What is the Overton window? It’s a useful concept for political analysis which can illustrate some Orwellian tendencies in our society.
I first came across the term in a piece by John Lanchester in the London Review of Books in July 2016.
He described it as “a term… meaning the acceptable range of political thought in a culture at a given moment… [which] can be moved.”
Lanchester said that ideas can start far outside the political mainstream yet later come to seem acceptable. He cited Brexit as an example: considered eccentric in 1997, yet enjoying large-scale support in a referendum by 2016.
Lanchester’s article, by the way, like many LRB pieces, is improbably long: set aside a bit of time if you want to read it.
A recent piece at the splendid “Flip Chart Fairy Tales” blog (recommended: often a source of illuminating graphs, charts and views) entitled “Breaking the Overton Window“, also noted how opinions can change. The author argues that for politicians and commentators the Overton Window has moved over recent decades towards libertarian, right-wing policies which do not obviously overlap with established political parties. By contrast, the views of voters have moved in the opposite direction, towards more authoritarian and left-wing ideas – likewise not corresponding clearly to existing parties. This tendency, he argues, a) is a move away from traditional “left-wing” and “right-wing” categorisations; and b) should lead politicians to shift towards those authoritative and left wing policies if they are not to leave voters alienated from politics.
What has this got to do with social media, and why does the Overton window matter?
The answer is that we have in recent years seen examples of political parties, corporations or states using social media in an automated, structured and agenda-driven way, to bring about real-world results. On a micro-level, a famous example is the protest and counter-protest in Texas in 2016 allegedly organised by Russia to foment conflict within US society.
On a macro-level, it is alleged – but, to date, not proved – that this type of agenda-driven, large-scale social media manipulation has been used in recent years to influence – or even to decide – major electoral events such as the success of President Trump.
Why this matters is that if it is impossible to tell whether a mass of social media activity consists of numerous individual posts by real people or of bot-driven campaigns by malevolent state actors, political parties, corporations or other agencies with an opinion-forming agenda, it be becomes feasible for those agencies to move the Overton window without our being aware of it.
‘Hey!’ we will think. ‘Idea X always seemed wacky to me, but I see that practically everyone commenting on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram seems to support it. I guess all those millions of people can’t be wrong.’
It’s worse than that. Not only can malevolent agencies bombard us with social media messages; they can also use big data to target us all with laser-like precision, according to our precise views (see my piece on Cambridge Analytica “Read it now, watch it fast: scary, scarier, scariest” on this blog, also drawing in numerous cool science-fiction references, from as long ago as January 2017). Result: we find it increasingly hard to judge what most people actually think. Indeed, such is the power of the herd instinct that we may start to wonder whether we ourselves are isolated outliers, rather than the apparently large number of people who hold views which we previously viewed as odd or outlandish.
As I set out in the piece at the “Read it now” link, this risks putting power to control and manipulate public opinion into a few hands – or even a single person or organisation – to a positively Orwellian degree.
It also risks driving governments into a frenzy of lousy policy-making. Each time a Twitterstorm blows up over something, governments feel they have to respond instantly (“people are angry. We have to do something. Here’s something. Let’s do it.”). Yet the opinions supposedly represented by that Twitterstorm may not exist at all, or may not be shared by a significant proportion of voters. Result: paranoid governments, knee jerk policies, chaos and confusion.
How worried should we be about this? Is it simply a further iteration of a long-term trend, whereby societies have been prone to influence by all-powerful media for decades? Or is it something new, more powerful and more sinister?
I would welcome your views.
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