Pro Rep referendum results a reminder that we know what we don’t know

This week’s B.C. electoral reform referendum results are a reminder – or even a wakeup call – that when it comes to public opinion on the issues of the day, we often know far less than we think we do.

Take us, for example. In the weeks leading up to the release of the results, we informally polled family and friends on who they thought would win.

“PR for sure…. but I don’t really know,” said some.

“FPTP in a landslide… or maybe not,” said others.

“Too close to call! Flip a coin! Or perhaps I’m wrong…” said the rest.

These disparate opinions illustrate a key point in today’s politicking: outside of your local community, and short of conducting professional polling, it can be just about impossible to guess where the majority sits on the issues of the day.

Why? You could come up with a dozen or so reasons but we’ll give you three: a fractured news media landscape, the increasingly powerful influence of social media, and online advertising being conducted with lax transparency rules.

Let’s start with the news media. Ten years ago (or so), when a public debate such as PR would play out, all you had to do was observe the major news sources (in our case: Global TV, The Vancouver Sun / The Province, CKNW, and a few others) and you had a pretty good idea as to what information was making it to the public, and how it was being digested by columnists. You even knew to a certain degree how it was being received based on letters to the editor, radio callers, and random passersby on TV news. Scanning the media certainly wouldn’t tell you everything that was going on, but it would be rare for a substantial movement to form and not make it into one of the major media outlets. And here’s the point: when we are all consuming more or less the same news, it’s easier for us to make tip-of-our-nose judgements about how the public is or is going to perceive things. But today we live in a world where:

  • Most people under 40 don’t bother with cable TV or newspapers
  • Radio is non-existent to youth and technocrats who prefer podcasts; and
  • Most media is consumed online one way or another, where personalization driven algorithms skew information in ways that only enforce the walls around our personal “bubbles.”

Which brings us to social media. Facebook may well be receding, but it’s still the front page of the internet for mainstream political discourse. And since the data breach scandals began a few years ago, privacy is being tightened up (so they claim) meaning that analytics tools are increasingly being cut off from info that would provide a broad-based look into the trends and sentiments on important issues. So here we are, lemmings living in Facebook’s perpetual beta-test social-experiment world where emotional content is king and echo chambers are too profitable to go away – but if my news feed looks nothing like your news feed which looks nothing like your friend’s news feed – how is anyone to know what’s really going on out there? And Twitter? Still influential, but unreliable. Instagram? Great when you get the formula right, almost impossible if you don’t. Reddit? WhatsApp? Snapchat? WeChat? Massively influential to some groups, completely invisible to others. When it comes to politics, it’s still Facebook by a mile… for little longer, anyway.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, let’s look at online political advertising. Despite some rules coming in over the last few year, online is still the wild west of political advertising. In the case of the PR referendum, anyone, from anywhere in the world, with money earned from any source, could spend any amount of money, with (just about) any type of targeting… right up until the official campaign period began. And there is no record and no way to find out what happened. The same rules apply to elections – you can (largely) do whatever you want up until the official 30-day writ period, and then there are some restrictions. This is a massive issue, with major risks for Western democracy, that looks like it will take a little longer to get sorted out. And let’s be clear; this is everyone’s issue, no matter what your political stripes are.

And that brings us back to the key point of this post: in today’s digital-first world, we as individuals have very limited knowledge of what our information our peers are consuming. What each of us sees in our feeds is simply not representative of what the population sees in the way it used to be.

So, what to do?

In our view, professionally-conducted research such as polls and focus groups, done by someone who knows what they are doing, has never before been so important. And clients on a more limited budget should look to advertising firms like ours, with extensive experience in issues-based advertising and social media analytics, to extrapolate insights from advertising and social data.

It’s all to easy to make a gut call based on the information you are exposed to. But for reasons outside of your control, it may turn out to be absolutely, dead wrong. In this era that we are living in, we need to remember that we know… what we don’t know.

John Manning is a Principal at Proximis Digital Inc, BC’s market leader for issues advertising

Edward Leung is an Account Lead / Political Practice Lead at Proximis

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