Theresa May’s refusal to appear in television debates during the General Election campaign may be smarter than it appears, according to a team of researchers examining society’s use of the internet and digital technology.
Academics behind the Screen Society project say that the influence of TV and the traditional media has been surpassed by digital technology as the most important means of communication by today’s generation.
And, as with Donald Trump’s success in America, social media, rather than mainstream media, could prove pivotal for shaping public perception in the upcoming General Election.
Screen Society is examining how people conduct relationships through smartphones, computers and tablets and the role screens play in our day to day lives. It has conducted an extensive global survey with over 1,500 internet users across the world to paint a clear picture of how society really interacts with digital technology.
Findings also reveal that trolls are widely perceived as a laughing stock, rather than a dangerous presence on the internet.
And, it debunks the popular myth of screen addiction and the dangers of habitual screen use.
Now, with Theresa May confirming she will not partake in television debates, the Screen Society team believe we are witnessing a seismic shift not only in politics, but in the way information is conveyed and consumed.
Professor Ellis Cashmore, visiting professor of sociology at Aston University and one of the Screen Society researchers, said: “Only two major US newspapers endorsed Trump, while his presidential rival Hillary Clinton was overwhelmingly supported by 57.
“Trump was also widely ridiculed on television for his mannerisms, hairstyle and small hands. But he was devastatingly effective on Twitter, Snapchat and digital media and this enabled him to talk directly and undiluted to his voters.”
Dr Kevin Dixon from Teesside University, who is also part of the Screen Society team, added: “Many people believe social media messages are ‘straight from the hip’ and don’t get edited by spin-doctors.
“If television glamorised politicians, the internet deglamourised them, allowing digital and social media to transform the manner in which our elected leaders address us. Our research has certainly found that television and mainstream media have been far overtaken by digital media as the most important and trustworthy form of communication.”
Commenting on the influence of social media, one participant in the Screen Society project said: “It gives people a good insight into politicians’ thoughts – allows politicians to be seen as familiar and relatable and interact with the public.
Another commented: “Politics has already been transformed. Twitter has distilled political debate to 140 characters. Attention spans have shortened and the soundbite is now driving society.”
Although the researchers don’t think the result of the general election will be directly influenced by activity on social media, as the polls indicate the Conservatives have such a strong lead, it will help to engage voters, boost turnout and provide a platform for direct debate.
Dr Dixon added: “Many politicians in the general election will be cautious and send only anodyne messages, but the ones who want to grab attention will be deliberately provocative. These will be the attention grabbers.”
Dispelling myths over internet addiction, trolls and social skills
The Screen Society team also found that popular stereotypes about addiction to screens and the dangerous presence of trolls are largely unfounded.
One school in Middlesbrough recently banned parents from using their phones at the school gate, insisting they should greet their child with a smile not a smartphone.
But Professor Cashmore stressed that these kinds of reactions create a false perception and “screen addiction” is not something that is a widespread problem.
He added: “Our research shows that screen or internet addiction is a myth. While three out of ten users believe using smartphones and computers is addictive, the majority, 70%, dismiss the orthodox view of medical practitioners, researchers and other experts who warn of the dangers involved in habitual screen use.”
And on the subject of trolls, rather than being a menace to society, they are widely ridiculed and regarded as a laughing stock by internet users.
“There have been a small number of cases in which trolls have made the lives of some people intolerable and these have made headlines,” explained Dr Dixon.
“But our study indicates most internet users see trolls as objects of ridicule, rather than people to fear.”
The Screen Society team believes the anonymity provided by the internet is seen by many as a shield of cowardice, which makes the hatred of trolls even harder to understand.
Dr Jamie Cleland, from the University of South Australia, is the third member of the Screen Society team and believes we have vastly exaggerated the danger of trolls.
He said: “For the vast majority of net-savvy users, trolls are standing jokes, who deserve derision. No one takes them seriously.”
Screen Society will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018. The second phase of the research is launched today. To take part in the study, visit http://bit.ly/-Screen2