Franklin D. Roosevelt once said to a crowd in Marietta, Ohio: “The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and Senators and Congressmen and Government officials but the voters of this country.” As president, Roosevelt was loyal to this statement by utilizing the best communication method he had at the time - radio broadcasting - to get in contact with a majority of American citizens. This theme still remains true today, but the method of contact has evolved. At this point in history, the number of people who get their news from television is more than those who use radio or newspapers combined (Mitchell, Gottfried, Barthel, and Shearer 4-5). The second most common method for 38% of American adults is to retrieve news through the internet (4). The rise of the internet—more specifically, social media—is creating a noticeable impact in the way people discuss, learn about and share political news.
A large part of understanding why social media is important is realizing just how many people use it, and even encounter it offline. Having a social media account makes it easier to find and read posts, but it is rare for posts online to stay exclusively online. This creates a divergence between old media (TV, radio and newspapers) and new media (social media networks) where information is passed between the outlets. For example, Donald Trump tweeted at 5:14 the morning of September 30, 2016: “Wow, Crooked Hillary was duped and used by my worst Miss U[niverse]. Hillary floated her as an ‘angel’ without checking her past, which is terrible!” That same day, MSNBC’s Morning Joe, which airs at 6 am, had a 14-minute segment discussing the tweet (“Trump Goes on a Tweet Storm”). Anyone watching Morning Joe learned about the tweet and backlash to it, all without needing a Twitter account. USA Today, CBS News, the Independent, Daily Mail and other news sources also covered the tweet. For television networks, these videos were aired live and posted online for people to view and share as often as they wanted. At this point, anyone with any access to political news had the opportunity to hear about the tweet. That is not including those who found out through the original source, Twitter. When the tweet was first posted in September 2016, Twitter had roughly 317 million active users, meaning the tweet could potentially be seen by millions of people (Statista). Since then, the number of Twitter users continues to grow and because of this, the number of people who might be exposed to the tweet for the first time has increased.
Another crucial part to understanding why social media creates such an impact is looking at accidental exposure rates. The 2016 Pew survey “News Use Across Social Media Platforms” found that social media users are most commonly exposed to news instead of actively seeking it out. Sixty-two percent of Facebook users came across news unintentionally while they were doing something else (Gottfried and Shearer 4). While the impact of exposure on users is debatable, it is safe to say that these headlines have some impact on people’s viewpoints. For example, stumbling across the Washington Post headline “Donald Trump’s Chances of Winning Are Approaching Zero” (Cillizza and Blake) evokes some sort of emotion or thought regardless of political opinion. Even someone not politically savvy can assume from reading the article that Trump is running for President of the United States. While they might not have an opinion on Trump directly, they now have the information that his campaign might not be doing well. This is information that does not require a background in politics to understand or reiterate, leading to concern over how social media impacts actual political understanding.
These brief moments of exposure can alter a person’s opinions toward certain politicians. Friends and family we surround ourselves with, commonly referred to as “agents of socialization,” affect what we see online, dictating the type of news we accidentally stumble across (Ginsberg et al. 148). If the majority of a person’s Facebook friends support Hillary Clinton, then that person has a high probability of reading pro-Clinton posts online. This does not mean the user will advocate for Clinton, but that they may have a more positive reaction towards her due to the headlines presented. In the opposite situation, if someone’s newsfeed is filled with articles like Reuter’s “Clinton Calls Trump a ‘Sore Loser’” (Lopez and Stephenson) they will most likely view Clinton in a negative light.
One damaging aspect to agents of socialization, however, is our tendency to only surround ourselves with those whom we agree with. Jason Gainous and Kevin M. Wagner, authors of Tweeting to Power, argue that “social media allows citizens to self-select their content in a way that avoids any disagreeable ideas or interpretations” (1). This can potentially take away the opportunity to expose ourselves to new information or opinions. It has been argued that because of this, we might form opinions that stay strictly to one side of the political continuum, leading to strong party polarization and the inability—or even refusal—to listen to ideas that are different from one’s own. According to the Pew Research Center, “Values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years” (1). While it cannot be proven that there is a correlation between political engagement online and partisan polarization, there have been studies showing that this might be the case. Evidence found in a study conducted at Indiana University suggests, but cannot confirm, that the internet can lead to conversations that tend to be “more extreme” than traditional face-to-face interactions (Conover et al. 95). The ability to essentially hide behind a screen provides the opportunity to share more radicalized opinions or derogatory language against those with opposing opinions. It has been argued that because of this, social media has not only created more of a political divide, but could actually make the divide worse over time.
