People who sent letters to newspapers, apart from those who used green crayon and pages torn from exercise books, were once regarded as reasonably accurate barometers of public opinion.
The green inkies, who mostly suffered from conspiracy theory disorder, though amusing at a distance were more alarming when they turned up at reception with a keen desire to discuss JFK, Diana’s death, the space race and similar topics face-to-face.
Social media has changed one aspect of this for the better in that they no longer need to leave their bedrooms. Anonymous posters on Her Majesty’s internet, often on news forums, appear to be possessed of endless quantities of the digital equivalent of green ink and lined paper. But their impact is more public and that is not necessarily a good thing.
Corporations which have been victims of trial-by-troll liken the process to the Salem witchcraft trials. It matters not how you defend yourself; once you are under attack by the crazed mob, infinite facts cannot stop the abusive judgments. It is interesting to note a discernable corporate trend as a result, especially in the world of finance. Some firms now disengage with anonymous social media comment and communicate only with people who use their own, verifiable, names and identities. Comms and PR folk still worry about what is said online of course, whether it is listened to or not, but that comes with the territory.
In the political sphere, the perceived rise and rise of Donald Trump, and his apparently unassailable popularity on social media is a case in point. Trump’s cross-burning rhetoric, fuelled by editors across all media, has generated many headlines and much discussion. When tested by pollsters though, even allowing for statistical error, the apparent support for Trump has proved to be dismal and is nowhere near the 35 per cent plus (as reported by ABC News) claimed by his team.
The Economist, an unusually reliable and accurate organ of record, reported that only 6-8 per cent of the electorate in the US – roughly the same proportion who think that the Moon landings were faked – back Trump.
The following week it published a letter in which the writer, Joseph Frazier from Oregon, asked the splendidly perceptive question: “Can I assume that we are talking about the same 6-8 per cent?”