05:57 19th February 2021
Much of the debate about whether social media is polarising us has focused on the extent to which we are being manipulated - a debate which can itself get pretty hotly contested.
In the months and years following the Brexit referendum, a fairly vocal minority of remainers repeatedly suggested that the referendum had been swung by a disinformation campaign that drove people to vote to leave the European Union.
But the reality is much more subtle, according to international human rights lawyer Susie Alegre.
Far from trying to persuade people to change their minds about a political position - which is, let's face it, hard work and not likely to succeed with any scale - people who seem likely to side with a political rival will simply be nudged into not voting at all.
Digital voter suppression can take many forms, she notes, ranging from "distract[ing] them with a viral video, it might be reminding them that it's raining outside and voting can be a boring and stressful activity", she says. "It's not about turning this person from a Brexit voter to a Remain voter."
It could also explain some increase in anxiety among social media users - or at least, how those negative emotions are amplified and used against us, she adds.
"Noticing you happen to spend quite a lot of time doom-scrolling at 3am… that is probably an indicator that you're not feeling great, or certainly that you're not sleeping very well, which may lead to you not feeling great - which means you are more susceptible to certain messages than you would otherwise be" she says.
The extent to which Russian trolls, Cambridge Analytica, or A.N. Other organisation actually influenced the 2016 vote, and subsequent elections, may never be known. Certainly the (much delayed) report produced by Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee last year was unable to conclude that the outcome of votes in 2016, 2017 or 2019 had been distorted by manipulation. But it was pretty clear that attempts were being made - and that the Government had been caught napping.
As Alegre claims, it is enough to know that manipulation is being attempted - not just to see the effects of it - to prompt better legislation to protect our freedom of thought.
Listen to the full episode below
Tags: Brexit Russia Disinformation Polarisation Social Media