As concerns over the negative effects of social media continue to grow, there are questions being raised related to if social media really has any benefits at all in relation to politics. One argument is that, through exposure, people can become at least more aware of what the political climate looks like. Since social media is a fairly modern concept, it is difficult to pinpoint if this is true. In their essay featured in Digital Media and Political Engagement Worldwide: A Comparative Study, Allison Hamilton and Caroline J. Tolbert pinpoint a number of different effects the internet might have on an “average” citizen’s political interest, ranging from making those who are already politically engaged even more engaged to making those who were never engaged even less interested in politics. They share the argument that social media could dramatically decrease the number of people who are politically informed (60). But there is a missing viewpoint: social media could cause both an increase in those who are informed as well as engaged. Instead of arguing that politics will only drive people away from political advocacy, or that people who chose to be politically uninformed in the past will remain so, it should be noted that social media could potentially have an overarching positive impact. This is a subjective view, but an important one to consider nonetheless. It could be said that it is too soon to fully understand what social media is and is not capable of, so no perspective should be disregarded, even if it is seemingly unrealistic and overtly optimistic.
That potential to create an impact makes social media crucial to political discourse. In 2012, an estimated 340 million tweets were being posted on a daily basis (Hermida 360). Those 340 million tweets produce millions of combined retweets and favorites, as well as a virtually uncountable amount of screenshots shared via private messaging. Average citizens, like Marybeth Glenn of Wisconsin, have the potential to go viral solely by attracting the right amount of attention from others. Her tweet: “I’m sooo [sic] done. If you can’t stand up for women & unendorse this piece of human garbage, you deserve every charge of sexism thrown at you” went viral in October 2016. Glenn did not expect the attention she received, going from an “average” Twitter user to one with over 19,000 followers (Anderson). Her rant online about Donald Trump gained thousands of combined retweets; the one quoted above had over 4,600 retweets and 15,000 favorites by October 31, 2016. Glenn said that, “Sophia Bush, Mark Ruffalo and Debra Messing” all retweeted her and that she was interviewed by “Chris Hayes from MSNBC, CNN Newsroom, MPR, ELLE Magazine and BuzzFeed” (Anderson). This is important because what happened to Glenn is something that could potentially happen to anyone with a social media account. Social media gives people the chance to make a difference, all from the comfort of their own home and with minimal effort. In this case, all it required was a political opinion and some followers on Twitter which most people already have.
In terms of political involvement, social media offers the chance for users to either spark their own movements or more easily join already established groups. Carissa Tinker argues in her article “Movements, Moments, and Movement-Moments” that social media sites are a good place to start for those who are just getting involved in activism. Tinker also argues that it makes people who are usually “peripheral members” of an organization more willing to participate. In the anthology Social Media and Democracy, Brian Loader and Dan Mercea add to this, stating that mass collaboration via social media can fuel new ideas and truly embrace what democracy is (3). These are both important for obvious reasons, foremost being that making activist groups more accessible offers the chance for a wider range of people to join. It does not guarantee those people will join, but the opportunity is still there which is a solid enough first step.
In addition to the positives, however, there are some negatives to making activist groups so easy for people to create and join. In The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov explains that people make online activist groups with good intentions, but generally do not end up doing much (191). He also argues that those who use social media seem to believe that, “given enough tweets, the world’s problems are solvable” (190). While Morozov offers a valid point, it should be acknowledged that sometimes simply raising awareness of what is happening within politics is enough. Posting online might not directly solve a problem, but it can bring people’s attention to it in a way that traditional media would not generally offer. Since old media does not tend to focus on awareness past a breaking news story or advocacy, new media steps in and offers a chance to easily join and promote a movement..
