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Interview: James Ball
"We’re all on Twitter as much as ever."
This week, we’re talking with James Ball, a journalist who’s been covering politics and the internet for the last 15 years. He’s worked for Wikileaks, The Guardian, Buzzfeed, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and now regularly writes for The New European. He’s also the author of several books and runs his own Substack at Techtris. We chatted over Zoom at the end of May.
This is one of a series of interviews we’re doing looking at the way digital campaigns will be conducted and covered over the next 18 months. If you’ve an idea for someone we should interview, do let us know.
WTM: Hi James. Ben Smith, your former boss at Buzzfeed, has been doing the media rounds for his new book, saying the social media era is over. Is he right? Are we at the beginning of a period of fragmentation? What do you think’s going to happen? And what will that mean for people like you who cover politics on the internet?
JB: I actually don’t think we’re fragmenting. I think we’re all on Twitter as much as ever. A couple of months ago half my feed was people setting up Mastodon accounts and asking for Bluesky invites. But I’d say maybe 1 in 20 people I follow have fully stopped tweeting. There has been some exodus, but my actual timeline is as busy as ever. We all acknowledge Twitter has been on fire, but we’re all still addicted to it. Politics news still breaks on Twitter. If something happens in Parliament, the same 20 political journalists emerge tweeting the same things at the same time. Elon may yet kill it, but for the moment we’re still doing what we’ve been doing for a long time.
WTM: Last week we talked to Teddy Goff, who led digital for Obama and Hillary, and his view is that TikTok is the only game in town, but it’s comprehensively ignored by the political class. They don’t have accounts, they don’t want to be on there, it’s a time-suck to make videos and for everything you create, you’ll get 15 seconds of someone’s attention before they swipe on to the next video. But he says it’s where he thinks the culture is, and even if you’re not on it, important things are emerging from there.
JB: The interesting thing with TikTok is that for anyone over 30 who uses it, only about one in three people get into it. It doesn’t work for the other two thirds. For me Facebook is still the biggest show in town for politics because that's where your boomers and pensioners are. The tricky thing is where social media moves to WhatsApp groups and Telegram - what we used to call dark social. I think that is where it's hard for campaigns and politicians to reach. But in pure monetary terms for 2024, I still think campaigns will spend more on Facebook than the other networks combined.
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WTM: Buzzfeed was an “extremely online” publication which had a way of jumping out into social or groups. But people haven’t really built media since around that “into groups” journey. Why is that?
JB: I think probably because we can't trace it. At Buzzfeed the trick was that your headlines had to be as if you were saying them in the pub. You never did a standard news headline or a clever pun or anything like that. You had to do at least four and usually six headlines. And it would be how you would tell someone the story: “this politician who just claimed £100,000 says people on benefits should work harder”. You do your headlines and within about five minutes the algorithm would have decided which one was best. You might only have 200 hits on a piece and the algorithm would make a decision. From there you’d see that Facebook would get by far the most traffic and dark social would be second. And I kind of believe that’s the pattern. Politics stories were the only ones that got numbers from Twitter. The media thought it was important, but it didn’t really promote most stories.
WTM: If you go on Facebook now, there are obviously far fewer people posting, you know, friends, photos and all the rest of it. Does it still matter in the same way as you saw back then?
JB: I think a big under-regarded change with Facebook has been how much everything's moved to groups. I actually still check Facebook daily and I check it because I'm in some quite active groups. And from what I hear from other people, that's sort of what's happened. You don't post on the timeline, but you’re still watching and still participating in groups. A group my Dad’s in does photo challenges. Each day, an admin posts today's theme. And you go and find or take a picture to share. That’s wholesome right? Lovely. It’s what social media should be.
WTM: What you point to there is the difference between people who lurk and people who participate. Politics doesn’t seem to have ever really understood the difference. You can look at what people post and assume that’s what people want to see, whereas most people just read or passively consume.
JB: Yes, and that’s Elon’s problem at Twitter. He really doesn't understand that most Twitter users don't tweet. It’s a reading experience for most people. Many people I know read Twitter all the time and tweet every two weeks or so.
WTM: Looking forward to 2024 there will be elections in the UK and US. How would you be looking to cover the online aspects of those elections?
JB: In the UK at least, it feels like it's going to be the first normal election since Brexit. 2017 was “strengthen my hand”, then 2019 was “get Brexit done”. This one won’t be a single issue election, and I’m not sure we’ve had one of those in the fully online era.
So I think it’ll be interesting to see what issues each party goes on. Because there’s a version of events where the Tories run a lot of ads on culture wars stuff, and I suspect that would be a bad idea. I can still see them doing it though, because I’m not sure what else they’ll have.
