What is the Overton window and why does it matter for social media manipulation?

Robert Pimm
Robert Pimm

What is the Overton window?  It’s a useful concept for political analysis.  It can illustrate some Orwellian tendencies in our society, and the influence of social media.

I first came across the term “The Overton Window” 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.”

John Lanchester explains the Overton Window

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, it enjoying large-scale support in a referendum by 2016.

George Orwell

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 entitled “Breaking the Overton Window“, discussed how opinions change.  The author argues that for politicians and commentators the Overton Window has moved over recent decades.  The direction?  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.  These ideas, he says, don’t corresponding to existing parties either.  He argues that this is a move away from traditional “left-wing” and “right-wing” categorisations.  He says politicians should shift towards those “authoritarian and left wing policies” if they are not to leave voters alienated.

Why the Overton Window matters for social media

What has this got to do with social media, and why does the Overton window matter?

We have lately seen many examples of political parties or states using social media in a targeted way.  Their goal is 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.

It is also alleged that large-scale social media manipulation has been used in recent years to influence major electoral events.

This matters. It is vital to be able to tell whether social media activity consists of individual posts by real people or of bot-driven campaigns.  If it is not possible, it becomes possible for malevolent state actors, political parties, corporations or other agencies with an opinion-forming agenda 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.’

Cambridge Analytica and the Overton Window

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.

Social media use the Overton Window to generate bad decision making

Those who actively seek to use social media to influence governments – and the Overton Window – risk 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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One Response

  1. Der Artikel von John Lancaster ist ein klarsictiger Befund einer zerstörerischen Entwicklung, vor der man sich sehr fürchten muss. Einer der Grunde ist die dem System der social innewohnende Simplifizierung – Twitter 140 Zeichen – und die Anonymität. Was früher am Stammtisch im kleinen Kreis und nicht nach aussen dringend, an politischem Unmut geäussert wurde, wird jetzt in Sekundenschnelle in der ganzen virtuellen Welt verbreitet – mit den von Lancaster beschriebenen verheerenden Folgen auf die Politik. s. Metoo- Geheule, wo man sich, oft Jahre nach dem Ereignis, der im virtullen Raum angestossenen Meinung anschliesst. damit verbunden ist eine Entwertung der wirklichen Verbrechen an den Frauen, eine Vermischung der Begriffe = grapschen gleich Vergewaltigung? Man spricht in diesem Zusammenhang auch von “Opfernarzissmus”.

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