Journalists, reporters and commentators, who use social media for professional purposes, have a slightly different experience when it comes to politics on social media. They are not as directly prominent as a politician might be, but a journalist’s report about a politician’s post online can be just as influential as the politician’s post itself. Using the same methods newspapers and broadcast media rely on (framing, selection bias, and agenda setting), individual journalists can influence people’s opinions on someone or something in less than 140 characters. Paul Krugman, a columnist for New York Times frequently does this by posting a series of tweets all related to a specific topic. After the 2016 presidential election, Krugman posted two successive tweets: “I truly thought I knew my country better than it turns out I did. I have warned that we could become a failed state, but didn't realize … that it wasn't just the radicalism of the GOP, but deep hatred in a large segment of the population. How do we move forward?” Through these posts, he aims to guide people to think a certain way and has the potential to shape a reader’s opinion.
In addition to promoting political opinions in a way that is similar to Krugman’s tweets, journalists can use their own Twitter accounts to break news and preview what they will be covering in more depth at a later time. Hermida also explains: “Within newsrooms, a common practice has been to use Twitter as a channel to promote content and attract readers to a news website, as social media provides a ready-made free distribution network” (360). Everyone who has a job within media, from local news anchors to Anderson Cooper, utilizes social media to promote stories they are working on. The authors of the textbook We the People explain that social media websites play an important role in the distribution of news because they offer convenience, diversity and currency (Ginsberg et al. 184). According to Insignia Communications, a reputation management company, news usually breaks on social media first. The company has also said that 87% of journalists feel as though their role has changed due to social media (“Hold the Front Page”). In the context of old media versus new media, new media thrives off of within-the-minute contact while old media generally cannot. The ability to immediately break stories as they happen from our bedroom or a bus or three-thousand miles away from where the event took place is strictly a trait of new media.
The general attitude journalists and media companies seem to have is that breaking the story, usually over social media, is the most important task. Being the first to learn information and present a story to consumers has always been a priority within news, but the public’s expectation to know as soon as possible has been shaped by social media. While creating a full broadcast or news article can take time, writing a 140-character tweet or a brief Facebook post doesn’t require much immediate detail. Generally, these posts online will exclusively explain the most basic information - who is involved and what is happening. For example, NPR tweeted on June 8, 2016: “#BREAKING: The Associated Press says Hillary Clinton has won last night's Democratic primary in California.” The tweet covers exactly what people need to know in that moment. There is no article attached to that tweet specifically, but a story – “Clinton Marks Historic Win As Sanders Vows To Fight On” (Taylor) - later follows with more details about Clinton’s primary results. NPR’s only goal with posting that tweet was to break the news as soon as it was confirmed. While this method of real-time updates has its benefits, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee the public will be better informed. Readers might learn about the situation, but not all of the details. This is a common mistake made when it comes to announcing poll data in American elections. During the 2016 presidential primaries, NBC and the Associated Press had prematurely announced via social media that Hillary Clinton to be the democratic candidate. Both sources used “unofficial polls of unelected superdelegates,” claiming that Clinton had secured the number of delegates needed to beat her opponent Bernie Sanders (“Highly Inappropriate”). These articles not only shaped the seven primaries happening the next day, but misinformed an immeasurable number of people.
It is also important, however, to mention the times where immediate updates have been incredibly valuable. During elections, protests or crises, journalists will be able to provide important information to their audience as quickly as possible. This was seen after major political events unfolded, whenever a protest began or after a mass shooting, just to name a few examples. As events would occur, people all around the world could hear about them on social media. CNN does this for the general election. The station tweets moment-by-moment updates of counted votes, what states have been officially won and who has won which position.
Besides affecting how news is received, social media can impact people personally as well—politicians included. As stated in We the People: “The Internet has not only changed the way modern presidents campaign but also how they govern” (Ginsberg et al. 329). While this quote directly speaks on the president, it applies to virtually anyone who holds a public office. Politicians, from local mayors to high-ranking government officials, regularly get contacted via social media sites. On August 15, 2016 Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, posted on Facebook: “Good news → our disabled veterans will be receiving an increase in their benefits. Congress passed it, and now it's law.” In response to this, hundreds of people commented about House Resolution 752, which condemned the Dog Meat Festival in Yulin, China and has no relation whatsoever to disabled veterans. Social media users will do this because websites like Facebook offer a fast, easy way to reach politicians who are generally unreachable. While it is not guaranteed Paul Ryan will ever actually read these responses, the effort is still there. It is access in a way that is similar to sending emails or letters, or calling a politician’s office, but more time efficient. The goal is to get politicians to see what is important to voters and then make the politicians act in the way that the voters want. This is not a new concept by any means, but being able to speak out in such a public way is. Those who respond to politicians on social media have the potential to gain their own responses of some kind through likes, retweets, favorites, etc. This means that their comment will be more visible to the politician. A comment with four hundred likes, for example, will probably gain the attention of a politician more than a response with no likes. Instead of just being one of a thousand callers, or one of a thousand who emailed a congressperson, there is a chance to get an individual’s words brought to the forefront.
