Social Media and Politics – Bypassing the Mainstream

The use of social media last year during the Brexit campaign in the UK and the Presidential Election in the US had a huge impact on the way political parties delivered their message, and on the way the electorate interacted with the political parties. It’s only now, several months later, that we are beginning to fully understand the way social media influenced and changed the political process.

The UK and US elections were not the first to happen since the emergence of the new technology, but they were the two elections which used in to greatest effect. In 2017 it was clear to politicians from all sides that social media offered a quick and easy way to reach millions of people, not just once but daily and in some cases hourly or minute by minute. For the electorate, it also meant the same instant access to political parties and individual politicians but it had the added element of making the candidates and their teams more accountable than ever.

A Free Advertising Platform

Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube allowed politicians to go directly to the electorate with their message and manifesto. There was very little cost involved, making it very attractive to politicians who traditionally have to spend huge amounts on marketing to large audiences. Using social media also cuts out the need to go through established outlets to gain greater audience reach.

Empowering the Audience

One of the things that is clear about the people who use social media is that they will share content that reflects their thoughts and views on anything from music or gaming to science and the meaning of life! To politicians this is a gift. The possibility of created content that goes viral through sheer weight of shares or likes, and then breaks out into the mainstream, traditional media is almost like the Holy Grail. Moments like that can increase exposure and drown out an opponent’s voice, even if it’s only for a short time.

Following the Data

Opinion polls got a bad rap in both the UK and US in 2017, failing to predict the outcome of both elections, when the dust had settled is was clear that they didn’t even come close. It could be argued that, by using sophisticated analytics linked to social media and online activity, the politicians had a better handle on the electorate this year than ever before. By analysing the data that was generated by people on social media, politicians could tailor their message to fit a particular situation or challenge. This could revolve around a topical or current issue, or it could be linked to an audience demographic like age or gender. This is not a new technique but social media has made the data available in real time enabling a quicker, more timely response.

Like Minded People

Perhaps one of the most interesting things to emerge from political activity on social media is the element of ‘Confirmation Bias’. Confirmation Bias is not new, but the new media has highlighted it as something that could have far reaching implications for the political process. Recent studies have shown that we are increasingly being shown content online that fits with our established behaviour. Search engines, online advertising, ecommerce sites, are all collecting information about us in order to deliver the right content. In simple terms we are given what we want to see and hear rather than being exposed to anything different. The same is true when we interact with our connections online. We tend to surround ourselves with likeminded people, so we see the same opinions being shared, we don’t often seen things that would challenge our established ideas. This ‘Confirmation Bias’, when applied to politics, has been found to make us more opinionated and less likely to entertain new ideas, regardless of their merits.

The Future of Social Media and Politics

In terms of social media and politics, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. It’s here to stay. Already this year we have seen in the US an increase in political debate being played out on Facebook and Twitter, with everyone from films stars and musicians to factory workers and activists getting involved and having their say. How much influence social media will have on decision making remains to be seen but with proposals for internet voting to be introduced to encourage more people to vote, it’s clear that social media has to be taken seriously as a platform for dialogue between governments, political parties and the electorate.