in the future.
Memes and satirical videos have also emerged as “an incredibly potent way of communicating something. And a really shareable way. They can be used to tear people down and delegitimise things” in the way that political cartoons would have done throughout history.
We need to create an electoral commission, and we can do that now with digital in mind
Though outwardly straightforward, memes can be “incredibly sophisticated,” she says. “There are layers within layers within layers of meaning.”
As an example, she cites the Ireland Simpsons Fans Facebook group, which has around 80,000 members, and has become a significant source of “really sharp political commentary, in a super digestible way.” Its users frequently create memes around Republican slogans with a knowing irony that is not always evident to an unfamiliar eye.
The so-called “memefication” of the IRA, which happened largely away from mainstream media, seems to have played a part in helping younger voters to move on from concerns older generations might have had about voting for Sinn Féin.
“The proliferation of appropriated Republican slogans may also be indicative of a sympathy among millennials for the grievances of Irish Republicans not held by their parents,” wrote Paulie Doyle in a piece on Vice.com last year.
It’s not entirely clear which came first. Is the memefication of IRA slogans a reflection of inevitably shifting norms? Or is it helping normalise a language and a culture that still has the power to shock a demographic old enough to remember when it was used without irony?
For better or worse, online culture is reshaping how we learn about politics, helping to form our allegiances and decide our voting intentions. One of the issues for Ireland is that, in the absence of an electoral commission, we’re relying on media, campaigners and the good faith of parties and candidates to ensure fair play.
“We need to create an electoral commission, and we can do that now with digital in mind,” says Carolan.
“Whether we like it or not, online is one of the ways – possibly a primary way – that people now gain their information. So in the same way that radio is a force for good, but also sparked the Rwandan genocide, there’s good and bad online.”