How Social Media Is Changing Global Politics
Media has changed from being a monologue to a dialogue – or even more, an open debate, with personal opinions featuring in mainstream media, opinions that are unfettered and uncensored, regulated only by norms of civic decency. In fact, the effect social media and real-time content have on voters isn’t just an intellectual debate anymore, but a reality.
A decade ago, a young senator named Barack Obama took his grassroots presidential campaign onto dozens of the then emerging wave of social media websites. Obama’s team revolutionized the use of social media in an election they felt was unwinnable using traditional techniques. The campaign made use of advanced digital media features that capitalized on the networking, collaboration, and community-building potential of social media to create a political movement.
The Obama campaign website was a full-service, multimedia center where voters not only could access information, they also could watch and share videos, view and distribute campaign ads, post comments, and blog. Supporters could donate, volunteer, and purchase campaign logo items, like tee shirts and caps. The campaign was active on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, as well as a range of other social media platforms that catered to particular constituencies, such as BlackPlanet, AsianAve, and Glee.
The campaign pioneered digital microtargeting tactics. It used social media to collect data on people’s political and consumer preferences, and created voter profiles to pursue specific groups, such as young professional voters, with customized messages.
The new media trends established in the 2008 campaign have carried over to the realm of government and politics more generally. Social media have become a pervasive force in politics, altering the communication dynamics between political leaders, journalists, and the public. According to Adweek, politicians are stepping up their social media campaigns. It is estimated that politicians will allocate nine percent of their media budget to digital and social media in an effort to win over millennials. Every election, politician, issue and event is being talked about in the public and debated with a level of emotion that couldn’t have ever been anticipated. Politicians have more opportunity today to control any narrative surrounding them than ever before. Campaigns have embraced their potential and so have political groups.
Twitter specifically has changed the political landscape for many politicians. Twitter is typically used as a platform for self-expression and news management, providing local and national leaders with the opportunity to gauge sentiment in real-time at a rate that has never existed before. Donald Trump used Twitter heavily in his 2016 presidential campaign. “I like it because I can get also my point of view out there, and my point of view is very important to a lot of people that are looking at me,” Trump said.
The complexities of the new media system, however, are reflected in the diversity of available content. The information distributed via the vast communications network runs the gamut from fact-based, investigative reporting from professional journalists to brash fabrications. In the new media era, the boundaries that separate these disparate types of information have become increasingly muddled. Professional media editors have been replaced by social media and analytics editors whose primary motivation is to draw users to content regardless of its news value. Audience members have to work hard to distinguish fact from fiction, and to differentiate what matters from what is inconsequential.
In addition, the economic incentives underpinning new media companies, such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, are predicated on attracting large audiences that will draw advertising revenue. Political content is used to drive consumers to social media products, rather than to perform the public service function of informing the citizenry. Commercial pressures lead media organizations to feature incendiary stories that receive the most attention.
In a nutshell, social media has redesigned structures and methods of modern political communication by transforming the way politicians interact with voters and with each other. But, the role of this marvel in increasing electoral participation and political engagement is neither clear nor simple.
(Siddharth Marupeddi is a brand strategist, a storyteller and the Founder and CEO of StartAP, enabling one of the Asia’s fastest growing entrepreneurial ecosystems)