This morning a new poll was released in the City of Toronto mayoral race, that poll led to a conversation with one of my friends, who is a math Prof. From that conversation a sociological experiment emerged. My friend, wanted to post a web poll to gather data for a blog he wanted to write regarding the manipulation of data for polling over all. As you will see at his blog this topic has been a theme for quite some time.
I agreed, and once the online poll had been created I posted it first on my personal Facebook account, in a couple groups I belong to on Facebook, on a Toronto subreddit, and on the #topoli hashtag on Twitter. I also asked friends of mine, who are not associated with any candidates’ campaigns to retweet, share or repost the link. What my friend was looking for was, I thought, was the honest response of individuals on their vote for a candidate simply on policy, not strategic voting. All of my posts on the various social media sites reflected that a friend was doing an math experiment and requested people to provide data by answering one question.
In the last four years, Toronto has become very divisive, and the public sphere is ailing, as there are few discussions on actual issues, as people are more focused on the “Anyone but Ford” campaign or conversely “Ford Nation for Ford More Years.” People have in many cases stopped engaging in conversation with their neighbours, both real and virtual, about the state of our city, and its future. Neighbours, and communities such as the twitter #topoli participants are reduced more to the stereotypes attached to the candidate they support. There are attacks on the intelligence and morality of those who support Rob Ford, counter attacks of elitist, leftie, NDP’er, for those who support other candidates. People are no longer individuals who can participate in conversations, they are the label placed upon them, and with that label are either dismissed from conversations within certain groups, or they are welcomed to commiserate amongst the like-minded. Inter-subjectivity is a rarity as name calling, personal attacks and flaming prohibits the discourse of those from differing camps.
As Sean’s poll went live and the tweets gained exposure in the political hashtag an interesting sociological experiment began to take shape. While Sean paid attention to the numbers on his poll, I watched the discourse on Twitter. Posts in Facebook and Reddit were getting attention, but it was nothing like what was transpiring on Twitter. An individual on Twitter, who is well-known for his involvement and leadership in the “Shirtless Horde” movement against Rob Ford, asked Sean to include his fringe candidate, and others in the poll. Currently there are numerous candidates in the running, yet the media, and our poll focused just on the top four candidates. When my friend did not respond to the tweet asking about additional names being added to the poll, the veracity and anger of this individual’s tweets changed dramatically.
Now it is important to remember that no one really knew the point of this poll, nor the hypothesis driving it. Not even myself. It is also important to develop the background of the individual on Twitter I will be using throughout my thesis in this post. John Furr is well-known for his role in the protest movement against Rob Ford known as the shirtless horde. He has also been very vocal on Twitter of his dislike of the David Soknacki campaign.
Quickly the tweets became attacks on Sean. What originally started out as asking why other candidates were not included:
As the poll participants grew David Soknacki was in the lead. The numbers remained consistent for him for the two hours the poll was open, but in the end the lead was taken by Rob Ford. When Sean created the poll it was put on a time limit of two hours. Tweets from Furr quickly escalated to a conspiracy theory that Sean had only released the poll to the Soknacki friendly social media. He even tweeted that Sean had only released the poll to Sokanacki supporters, who he knows from a real life social group.
In fact John Furr had no clue as to where I could have posted the poll link. He is not on my Facebook (which is locked down), nor Sean’s, not in any groups I posted it to, and I use a different alias on Reddit so he could not connect it to my PhilofWrite Twitter account. Well, other than I used similar wording and the same link in all the social media platforms. In addition John has me blocked on his Twitter, so he could only see my direct posts to the Topoli hashtag. He was predominately basing his hypothesis on the tweets Sean was making to various reporters, and tweeters discussing the Forum poll. In fact Sean does not follow many of the people he tweeted to. So his tweets asserting that the release of the poll was biased had no merit.
What we were witnessing on Twitter was an attempt by this individual to use his presumed social capital to discredit the poll. Remember, the poll had not been defined by a purpose, but the individual felt that it was a part of a campaign for a candidate he did not support. There might have also been a sense of disenfranchisement as his request was not responded to and he had no input in the poll. Had Sean responded and inserted the other candidates would this have played out as it did? John spent quite some time developing a twitter attack on the poll, even though he, and all of us, had no idea what the data was to be used for. Much like the beginning of conspiracy theories the situation was ambiguous, there was no structure, and a lack of answers to questions. When I questioned his knowledge of how the link was dispersed, I received no response. Questioning the theory being developed, as the proof was being gathered, was greeted with indifference, as it did not support the narrative he tried to develop.
Next came the theory that the denizens of the hashtag itself were biased.
Trying to create a sense that not only was Sean biased and a vocal member of Soknacki campaign was not securing the influence Furr wanted. He then began to discredit everyone in the hashtag, because he knew the “Truth” and everyone else was being manipulated by Sean. A theory was being developed, a completely baseless theory that John was trying to use his social capital to promote. There are two important aspects to note here. First, Sean does not live in Toronto, he cannot vote in the election. He is not a member of the Soknacki campaign not as a volunteer nor in the form of monetary donation. Second, when John Furr could not find success in building a boycott, or discrediting of the poll, he resorted to the ultimate move. He went to the Rob Ford supporters.
John sent the link to a very vocal group of Pro-Ford voters. He had entered “enemy territory” to ensure that David Soknacki’s numbers would not be the highest, and to prove he could use his social capital to manipulate Sean’s poll. His perception, and his own publicity that the poll was biased, led him to go to the very people who he had built his social capital through his protesting them.
But still not wanting to admit that this poll had any importance to him, he dismissed the poll again.
John also did not reveal that he was the individual who had sent the link to the Pro-Ford group.
