Social Media and American Politics

By: Shaelyn Thompson, News Crew Member

As of February 2019, 72% of Americans use social media according to a study conducted by Pew Research Center. The majority of the population uses this form of media not only to communicate with others and share content but also to consume news information. With so many people engaging with the news online, it’s essential to question what effects social media has on how our elections are run and how people form their opinions.

Recently, the director of Iowa State’s Catt Center for Women and Politics Karen Kedrowski discussed how the internet shapes American politics.

Social media stands out from other forms of media because of how rapidly information spreads across platforms, Kedrowski claims.

Kedrowski noted this is because, “Once upon a time in the Jurassic period, you had to worry about deadlines and there were fixed periods set aside for newscasts, but online you do not have to worry about that so anyone can post information at any time.”

With the freedom to share information instantly, there comes the ability to be better informed about what is happening around us.

“Social media has been a boon in a more informed citizenry,” Kedrowski said. “And what we also find out is not only is there a lot of information that can get out there that people can have at their fingertips, but there’s a vast array of new sources that can be created and discovered through the sharing function.”

While people have immediate access to all kinds of information online, there is an unfortunate downside to being able to share anything quickly. 

“Social media does not vet. It doesn’t have an editor in chief or fact-checkers or anything like that so individuals can share whatever they want, and that means they can also share information that is false, misleading, or skewed in some way or another,” Kedrowski revealed. “There have been a number of studies that say that fake information, completely manufactured and fictional information posing as real news, actually spreads faster on social media than the truth.”

If false information spreads throughout different social media spaces without being evaluated, then people’s opinions will change based on the untrue reports, and the truth can remain hidden.

Another aspect of social media that is unique is that a person can choose what parts of themselves they want to reveal to the rest of the world. In other words, the internet allows people to be anonymous. This affects how users discuss news and politics with each other.

Kedrowski asserted, “I think what we have really seen is that the social media which have some anonymity built-in. People can’t see how others are responding in real-time so one might be more likely to troll somebody or dox them without really thinking. They think the person that they are doing this too isn’t really someone they are having a discussion with, but someone who is faceless and therefore doesn’t have feelings.”

If social media causes the spread of false information and the discussion of politics can be extremely reactionary because of the anonymity that comes with online spaces, can conversations about issues constructive and serious dialogue happen online? Kedrowski says it’s dependent on the platform in which people are interacting. 

“There are long-form platforms like blogs and even Reddit where there’s not necessarily a limit or traditional news that posts their reports electronically where you can have a very thoughtful reasonable debate and discussion,” said Kedrowski. “People can put out some very thoughtful opinion pieces that I think are quite provocative in a good way. When you look at Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, however, they are not well suited for thoughtful and sophisticated exchange.”

Even though places like Twitter are viewed as limiting when it comes to introspective discussions, there is something interesting happening on those platforms. Presidential candidates and politicians are using them to reach potential voters and connect with them on a personal level.

Presidential candidates for the 2020 election have especially popular social media accounts, as many have millions of followers across multiple platforms. This is because social media is a way for constitutes to learn more about them and interact with them directly.

Kedrowski points out, “Social media allows for some direct interaction that might be more difficult for some through events such as town halls because they might have to go somewhere, fight a crowd to get there and get in the door. It augments the traditional way candidates communicate. They still buy TV ads, they still send mail, they still do door-knocking and they still participate in debates, but they recognize this as a great way to reach out to voters.” 

Another way candidates reach out to voters personally through the internet is with targeted advertising. They can select exactly who they want to reach out to based on who they believe will be most susceptible to their message. 

“Advertising through social media is far less expensive compared to other forms of media, and it allows for rather perfectly targeted messages and for the ad to exist in multiple languages, so in that case, it is a very powerful and cost-effective tool for elected officials and candidates, especially candidates who might be kind of ‘dark horse’ and not have a lot of money,” Kedrowski explained. 

Even if social media sites ban political advertisements, such as in the case of Twitter, candidates can still use their profiles as a form of advertisement and promote them to specific groups of users. Thus, the use of targeted online ads and a carefully curated social media account can affect which candidate voters end up siding with during elections.

Kedrowski ended her discussion with how to engage with news and what students can do to avoid common problems with consuming information online.

Kedrowski says, “Students and any users of social media and online sources need to critically evaluate information and question ‘What is the source? Is the source reputable? Are there other news organizations that are reporting similar information?’ One way is to look to see how many different news sources are reporting the same or similar information. Also, if you do not know if a source is credible, research can tell you fairly quickly. It is a responsibility of citizenship to make sure we are informed voters.”

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