On the eve of Election Day, let’s take a step back and talk about how social media is influencing our political system.
Before social media, our access to political dialogue was dominated by mainstream media outlets. The information that we used to form our opinions flowed from a select number of news outlets, most of which constantly come under scrutiny for their perceived biases. In my opinion, political allegiances are usually developed through a combination of the information people consume and the environment that they are raised in. In the pre-social media world that means that our friends and family influenced the way we think, especially politically. Our exposure was limited to the opinions of those around us, the TV broadcasts of political analysts, and articles published by major news outlets. In the social media world, however, political conversation thrives.
In 2008 social media was beginning to gain serious momentum in this country. During the 2008 election there were approximately 1.8 million election-related tweets. By 2012, there were 31 million. Since the primary debates in August 2015, there have been over 1 billion election-related tweets. Social media has changed the way that we communicate, and ahead of one of the most controversial elections in decades, American’s had a lot to talk about. So let’s dive into why Social Media has emerged as the crucible for political debate, and then talk about how it has influenced the election period.
Political Debates in the News Feed
Since 2008, the amount of election-related tweets has increased exponentially. Facebook and Twitter have emerged as the battlegrounds for Republican versus Democratic sentiment. Notable election moments are consumed by the viral nature of social networks. But, why? Before Social Media American’s tolerated the election period in a black box. They were left out of the conversation. Voters in non-swing states were virtually voiceless until election day. Political analysts and journalists formed their opinions in isolation and painted the country with their thoughts. Enter Facebook and Twitter, and suddenly Americans have a voice. More importantly, they have the ability to add commentary – in real time. Opinions are now formed communally, and almost instantly. Analysis is contributed from journalists, analysts, friends, neighbors, and family. Increasing our exposure to public sentiment, and potentially swinging our opinion in favor of mob mentality.
Poise, Smart Rhetoric, and Viral Moments
The job of a campaign manager has become increasingly more difficult since the adoption of social media. During key election moments, campaigns have to consider the reaction of the press in addition to the almost unpredictable reaction of millions of Americans online. The job focus of a campaign manager has changed. It has shifted from preparing a candidate to correctly answer difficult questions with poise, to creating viral moments. Campaigns are beginning to crave exciting exchanges that generate an online buzz. The internet is the main way that voters interact with the election. If campaign managers aren’t able to generate a buzz following a key debate or a big speech, than they’ve failed. The internet has changed the way campaigns interact with voters, so it has also changed the way candidates are prepared to facilitate that engagement.
Twitter is the New Spin Zone
The spin zone, a marvelous place where politicians flock to bend stories in their favor. The spin zone used to be where campaign staffers lived during debates, formulating complex theories to regurgitate to reporters after their candidate walked off the stage. In today’s viral age staffers can’t wait until after the debate to enter the spin zone. They have to do it in real time. Reporters, voters, and analysts are critiquing and formulating opinions during the debate, not afterward. Campaigns need to be able to respond, share content, and spin stories in real time. Otherwise they won’t have the opportunity to influence public opinion. Things move pretty fast on Twitter, and if a campaign is reactive instead of proactive, it can mean all the difference.
Changing the Game, but in a Positive Way?
Social media has cemented itself as the main source of political conversation (this election may prove to be an exception due to the controversial nature of the candidates – but I doubt it). American’s craved a voice, and social media was able to provide.
Twitter and Facebook have generated an enormous amount of unprecedented exposure to political conversations. But it is unclear if this exposure is positive for American democracy. Yes, theoretically social networks help aggregate opinions and generate a forum of diversity. But these are user driven platforms, and people tend to follow those that share their opinions.
Political debates are an important aspect of American democracy. Theoretically social media provides a more convenient forum for this style of conversation, but social networks are facing an epidemic of trolls. These platforms provide a space where users can share aggressive opinions without immediate consequences, leading users to question the quality of online debates.
Social networks are dominated by mob mentality. Twitter, especially, has the ability turn very ugly in the face of opposing beliefs. It can obstruct diversity of opinion and swing impartial bystanders into conformity.
Social media has had an enormous influence on our political system, but we will have to wait and see if it’s an ally of American democracy.