ELECTIONS AND THE POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA

ELECTIONS AND THE POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA

By Panos Kontogiannis

Today social media has become more present in the daily life of global citizens. There are on average 295 million users of social media in Europe, a number equal to 40% of its total population. Facebook alone counts 232 million active users. The constant presence of social media changes the way people read the news. With the majority of the newspapers turning digital, more than 3 out of 4 E.U. users of the web turn to it to access their daily information [2]. What is the role of social media in politics, and in which way it shapes citizens’ attitudes towards politics and elections? This article sheds a light on this issue in an era of increasing digital information.


Percentage of users in Europe who get news on Facebook and Twitter. Source: Barthel, M. – Pew Research Center

In recent years, there has been considerable debate about the extent to which the internet is transforming politics. According to Dennis McQuail, new media dominate the life of the citizens in the 21st century. The fact that they include all the traditional media (TV, newspapers and radio) makes them interactive with endless content and more autonomy in the use of news sources. These benefits for the users create the opportunity to distribute news with no or low cost, re-shaping social relations [1]. Social media has changed the way elections are won and lost, how policy is made, and how people get involved in formal and informal politics.

Shaping the electorate’s attitude

Politically, social media reshapes communication as it offers accessibility to political actors to be heard without cost and the possibility of interactivity and bargaining with the electorates. Users can participate in political discussion groups and exchange opinions, getting mobilized for offline political action. Social media offers a vital way to identify peoples’ concerns, tailor messages according to their belief systems and nudge them towards the ballot box. It revolutionizes party membership, where likes, shares and tweets predict electoral results. This form of virtual political activism plays important role in elections, changing the falling confidence and trust in politics across the EU. Social media facilitates collective action by bringing groups together around single issues and lowering barriers to entry. Its size, diversity and dynamism allow people to connect and form social movements outside the existing political channels quickly and easily [3].

The role of the online discussion groups

When studying the effects of social media in political behavior, importance is placed on the easy creation and reproduction of content. Group participation increases the level of trust and confidence of choice, empowers democratic values and creates political skills, offering motives to be politically active. Political discussion is crucial in achieving a sentiment of effectiveness and increased levels collective action. Also, it enhances knowledge via opinion exchange and forcing people to think before responding [4].

The Obama campaign

The network effect was vivid in the Obama 2012 re-election campaign, when his digital team developed a Facebook app that more than 1 million people would eventually sign up for, giving the campaign permission to look at their friend lists, granting them access to previously unseen voters. Over 600.000 users did so, reaching over 5 million contacts. People where asked to vote, register to vote, donate or watch a campaign video. This strategy resulted in significant changes in voter behavior. People, whose friends sent them requests to vote, were more likely to do so [2].


Social media and the U.S. election of 2012. Source: Phys.org

Social media as a form of social pressure

Social pressure is a motivating force of citizen behavior; Social media provides such a ground, as it allows people to show others that they have voted, thereby increasing their sense of social duty. In the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014, Facebook, shortly before the vote, introduced an interactive “I’m a voter” button. Appearing atop of users’ news feeds on referendum day, t gave users the option to access information about the vote and share with their Facebook friends that they have voted. Also, the preceding month a “registered to vote” live event was launched to encourage users to register in time for the referendum [2]. The Greek bailout referendum of 2015 was also a case of extensive social media use by voters. Ongoing research (Kontogiannis, 2017) studying the effects of social media use on voter turnout is expected to show that the more people used it for their political information the more they turned out on Election Day [5].

Conclusion

The demographic of social media users shows that the so-called “next-generation” internet users, using multiple and portable devices to access the internet, are more active producers of internet content and have higher levels of political involvement [3]. Without neglecting the drawbacks of their use such as the “hostile media effect” (the tendency for individuals with strong preexisting attitudes to perceive media coverage as biased against them and in favor of their antagonists[1]) social media enhances collective political action and strengthens political participation that lie in the heart of any democratic system. When it comes to the future of elections, social media is an increasingly distributed channel, its content can better predict voter behavior while its use by candidates is getting more personal. Noting these aspects, the trend is towards a large interconnected network of official campaign related pages, an incorporation of personal and professional presentation of campaigns and candidates [6].

Sources

[1] McQuail, D. (2010), Mass Communication Theory, 6th ed., SAGE Publications Ltd

[2] Bartlett, J.; Birdwell, J. & Reynolds, L. (2014), Like, Share, Vote, Demos Cross-Party Think-Tank, pp.1-118

[3] Bartlett, J; Bennett, S.; Birnie, R. & Wibberley, S. (2013), Virtually members: the Facebook and Twitter followers of UK political parties: A casm briefing paper, Demos Cross-Party Think-Tank, pp.1-18

[4] Conroy, M.; Feezell, J.T. & Guerrero, M. (2012), Facebook and political engagement: A study of online political group membership and offline political engagement, Computers in Human Behavior 28, pp.1535-1546

[5] Kontogiannis, P. (2017-to be published), The dynamic effects of social media use and political discussion on voter turnout in the context of the Greek bailout Referendum, Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences

[6] Rosenblatt, A. (2016), Social Advocacy and Politics: Social Media and the Future of Elections, socialmediatoday.com, available at: http://bit.ly/2lJPjns, last assessed February 26th, 2017