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What do demonstrations on city streets in the Philippines in 2001, the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States in 2008, revocation of the results of the fraudulent elections in Moldavia in 2009, the M-15 movement with their camps and demonstrations in Spain in 2011, the so-called “Arab Spring” in the Middle East in early 2011, and the “Occupy Wall Street” movement that started in New York, also in 2011, all have in common? They have all used social media to help organize such protests and mobilize their responsible agents. Yet these were much more than just about arranging a party: they all greatly exploited social media to establish communication networks and move towards their objectives. Today’s social media have helped make real the idea of a “global village”, first put forward by communications theorist Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s, and suggests the claims of a “flat world” by twenty-first-century essayist Thomas L. Friedman are true.
According to Friedman, personal computers and the speed of the optic cable in the transfer of information have marked the modern revolution and almost removed the limitations of time and space. Social media’s quick development into an important tool that influences society is part of the advancement of information and communication technologies, with the first noteworthy trend has been the evolution of the Internet, with different social media and social web communities as its central components. This essay aims at analyzing and putting in evidence the influence that social media has had on politics. Both positive and negative aspects of the issue will be brought forward, followed by an examination of the current situation and possible future outcomes.
How has social media transformed politics and how will this trend continue? Not long ago social media offered a promise of a more enlightened politics, as accurate information and effortless communication would help “good people” drive out corruption, bigotry, and lies. Yet, Facebook acknowledged that before and after the last American elections, between January 2015 and August 2017, 146m users may have seen Russian misinformation on its platform. Google’s YouTube admitted to 1,108 Russian-linked videos and Twitter to 36,746 accounts. Therefore, far from bringing enlightenment, social media have been responsible for complicating the political scene even more. Russia’s trouble-making is only one example. From South Africa to Europe, politics seem to be getting uglier. Part of the reason is that, by spreading untruth and outrage, influencing voters’ judgment and aggravating partisanship, social media erode the conditions for negotiation and communication, key elements in preserving liberty and democracy. Then again, it is important to keep in mind the fact that the use of social media does not cause division so much as amplify it. The financial crisis of 2007-08 fed popular anger at a wealthy elite that had left everyone else behind.
The culture wars have split voters by identity rather than class. Similarly, nor are social media alone in their power to polarise—just look at cable TV and talk radio. But, whereas Fox News is familiar, social-media platforms are new and still poorly understood. And because of how they work, they wield extraordinary influence. Social media companies make money by putting photos, personal posts, news stories and ads in front of you. Because they are able to measure how we react, they also know just how to get under our skin. For instance, some of the biggest values of social media lie in its immediacy and its effective ability to engage with a wider scale of the public, especially younger voters. A good example is that of President Barack Obama, who was the first politician to tap into the power of social media during his two successful campaigns. It would be ideal if such a system helped only wisdom and truth rise to the surface and influence millions of others across the globe. But, the truth is not beauty so much as it is hard work—especially when you disagree with it. To give an illustration, it is commonly known for those who scroll through Facebook how, instead of imparting “wisdom”, the system dishes out compulsive stuff that tends to reinforce people’s biases. Because different sides see different facts, they share no empirical basis for reaching a compromise, tending to slowly discredit the subtleties of liberal democracy and boosting the politicians who feed off conspiracy and nativism.
In Myanmar (an example of contemporary relevance) since Facebook is the main source of news for many, it has deepened the antagonism directed against the Rohingya. In order to be able to develop a deeper understanding of the discussion, it is important to enquire through which means and which specific consequences have social media have in Politics. Notably, social media’s impact on Politics has become a new trend as it grows in importance as a forum for political activism, with its rise transforming the way in which political communications were traditionally carried out. Political leaders, political parties, institutions, and foundations are all using social media as a new way to establish contact with and engage with the voters.
Individuals, politicians, thought leaders and similar people are able to express their opinions, interact with an extensive network and connect with other like-minded individuals. An important way through which social media have transformed politics is the increased 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, and social media have taken this a step further. However, while there is the possibility to access news on many websites at any hour, most people tend to spend more time on specific websites such as such as Facebook and Twitter than they do on more serious or professional news or political websites. This means that what people mostly get is all of the latest trending news stories and opinions shared by their own “friends” or highlighted by the system itself due to the algorithms in the website. Another interesting novelty is related to political polls, an important part of every campaign.
As with other types of political news, the internet has greatly increased the number of poll results available each day and once more social media has helped to accelerate this process even more. Not only do social media sites report the results of polls but they also enable users to participate on them (like for example in Facebook). And this matters because polls results have a big influence on elections, 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. Furthermore, one of the types mentioned 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. However, as with the other two previous examples, this also has its downsides, since the lack of intermediaries or filters, such as trained journalists or editors, allows for this influence to emanate from the other side as well, uncontrolled and uncensored, something potentially dangerous if the message being widespread serves to promote hatred and anger towards a specific target (normally a minority group).