Until Sean tweeted the results of his poll to a reporter. At that moment John jumped in trying to gain attention to his perceived control of the data through his tweet to the Pro-Ford group.
Again,John was trying to establish his power over the poll, his control of the data, and his affect of the virtual public sphere of twitter through his social capital. His presentation of the poll, of which he had no understanding of the purpose of, was initially to ask to be included, then to attack the pollster, then the possible responders, create a conspiracy narrative, provide the link to those he has not wished to be included amongst, and then ask for publicity for his importance in the data manipulation.
As his narrative developed he continued to mirror his actions onto Sean. Accusing him of creating propaganda by tweeting to a reporter. Just as John himself had done by informing said reporter of his actions. In fact John’s narrative developed to the point that he was convinced of the intent of Sean’s poll.
Michael Barkun, a scholar of conspiracy theory, states that “a conspiracist worldview implies a universe governed by design rather than by randomness. The emphasis on design manifests itself in three principles found in virtually every conspiracy theory.” A conspiracy implies that the world is based on intentionality, and that nothing occurs by accident and coincidences do not exist. Anything that happens has occurred because it has been willed. Secondly, appearances are deceptive, and nothing is as it seems. The conspirators wish to deceive in order to disguise their identities and their activities. The final principle is that everything is connected, meaning that because in the world of the conspiracist there is no room for accidents, there is a pattern which emerges, but it is hidden from plain view. The conspiracy theorist must therefore engage in continuous process of linking and correlating in order to create a map of the hidden connections. (Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy 2003)
This is what we witnessed in the microcosm of the Topoli hashtag. He created a scenario which the poll was intentional to support the Soknacki campaign, he tried to promote the idea that a poll, which had no explanation, was not as it seemed…it was nefarious. He discredited the creator of the poll, and he hid his involvement in trying to control the poll, even while dismissing its importance. He also tried to discredit his perception of who the audience of the poll was,
Accusing the possible responders of being those who “think” they control topoli, when in fact it would appear he was projecting his very motives onto others. The only person consistently tweeting about this poll, other than those who provided the link, was him. The only person trying in any way to effect the results was him.
In fact as the evening progressed, and no results became apparent, whenever I took to Twitter, I was attacked, deemed clueless and an elitist.
Even as Sean and I did not speak of the poll on twitter for eight hours John continued to attack the veracity of the poll, calling it a sham, announcing he had not had the opportunity to go through Sean’s tweets, as if his opinion of the calibre of the pollster’s tweet would validate them.
Still evoking his influence on the poll Furr decried the poll a fail, but please note that Sean still has not spoken of the poll for eight hours, nor has he released any results.
Attacking the pollster’s critical analysis:
According to Mark Fenster, conspiracy theory rises when the political is interpreted within a specific, conspiratorial frame by those for whom politics is inaccessible and its meaning is impenetrable or secret. (Fenster, Conspiracy Theories, (1999)) What Sean inadvertently created with his poll was a political vacuum in which there was no purpose given, no publicity of how the facts would be interpreted, and left the entire process up to interpretation by whomever came across the poll. What we witnessed were a majority of individuals who ignored the poll, 282 people responded, and one individual who was incredibly vocal who tried to manipulate not only the data, but also the perceptions, intent and causal factors of the poll. That vocal person would not let the idea of the poll disappear attempting to keep it alive eight hours later. The pollbecame a tool for ridicule and belittling of the pollster, and not about the true intention of the poll, simply his interpretation of the intention.
This microcosm within the Topoli hashtag brought to light the effect a small, yet vocal group or individual can have not only on polls and data, but on the perceptions of what is occurring politically. Toronto politics outside of social media reflected this phenomena as well. It has been rumoured for a couple days that the Forum Poll which was released today, placed Rob Ford in the lead. Speculation on this rumour had people in a reactionary position before the poll was even released. Yet, no one knows where this speculation came from, nor do we know for sure if the rumours affected the eventual outcome of the poll. Had there not been such a rumour would John Tory be in first place? Were people utilizing strategic voting and selecting Tory as their first choice to ensure Ford was not in that position? Does this allow for the true sense of democracy? Are people voting for those who best represent them and their political views, or are they reacting to the overly vocal, paranoid or manipulative narratives created by individuals hoping to increase their social capital, gain power, or in a broader sense effect the outcome of the Toronto election.
In a 2003 study Thomas C. Ellington found that “Paranoia extends beyond what is conventionally called mental illness and has enormous costs for democracy, particularly when that distrust is directed at the state.” Ellington argues that the paranoia can develop or be supplemented by the corrosive effect of official secrecy from the government, and it has an effect on democracy as a whole. Government secrecy creates a fertile ground for conspiracy theories and for the paranoid style of politics. In his opinion it can potentially poison the relationship between citizens and the state. (“Won’t Get Fooled Again: The Paranoid Style in the National Security State,”
Government and Opposition 38, no. 4 (2003): 436–455, 437)
In a city where the public sphere has deteriorated to the extent that discourse no longer exists, where individuals who express opinions other than yours are attacked and labeled, this type of manufactured paranoia and/or drive for “power,” even within the microcosm of a hashtag on Twitter, can have an impact. What we need to do is actually engage in conversations, ask questions, not attack or presume. We need to create our opinions through interactions with others with varying points of views, varying social positions within the city, and most importantly vote for the candidate that best represents us. Let democracy work, by voting for who you want, not who you do not want. Let democracy work, by being engaged not just by voting, by being an active citizen within the political and public spheres. Do not let the pressures of a vocal few effect your democratic right to vote for who you want. Stand true to yourself, to your choices and your decisions, and do not let the wave of paranoia and egotism, affect your political freedom and democratic rights as a citizen.
PS. If you want to know what Sean discovered with his poll go here