In terms of how politicians interact with social media users, social media can be used to share ideas in a way that feels interactive without there ever being a face-to-face or even a necessarily reciprocal relationship. Typically, most politicians do not directly respond but this does not mean the messages they receive go unheard. Political Campaigns and Social Media argues that “politicians create interesting posts to try to engage followers, similar to the tactics used by a brand or media company” (Newnam). To elaborate, the article is claiming that politicians rely on social media interactions to gauge how people feel toward certain ideas that the politician has. Responses, shares and favorites/likes are useful to politicians for two core reasons: one, it gets their political platform to the public and two, is a free form of promotion. Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders commonly relied on this, utilizing social media to gain the attention of the group that most commonly uses social media—young voters. When he first started his campaign, Sanders was fairly unknown but due to mass support on the internet, he gained a relatively wide following. It can be argued that this happened because Sanders spent so much time posting alone about his political opinions and what he would try to achieve if elected as president.
As stated before, social media is a fairly new concept. The internet became a factor in politics in 1996, but it wasn’t until 2004 that it actually became influential (Owen 22). At first it was exciting to see information about politicians online, but now it’s essentially a requirement. The use of the internet has evolved into a reliance on finding information via social media. We expect our news to be available, politicians to be reachable and opinions to be heard, all traits of social media platforms. While it’s difficult to determine what this will mean for us a decade from now, or even as soon as the 2020 presidential election, there is one thing for certain—social media has already impacted and will continue to impact politics.
@npr. #BREAKING: The Associated Press says Hillary Clinton has won last night's Democratic primary in California.” Twitter, 8 June 2016, 6:19 a.m., https://twitter.com/NPR/status/740488363224993792
@MBGlenn. “I'm sooo done. If you can’t stand up for women & unendorse this piece of human garbage, you deserve every charge of sexism thrown at you. 12.” Twitter, 10 Oct. 2016, 8:46 pm, https://twitter.com/MBGlenn/status/785642745557680128
@paulkrugman. “that it wasn't just the radicalism of the GOP, but deep hatred in a large segment of the population. How do we move forward?” Twitter, 8 Nov. 2016, 9:41 p.m., https://twitter.com/paulkrugman/status/796180840090894336
@realdonaldtrump. “Wow, Crooked Hillary was duped and used by my worst Miss U. Hillary floated her as an "angel" without checking her past, which is terrible!” Twitter, 30 Sept. 2016, 5:14 a.m., https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/781784161044553728
Anderson, Hannah. “Local Woman's Political Tweets Go Viral.” WSAW, 10 Oct. 2016.http://www.wsaw.com/content/news/Local-womans-political-tweets-go-viral-396742591.html
Cillizza, Chris and Aaron Blake. “Donald Trump’s Chances of Winning Are Approaching Zero,” Washington Post, 24 Oct. 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/10/24/donald-trumps-chances-of-winning-are-approaching-zero/.
Conover, M.D., J. Ratkiewicz, M. Francisco, B. Gonçalves, A. Flammini, and F.M. Menczer, “Political Polarization on Twitter.” Proceedings of the Fifth International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media, 2011, pp. 89-96, https://www.aaai.org/ocs/index.php/ICWSM/ICWSM11/paper/viewFile/2847/3275.pdf.
“Election 2016: Campaigns as a Direct Source of News.” Pew Research Center, 18 July 2016. http://www.journalism.org/2016/07/18/election-2016-campaigns-as-a-direct-source-of-news/
Gainous, Jason and Kevin M. Wagner. Tweeting to Power: The Social Media Revolution in American Politics, Oxford UP, 2014.
