Social Media as A Political Tool

About a month ago I had a take home exam/essay for my Political Communication unit at university. Now that I have gotten the marks back for them – I can happily say I got 100% for it all, as the guy that ran the unit was really impressed and even praised the fact I challenged some of the concepts and ideas – I thought I would post them all here in a string of short pieces without fear of TurnItIn flagging me for plagiarising my own content. I’ll quote the questions we were given and then have what I wrote underneath – there will be six in total. This final piece was a short essay response relating to social media in politics. The few references used in all pieces will also be underneath.

How has the rise of social media changed the political system?

Social media, like so many communication technologies, is a neutral platform. Unlike other technologies, like “smart” vehicles and devices that do what they are told to, social media, and the Internet more broadly, opens us up to seemingly immeasurable amounts of information on a daily basis. Not only do users have access to all of this information (barring some form of censorship), they can directly contribute to the discussions and debates on any issues that they take an interest in.

A major aspect of this is the ability to garner a following and create or join online social communities that allows the distribution of content and increased interactivity in the digital age (Chen, 2013). Social media, in this sense, is nothing more than a tool for users (singular, or plural for groups of people) to manipulate to achieve some goal. In the political sphere, this covers a large range of platforms and communications styles.

But perhaps the most striking feature of social media is that it is, seemingly paradoxically, both a means of connecting and a means of dividing. While commonly attributed to one’s consumption of news media, the term echo chamber very much permeates the realm of social media, arguably to a greater extent than simply reading the news. Just as some people will only read the news from specific outlets – for good or ill – so too will they follow and interact with people that they feel share their own personal views and values.

Echo chambers are a phenomenon that can occur naturally or can be manufactured to pull a particular kind of audience towards a person, party or outlet, but there is no doubt that political actors of all sorts take advantage of these trends. In doing so, how many consumers of news and social media perceive the political system and process has shifted drastically.

Firstly, it’s prudent to understand why social media, especially Twitter, is such an appealing communication medium for the politicians themselves. Sauter (2013) provided a list of reasons that can be summed up in three main categories:

  • Direct communication with the general population
  • Cheap PR and advertising platform
  • No filters on the content that they produce

This allows political parties to gain a greater understanding of public opinion so that they can formulate policies, conversations, and spin that will appeal to specific demographics that they intend on targeting. Armed with this information, they can approach current or potential voters in an effort to convince or rally them to their point of view. Traditional forms of media, while not redundant in the modern age, can no longer claim the role of necessary middlemen. While analysis and opinion in the media will always have a place in mainstream discourse, successful political communicators can – and do – go right over them.

A major example of this is Donald Trump, whose use of Twitter was one of the defining media disruptions during and in the aftermath of the 2016 US election. Accruing a massive following by tapping into segments of the US population that felt disenfranchised with the political system and constantly discrediting all media outlets (with few exceptions, including Murdoch owned Fox) allowed him to create one of the more cultish groups of followers of the 21st Century.

Arguably an even greater and surprising political upset was the rise of Bernie Sanders, who not only survived but thrived having used the ‘s’ and ‘r’ words in America – socialist and radical (he isn’t either of those, realistically, however, more a social democrat like Australia’s Greens or some Scandinavian “socialist” countries). With essentially, in the US scope of things, polar opposite policies and communication styles to Trump, Sanders’ campaign had the potential to win the 2016 election if not for the DNC and traditional media forcing Clinton. His ‘media coverage’, and subsequently his following, was mostly gained through effective grassroots movements and social media.

Within the narrow spectrum of debate in the US, Sanders and Trump were on opposite ends. Yet both of them were able to successfully, albeit with very different approaches, adopt social media as one of the core aspects of their campaigning. Other candidates, of course, used social media, but for many it was a complementary platform, not a primary one. But these two communities, formed under the same umbrella of social media alongside countless others, couldn’t be any more divided.

Audiences, therefore, will gravitate towards people and communities that they feel a connection with and rarely approach those they are opposed to, except to perhaps ridicule them and set off an online argument. This leads to social media echo chambers, where people only listen to the voices of those that they follow. The argument here can go either way, because there are – I believe – objectively good and objectively bad voices to listen to, but the majority would see this as subjective.

So where politicians will use social media as a tool to reach the general population, the average user, intentionally or not, uses it as a tool for validation of their positions and will rarely venture beyond that, either out of fear of being ridiculed or wrong, because they are simply unaware of those other voices, or because they believe the ‘other side’ is beyond redemption. They will listen to the voices of leaders they agree with, connect other likeminded people, and will disregard those who follow leaders they do not support.

While in some cases this is arguably appropriate, such as when a group is so heavily embroiled in conspiracy theories that they won’t believe anything anyone else says, I don’t believe this division of the political system is natural. While leaders can certainly be a positive and necessary part of many movements, our approach to politics on social media shouldn’t be vertical or hierarchical. Discourse can quickly become heated when the centre of conversation is personality and controversy, so there needs to be a new approach. Social media could facilitate it.

Rather than consuming media and associating yourself with a specific ‘brand’ of politics, social media’s connectivity could open pathways for the general population to not only bypass traditional media, but also their leaders on those platforms. Hot topic issues like religion, race, gender, ideology, etc. are commonly used as scapegoats to rile up disenfranchised crowds, but while combatting those divisive measures is important, focus should be on determining why these people are disenfranchised in the first place – what problems are they facing that caused them to vote a particular way?

With that in mind, discussions between actual communities online – not just scattered online communities – could help drive down social divisions while exploring legitimate solutions for those who are struggling or inform those who receive misinformation from leaders and specific outlets. Social media, as merely a tool, could be used for such a purpose in a political context, giving some real weight to the connectivity benefits.

As it stands, social media is a powerful tool that has dramatically changed the way political actors, systems, and processes are interacted with and perceived. Like with many advances in political communication, the US provides some brilliant examples of it being used in various ways to promote a huge range of ideas. As it becomes an increasingly volatile space, however, there is much scope for new ways of looking at social media’s capabilities as a remedy for the issues it has caused in its current state.

 

Read part 1 HERE

Read part 5 HERE

References

Chen, Peter J. (2013). Australian Politics in A Digital Age. ANU Press.

Cushion, S., Thomas, R. (2018). Reporting Elections: Rethinking the Logic of Campaign Coverage. Cambridge, U.K. Polity Press.

Mazzoleni, G., Schultz, W. 1999. ““Mediatization” of politics: A challenge for democracy?”. Political Communication 16 (3). 247-61. https://www-tandfonline-com.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/doi/abs/10.1080/105846099198613#aHR0cHM6Ly93d3ctdGFuZGZvbmxpbmUtY29tLmV6cDAxLmxpYnJhcnkucXV0LmVkdS5hdS9kb2kvcGRmLzEwLjEwODAvMTA1ODQ2MDk5MTk4NjEzP25lZWRBY2Nlc3M9dHJ1ZUBAQDA=

Sauter, T., Bruns, A. (2013). “Social Media in the Media: How Australian Media Perceive Social Media as Political Tools”. Research Report, University of Oslo, University of Bergen, Queensland University of Technology, Uppsala University, California State University Long Beach. https://eprints.qut.edu.au/63512/1/CCI_REPORT_Social_Media_in_the_Media.pdf

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