By: Treja Jones
With the average American spending 116 minutes per day scrolling through social media (which amounts to over 5 years of social media use over a lifetime), social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have expanded their purpose beyond entertainment and social connection to include uses such as news reporting, marketing, and even shopping. It comes as no surprise that Americans are also turning to social media to get political updates and to support and follow political platforms. This begs the question; what influence has social media had on political participation?
Social media use has generally increased nationwide political participation by providing an easily accessible means for users to connect with politicians, stay up-to-date with the latest political news, and support political platforms and current issues. The number of people relying on social media for news and information is continually increasing. In fact, 62% of US adults get news on social media. Politicians and voters alike are taking advantage of this reliance on social media to encourage voting and spread the word about current political issues. Recent studies show a positive relationship between social media use and civic or political engagement or participation. For example, “According a survey released in 2012 … 30% [of study participants] reported that they were encouraged to vote for either President Obama or Governor Romney by friends and family on a social networking site, and 20 percent used a social networking site to encourage others to vote.” Sites like Facebook and Instagram even have photo filters allowing users to upload photos to share that they have voted, thus making voting and political involvement trendy.
According to a study following the 2012 presidential election, “During the 2012 election, face-to-face communication was the number one way of encouraging voters to get out and vote. The second most frequent method was social networking sites – social networking sites were used for this purpose more frequently than emails, texts, or phone calls.” Social media sites allow politicians to interact directly with voters by way of posts that users can comment on. This method of connection makes politicians relatable and accessible, allowing politicians to reach and attract a larger audience. The use of social media also allows politicians opportunities to target certain demographics by selectively choosing where, when and how to post about their campaign.
Social networking sites also make it simple to support and follow certain political topics and issues. By creating a platform where users can share, comment, and “like” posts, social media provides an avenue for users to form connections based upon similar political views and makes it easy for members of political support groups to share these views with family, friends, and other users.
While the use of social media has had positive effects on nationwide political participation, overreliance on social media as a source of political news and information can have negative impacts as well. Along with the spread of politics on social media sites, comes “fake news,” conspiracy theories, and confirmation bias. Users should be cautious and make sure that the sources of political information they rely on are credible. As political news has become a social media regular, false sources of political information and rumors have become an increased danger to users who turn to sites such as Facebook and Twitter for their information on politics. As an example, a recent study on fake news during the 2016 election revealed that, “the most popular fake news stories were more widely shared on Facebook than the most popular mainstream news stories.” Even scarier is the fact that, “many people who see fake news stories report that they believe them.”
Constant access to false political information could lead to the formation of conspiracy theories that get shared to other users, perpetuating the spread of fake news. Often times, false reports and news articles will mix fabricated information with a little bit of truth to deceive or mislead readers. Most of the time, these articles are presented in a manner intended to be enticing to attract web traffic. So, its dangerously easy to click on what one might believe to be a credible news source, and actually end up reading fake news.
Additionally, on social networking sites where users can follow certain political news pages that tend to present one-sided information, it’s easy for users to repeatedly view information from the same singular perspective, thus increasing the chance that they experience confirmation bias. As Heather Scatterfield explained in her article How Social Media Affects Politics, “It’s natural for people to surround themselves with others of like mind. This is true both online and offline. On social media sites, this can create the illusion that “everybody” thinks the same way . . . For this reason, social media may reinforce our opinions and make it more difficult to entertain alternative points of view.” This could create a big problem, as confirmation bias is usually accompanied by intolerance of other points of view.
Users who rely on social networking sites as a source of political information should take the precautions of doing their own research and bear in mind that there are two sides to every story.
THE FUTURE OF SOCIAL MEDIA & POLITICAL PARTICIPATION
Social media will continue to play a big role in the political arena for both voters and politicians. We have already witnessed an increase in social media use by politicians to network for campaigns and connect to voters during the 2016 presidential election. Looking forward, there has been talk of internet voting and increased use of internet polls via social media to gather voter data and connect citizens to government in even more concrete ways. There are predictions that, “[m]ore virtual political rallies and town halls will take place.” Whatever the future holds for social media and its influence on politics, it will be nothing short of interesting to see how it all plays out.