The pervasiveness of social media in today’s culture makes the medium one of the most powerful political tools. Case in point, the ongoing U.S presidential race has seen candidates utilize social media tools extensively to explain their party’s views, as well as to air their disagreements with their opposing party. Already, this race could be jokingly referred to as one of the biggest Twitter wars in history.
So, social media has a massive influence on the process, that’s clear, but how is this influence shaping the political campaign process? Let’s analyze a few ways social media has drastically morphed the process for politicians, as well as the public, to find out.
A lot of people receive their news stories from their newsfeeds, and this is interesting because social media commonly enforces what people already believe. Friends tend to think similarly, sharing the same political viewpoints. Then, your likes/retweets/ shares, etc., enter into the social network’s algorithm to present more content in the same vein. This creates an environment where people are rarely subject to hearing opposing opinions. In the pre-social media era, campaigns created narratives that would attract views from all sides in mediums like print, television, and radio. Political updates also had to cast a broader net because targeting specific groups wasn’t possible through basic cable. Now, with social media, political opinions can be targeted to the right demographics, making it easier for people to surround themselves with information that they already believed to be true.
While hearing only one side of this isn’t great to maintain a well-informed nation, the filter of information is an incredibly powerful tool to mobilize people who might otherwise not have voted. It can motivate more citizens to get more involved in the political process and lead them to the voting booth to cast their ballot. Social media can boast a grassroots movement, increasing the participation and collaboration from all types of voters.
Direct Contact Between Candidates and Their Audiences
Why read about your candidate through a biased filter like The New York Times or The Washington Post, when you can listen to your candidate’s opinions directly? Reversely, for candidates, why should they take the time to sit down with a publication like The Boston Globe, and field questions that they don’t want to answer? Instead, they can shoot a Facebook Live-stream or submit a written post where they can talk directly to their supporters. For today’s political candidates looking to appeal to the public, if they’re not on social media, they might as well not exist. Through social media, they can engage in a direct, informative dialogue with their followers and strengthen that relationship.
It’s common knowledge that political campaigns require a good amount of money to buy ads on TV and in print. Shockingly, in the 2016 presidential election, ad spending has taken a nosedive thanks to campaigns like Donald Trump’s, who has refrained from spending a significant amount on traditional media outlets in television, radio, and print. Instead, he has focused his efforts on dominating the political conversation on platforms like Twitter, causing a firestorm of attention. His successful social media tactics then resulted in garnering him a good amount of free television coverage (3.4 billion USD, to be exact). Some have even attributed Trump’s success in the race almost entirely to his social media savvy, questioning whether he could actually tweet his way into the White House.
All politicians can take away a lesson about the power of social media platforms from figures like Trump’s, and they have. According to WSJ’s analysis of data from the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute, through September, campaigns, parties, and outside groups spent a total of $3.2 billion, saving a reported $210 million compared to the same period in the 2012 presidential races, by utilizing different promotional avenues like social media.
Conclusion: It’s Still a Grey Area
It’s still not black and white on whether the dominance social media has on politics helps or hurts campaigns. However, it is the preferred format of communication for today’s generation, and this will likely be the case for the unforeseeable future. It’s safe to say that media outlets and audiences will grow more decentralized in the future, making it easier for voters to find, to organize, and to back political leaders, outsiders, and others who are willing to champion for their beliefs.