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Social media is a bit like Schrodinger’s Cat – it seems to exist simultaneously in two states. In the first, it’s a channel that’s come of age – one we’ve firmly started to get to grips with and are using with confidence. In the second, however, it’s an impenetrable monolith that no one has been able to master and we’ve barely begun to comprehend.
Whatever stage you think we’re at, it’s indisputable that social media is impacting more and more on our daily lives. Statistics suggest that 30% of the world is now online – with social media standing as one of the most popular activities on the web. In 2012, more than 800 million Facebook status updates were published daily, alongside 250 million tweets and these figures are only set to grow.
So what affect has the field had on the world of politics and what predictions can we make about the future of this relationship?
Stats and Statements
Last year, Pew Research found that social media is becoming a vehicle of political engagement for many people in the US. Figures from the think tank show that 34% of social media users used them to post thoughts or comments on political issues, with a pretty even spread across the ideological spectrum. Across the pond, Brits are similarly engaged, with popular social sites racking up tens and even hundreds of millions of unique visitors every day. Major political figures like the prime minister, opposition leader and foreign secretary have mimicked their American counterparts in signing up for social networks, although some engage more than others.
Former White House press secretary Joe Lockhart thinks we’ve just scratched the surface of the relationship between social media and politics. Last year, he claimed that the immediate nature of internet-based feedback has provided instant reactions and ramped up the news cycle – forcing campaigns to react more quickly to developments.
UK Labour MP Kevin Brennan claimed that social media has made it possible for the country to function as a direct democracy – giving government instant access to popular opinion for a “miniscule” cost. However, it’s worth noting that he also thought this would be a disastrous idea.
The New News
A trend that’s inextricably linked to politics is the sources of news and there’s certainly been a sea change in this area over the past few decades. Gone are the days where we were limited to a select few news channels and an exclusive group of newspapers vied for our attention. Now there’s a plethora of niche publications that cater for every conceivable reader.
However, as our choice has grown, so has the inherent bias in the type of news we read. While certain publications and outlets have always leaned in a certain direction on the political spectrum, this trend has been exaggerated in recent years. Fox News in the US is often accused of bias and The Daily Mail receives similar criticism in the UK. Whether you blame the news providers themselves or the readers (or you think it’s some kind of vicious circle), the bottom line is the vast amount of information at our fingertips forces us to prioritize and not always for the better.
Social media isn’t immune from this bias and could even be seen to exaggerate it. Not only do we decide who to follow, but online tools give us unprecedented control over how much we hear from them. So if your feed’s cluttered up with the aggressive activism, liberal leanings or right wing rants of certain individuals, you can simply turn them off.
For those who jump online to get the low-down on the latest political issues, particularly through social channels, there’s the understandable risk of excluding certain sources in favour of those that say things we want to hear or put a spin on issues that we’re more likely to agree with. As Joe Lockhart said:
“There is a lot of sharing but there’s just as much sharing of ignorance as knowledge.”
Ignorance is Bliss
We place an inherent trust in journalists to at least attempt to provide us with impartial, accurate news and this has – rightly or wrongly – transferred to our social news sources.
Given the daily bombardment of information we face, it’s ludicrous to suggest we fact-check every article, but even the most ardent strivers for impartiality need to condense facts in such a way that they are easily digestible. However, this can often have the effect of distorting certain aspects of the story and seems to be a particular problem when reporting on medical issues.
While it’s certainly possible to build up a network of trusted refers and publications – for better or worse – this puts us at risk of creating a closed circle of information.
Law and Lore
Image credit: janpietruszk / 123RF Stock Photo
Social media is clearly different from your average news publication and as such, is not constrained by traditional media law. In Britain, injunctions against talking about or naming certain individuals have been repeatedly flaunted on social channels – making a mockery of big news outlets that are forced to abide by such rulings.
However, the freedom of speech granted by social media is arguably a double-edged sword. While it leaves people free to talk candidly about the issues that matter to them, it doesn’t enforce accurate reporting – meaning rumour and conjecture can be portrayed as facts. Similarly, social could be seen to sidestep libel laws, since it can be highly impractical – if not impossible – to legally pursue people for sharing an offending article for the millionth time.
The latest elections on both sides of the pond have seen candidates and parties turn to social channels to promote voter engagement both on the campaign trail and when in power. Some good examples include Barack Obama’s Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) and prime minister David Cameron reportedly trialling an app that monitors polls and posts on social channels. Sites like We the People mark government’s first forays into using the web to directly respond to the issues that concern voters. So surely this move towards a kind of crowdsourced democracy is a good thing?
Well, not necessarily. Britain Thinks polling chief Deborah Mattinson suggested that while wading into the quagmire of vaguely political chat on social media could be informative for politicians, it should not be used as a basis for policy decisions.
“Social media is not a giant focus group and we shouldn’t confuse it with that, we shouldn’t think it is the same,” she told a Hansard Society event in Westminster.
While it’s unclear how the relationship between politics and social media will evolve – one thing’s for sure, it’s still in its early stages. Individuals and brands continue to explore the best way to utilize this exciting new field and political organisations are notoriously slow to jump on these types of bandwagons.
As mobile computing devices and social tools become more ubiquitous and functional, it’s hard to predict how they will affect the political landscape in the coming years. However, as political parties become increasingly media-savvy, the field could present ample opportunities to those willing to reach out and engage.
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