Ginsberg, Benjamin, Theodore J. Lowi, Margaret Weir, and Caroline J. Tolbert. We the People. 10th ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.
Gottfried, Jeffrey and Elisa Shearer. “News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016.” Pew Research Center, 26 May 2016, http://www.journalism.org/2016/05/26/news-use-across-social-media-platforms-2016/
Hamilton, Allison and Caroline J. Tolbert. “Political Engagement and the Internet in the 2008 U.S. Presidential Elections: A Panel Survey.” Digital Media and Political Engagement Worldwide: A Comparative Study, edited by Eva Anduiza, Michael J. Jensen, and Laia Jorba, Cambridge UP, 2012, pp. 56-79.
Hermida, Alfred. “Twitter as an Ambient News Network.” Twitter and Society, edited by Katrin Weller, Axel Bruns, Jean Burgess, Merja Mahrt, and Cornelius Puschmann, Peter Lang, 2013, pp. 359-372.
“‘Highly Inappropriate’: Sanders Backer Slams AP, NBC for Calling Democratic Race Before Today's Vote,” 7 June 2016, http://www.democracynow.org/2016/6/7/highly_inappropriate_sanders_backer_slams_ap Accessed 12 Nov. 2016.
“Hold the Front Page: The Impact of Social Media on Breaking News,” Insignia Communications, Oct. 2014, http://www.bernsteincrisismanagement.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Insignia-Comms-Impact-of-Social-Media-on-Breaking-News-infographic.jpg
Loader, Brian D. and Dan Mercea. “Networking Democracy? Social Media Innovations in Participatory Politics.” Social Media and Democracy: Innovations in Participatory Politics, edited by Brian Loader and Dan Mercea, Routledge, 2012, pp. 1-10.
Lopez, Luciana and Emily Stephenson. “Clinton Calls Trump a ‘Sore Loser.’” Reuters, 23 Oct. 2016, http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-usa-election-idUKKCN12N0NG.
Mitchell, Amy, Jeffrey Gottfried, Michael Barthel, and Elisa Shearer. “1. Pathways to News.” Pew Research Center, 7 July 2016, http://www.journalism.org/2016/07/07/pathways-to-news/
Morozov, Evgeny. The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, Public Affairs, 2011.
Newnam, Jared. “Political Campaigns and Social Media - Tweeting Their Way into Office.” South University, 5. Oct. 2012, https://www.southuniversity.edu/whoweare/newsroom/blog/political-campaigns-and-social-media-tweeting-their-way-into-office-106986
Owen, Diana. “The Internet and Youth Civic Engagement in the United States.” The Internet and politics: Citizens, Voters and Activists, edited by Sarah Oates, Diana Owen, and Rachel K. Gibson, Routledge, 2006, pp. 17-33.
“Partisan Polarization Surges in Bush, Obama Years.” Pew Research Center, 4 June 2012. http://www.people-press.org/2012/06/04/partisan-polarization-surges-in-bush-obama-years/
Ryan, Paul. “Good news → our disabled veterans will be receiving an increase in their benefits. Congress passed it, and now it's law.” Facebook, 15 Aug. 2016, https://www.facebook.com/speakerryan/posts/1083585051690020:0
Taylor, Jessica. “Clinton Marks Historic Win as Sanders Vows to Fight On.” NPR, 7 June 2016, http://www.npr.org/2016/06/07/481003293/clinton-looks-to-historic-night-while-sanders-hopes-for-calif-upset.
Tinker, Carissa, "Movements, Moments, and Movement-Moments: Generational Approaches to Organizing for Social Change" (2016). Capstone Collection. Paper 2927. http://digitalcollections.sit.edu/capstones/2927
“Trump goes on a Friday tweet storm.” Morning Joe, MSNBC, 30 Sept. 2016, http://www.msnbc.com/morning-joe/watch/trump-goes-on-a-friday-tweet-storm-776391235954
“Twitter: Number of Active Users Worldwide from 1st Quarter 2010 to 2nd Quarter 2017.” Statista, 2017, https://www.statista.com/statistics/282087/number-of-monthly-active-twitter-users/