I also think we still haven’t quite got over the insanity of Cambridge Analytica. So parties are going to be aware of not being too clever with ads. Over the long campaign, we’ll probably see more attack stuff like Labour’s Rishi Sunak tweet. I’ll also be watching for uses of microtargeting, which I think gets talked about more than it happens, but you do have to keep an eye out for.
Finally, as journalists, I think we still need to work on explaining things better - such as the difference between paid ads and non-paid content. Digital campaigns have been around for a long while now, and we need to be able to talk about them as a more normal form of political communication.
WTM: One notable thing about Sunak, and Starmer too, as well as Ed Davey and Humza Yousaf actually - is that none of them are very “online”. Does that affect things too?
JB: Yes. You can't picture any of them sending someone a meme. And that's quite odd given Rishi is only about five years older than I am. He’s a borderline millennial. It’s almost like the new “have a beer with test” - could you imagine this person being funny in the WhatsApp group? It’s the classic British test of character - can you make and take a joke? But it’s an era of a kind of boring seriousness, and the Internet doesn't play all that well with it.
WTM: Let’s move on to the recent upswing in AI hype and the role, if any, it might play in campaigning over the next 15 months or so. The Republicans recently made a video with generative AI images in it, and many in the AI industry seem to think AI advances will result in tech that is incredibly capable of persuading and deceiving us.
JB: Anyone who actually covers misinformation knows that if you take a photo of Tony Blair and put a quote over the top of it, people will share it. You don’t need a deepfake. Plus I still think there are a lot of tells in deepfake images and video that make it fairly easy to spot.
So I don’t think you’ll see the parties using it. People like Led By Donkeys will mess about with it, but there are so many easier ways to mislead online if that’s what you want to do. I remember someone creating a verified Twitter account and just making up quotes from MPs, total fabrications, and they’d all get a thousand RTs, including from journalists.
WTM: And of course the AI isn’t the network. Stuff spreads because of the network, not because of the way the content is generated. Many people seem to assume the zone will be flooded, but you still need the social media platforms and messaging apps for it to go anywhere.
JB: Yes, it’s as much about hacking social graphs as it is hacking tech. It’s why this stuff is often done, almost accidentally, by 19 year old kids.
WTM: Now - about America, which doesn’t feel like it’s heading for a boring election…
JB: Well, yes and no. I think it’s boring in some ways, because we’ve seen all these dynamics play out already in 2016 and 2020, but it will still be shocking to watch America convulse in the way it will. Biden’s ratings are bad, but any other Democrat polls worse. It’s going to be immensely close.
WTM: For the last 15 years, British campaigns have tended to watch American online campaigns a lot. People fly over to Washington and try to work out what they can learn from Obama or Biden.
JB: Even under Cameron, the Tories were using Democrat strategists like Jim Messina. Then they started using Australians. It’s just because right wing Americans are so far to the right of right wing Brits - Tories are often more liberal than US Democrats.
I think it’s always been wrong to look at American campaigns too much because there is a real difference between an election that spends $2 billion and an election that spends £19 million. With those resources, British campaigns will continue to have to be done through the media and through retail.
WTM: Last question. There seems to be a prevailing idea about the internet, as if it has almost been a bad idea. It’s caused a massive mental health crisis, it’s destroying democracy, it’s full of scams and disinformation. What do you think? Is the internet now a bad idea?
JB: In part I think everyone's overreacting to Elon. Previously it was a Trump thing, now it’s an Elon thing. I think today the internet is about the same as it ever was, but when we're more polarised, things feel spicier. But I think because Twitter has got worse and journalists are overwhelmingly on Twitter, we’ve all got a bit doomerish.
On the other hand Wikipedia is still good. Online news is having a better moment - places are breaking even or making a profit. So at the risk of being pollyannaish, I think the internet’s fine.
WTM: James - thanks so much for chatting with us.
Also this week:
Read James’ piece on how online ads are about to get worse.
The Turing Institute published a survey on public attitudes to AI. The combination of AI and political advertising was the single most concerning thing for respondents (more than autonomous weapons!).
Casey Newton’s newsletter ran a good overview of the platforms’ decisions to roll back their policies around US 2020 election denialism.
As you might expect, it’s been a quiet month in ads since the local elections in May. In the last 30 days, our calculations suggest Labour spent a little over £20k on Meta ads in the last 30 days, across 86 different pages, while the Tories spent just over £18k across 95 pages. The Liberal Democrats spent just under £3k across 36 pages. We still don’t think Google’s ad library is reliable enough to provide a number for spending there.
Things you can do if you like our work:
Install our browser extension to learn more about the ads you’re targeted with.
Make a donation to help us with our running costs (we spend over £1,000 a month on servers to keep our software running).
Volunteer to help us with classifying and labelling political ad data. We’re maintaining a database of over 36,000 advertisers in more than 50 countries. It’s a lot of work and we could do with help!
If you have an idea for a research project, particularly one that focuses on what people actually see on the internet, please get in touch.
See you next time!