The political landscape has changed quite a bit in the last couple of decades. The internet has played a large role in this transformation. Social media, in particular, is now a serious factor in political campaigns and in the way people think about issues.
Candidates and their supporters constantly post their views on Facebook and Twitter. Each party has its own pages, from which it broadcasts propaganda and requests for donations. Let’s look at some of the leading ways that social media influences politics today.
News Around the Clock
One of the ways that social media has transformed politics is the sheer speed at which news, poll results, and rumors are shared. Whereas in the pre-internet days, people had to wait for the next newspaper or TV news show to get the latest information, online news is a 24/7 phenomenon.
Social media has taken this a step further. While you can access news on many websites at any hour, most people spend more time on sites such as Facebook and Twitter than they do on serious news or political websites. This means that you get all of the latest trending news stories and opinions shared by your friends whenever you log on.
The Impact of Polls
Political polls are an important part of every campaign. They are often confusing because you can often find multiple polls with contradictory results posted on the very same day.
As with other types of political news, the internet has greatly increased the number of poll results we see each day. Social media has accelerated this even more. Not only do social media sites report the results of polls, but you can also actually participate in Facebook polls.
Polls results have a big influence on elections. This is true even if they are flawed. A poll can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if people think one candidate is far ahead in the race, they might conclude there’s no point in voting for the underdog. When people are posting the latest poll results on social media throughout the day, there’s a great deal of pressure on candidates to pull ahead of their opponents.
Direct Interaction with Politicians
One of the positive effects that social media has on politics is the opportunity for voters to interact more easily with candidates and elected officials. Traditionally, if you wanted to meet a politician or candidate, you’d have to attend a live event. Not everyone is able to do this. With modern technology, it’s now possible to attend virtual events where you can participate in live streaming events and interact with politicians and candidates.
Demographics and Targeting
Targeting is used throughout the advertising industry to make sure that ads and messages reach the right audience. Politicians do this as well. In the age of social media, politicians, and people running for office are able to target their campaigns.
If a candidate wants to address the concerns of women, college students, retired people, Latinos or any other group of voters, they can now tailor their messages. Just as advertisers on Facebook are able to use analytics and targeted advertising, so can candidates and politicians. Thus, if you notice that political messages seem to be talking to you personally, this is no accident.
Rumors, Fake News and Conspiracies
Political campaigns are now influenced by every story, whether true or not, that gets spread around social media. It’s getting more and more difficult to separate actual news from fake news online. Social media makes this distinction especially confusing. The constant stream of memes, links, and rumors about political leaders and candidates is a mixture of truth, lies, satire, and speculation.
There are now quite a few fake or satirical “news” sites that often post stories that sound authentic. The Onion is the best known of these, but there are now many others as well. Some fake news site is not even amusing but simply exist to post clickbait stories or to troll readers who don’t do their own research.
There are also sites with political biases or those peddling various unsubstantiated conspiracy theories. It’s easy to be influenced by misinformation posted by your friends and followers, even if they don’t intend to mislead you. It’s, therefore, necessary to use a great deal of discernment before believing anything.
The Power of Confirmation Bias
One of the hidden forces that operate on social media is confirmation bias. This is especially powerful when it comes to controversial topics, including politics. If you’re like most people, the majority of your friends and followers on social media probably share your outlook. This means that the vast majority of tweets, Facebook posts, pins or other content you read on these sites tend to express the same point of view, one that you already hold.
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. If you have a few hundred friends on Facebook, for example, and 90 percent of them agree on most political issues, the information you get will be filtered through this bias. People will post links to stories that confirm your existing bias. They’ll repeat opinions you already hold.
For this reason, social media may reinforce our opinions and make it more difficult to entertain alternative points of view. In politics, it can help to make people more opinionated and less tolerant of others. On the other hand, if you make an effort to connect with an assortment of people with diverse viewpoints, you can overcome confirmation bias and use social media to make you more open-minded.
Social Media and the Future of Politics
Because social media is relatively new, we’re just starting to see its impact on society. There are sure to be many political changes that come about due to social media. There are now proposals for internet voting, which could lead to more people participating in elections. This could make social media even more influential, as people could literally vote moments after reading the latest comments or links they found on Facebook or Twitter.
Other advancements will also change politics. Polling techniques on social media will become more common and, hopefully, more accurate. More virtual political rallies and town halls will take place. As social media becomes ever more popular, its impact on politics will only increase over time. It will be interesting to observe how this plays out.
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