Targeting is used throughout the advertising industry to make sure that ads and messages reach the right audience and it has become an important phenomenon in the political world as well, enabling in the age of social media politicians and people running for office 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 specifically tailor their messages. Just as advertisers on Facebook are able to use analytics and targeted advertising, so can candidates and politicians. Thus, if we notice that political messages seem to be talking to us personally, it is no accident. One of the biggest concerns regarding the relationship between social media and politics is the fact that political campaigns are now influenced by every story, whether true or not, that gets spread around social media. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate actual news from fake news online, especially since the core characteristics of social media contribute for this distinctive line to become even thinner. It has become easy to be influenced by misinformation posted by “friends” and followers, even if there is no actual intention to mislead. Likewise, one of the hidden forces that operate on social media (especially powerful when it comes to controversial topics, such as politics) is the before mentioned confirmation bias.
The majority of people tend to have internet interactions with people that share their outlook, which means that one continually gets content that expresses their same point of view, especially on social media sites, where this can create the illusion that “everybody” thinks the same way, leading us to live in differentiated “filter bubbles”. It is interesting to mention the formation of what has come to be called as tribal epistemology. Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. “Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one. This applied to politics can help foster the growing intolerance of others. Hence, it is due to dangers like these that (social) media literacy becomes increasingly significant, since it helps to raise awareness and use a great deal of discernment, elements necessary before believing anything. It can be argued that social media has changed the political landscape in four main ways.
First, it has created a direct interaction channel between voters and politicians, giving voters the opportunity to interact more easily with the political entities and the latter to evade the traditional process of reaching citizens which involved huge investments (like paid advertising). Live streaming is a great example to illustrate this, as it makes it possible to attend/host virtual events, which encourage the interaction with politicians and candidates. Second, the social media platform allows political parties to advertise their campaigns without paying huge amounts for it or being able to raise in a short period of time a vast sum, trough online campaigns. As often journalists also cover campaigns and write about such YouTubeFacebook ads, this essentially broadcasts the messages of the politicians to a wider audience at zero cost to the politicians. It also relates to the critics towards the old system of media “gatekeepers” (such as newspapers), who are accused of slavish adherence to the agendas of their owners. Third, it enables the customization of messages based on audience demographics in order to increase the effectiveness of the campaign. And lastly, rumors, fake news, controversies and the speed with which those are promoted hinder ability to discern “good” from “bad” information. In short, social media has redesigned structures and methods of modern political communication. While the positive aspects of it can be attained, such as an increase in democratic engagement and voter turnout, the lack of traditional filters and the easiness with which news gets spread to put in evidence the difficulties associated with this phenomenon. The often wild tendencies of the online world may seem to be the spontaneous actions of a newly liberated public to express their views.
Social media serves as a mere amplifier, just augmenting the proportions of everything that reaches the web, but not really being the core causer or motive of any major change. It is a catalyzer of things that are already on the doing. In face of all that, the question of “what is to be done?” surely pops to mind. People will adapt, as they always do. Yet, in the time it takes for this adaptation to take place, bad governments with bad politics could do a lot of harm. Some are calling for social-media companies, like publishers, to be accountable for what appears on their platforms; to be more transparent; and to be treated as monopolies that need breaking up. Politics is not like other kinds of speech; it is dangerous to ask a handful of big firms to deem what is healthy for society. Nevertheless, breaking up social-media giants might make sense in antitrust terms, but it would not help with political speech—indeed, by multiplying the number of platforms, it could make the industry harder to manage. With this in mind, there are other remedies.
Social-media companies should adjust their sites to make it clearer if a post comes from a friend or a trusted source. They could accompany the sharing of posts with reminders of the harm from misinformation. Bots are often used to amplify political messages. Twitter could disallow the worst—or mark them as such. Nonetheless, because these changes cut against a business model designed to monopolize attention, they may well have to be imposed by law or by a regulator. In conclusion, one thing that is certain is the fact that social media are being abused. But, with a will, society can tackle this issue and revive that early dream of enlightenment.
An interesting example is that there are now proposals for internet voting, which could lead to more a higher democratic engagement in elections, making social media even more influential. Other advancements such as polling techniques on social media are expected to become more common and, hopefully, more accurate. But above all, it is important to keep in mind that social media are relatively new, so if we’re just starting to see its impacts on society and how it will develop in the future entirely depends on our relationship with it now.
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