The politics of social media

Social media websites are becoming integral to political involvement.

Delaney Daly

Today, Facebook now has more than 1 billion active users. The U.S. has more of these accounts than any other country, making Mark Zuckerburg’s social network a political hotspot. A friend of mine told me recently that she spent 35 minutes unfriending a big portion of her Facebook friends because she couldn’t handle all the political discourse that pervades her news feed. I didn’t need to ask why — “it’s bombarding me,” she told me. There are a lot of people like my friend. The usual social sites we use to connect with friends, peers and family get very political very fast during election time and can turn many people off to politics and social networks until election season is over. Users have reported that since the first presidential debate, political posts have become angrier and more extreme. Almost 20 percent of Facebook users have hidden, unfriended or even blocked previous friends in response to political posts.

However, websites like Facebook and Twitter are important tools that the public can use to discuss the 2012 election. While social media was vaguely significant in the 2008 election, it has morphed into a medium of distinct prevalence. This year, one in ten people dual-screened the presidential debate, watching it on television while also following it online. Among adults younger than 40, this amount of dual screening doubled. Additionally, almost a third of U.S. adults under 40 followed the debate exclusively online. Although television is still the dominant medium that connects us to the election, social media has made huge strides in user participation since the 2008 election.

Why is this? Social networking sites give users easy access to respond immediately to news. People no longer have to act as just an audience to political coverage. Instead, we are able to participate in the political discussion, especially through micro-blogging. Live tweeting of cultural events is now more popular than ever. From the 2012 debate alone, more than 10.3 million tweets covered the Twitterscape opinion range, making it the most tweeted about topic in history.

Social networking sites have been seen to change people’s opinions on their own political views. Nearly 40 percent of social networking site users agree that these sites are at least somewhat important in keeping the public up-to-date in political news. A quarter of social networkers believe that these sites are somewhat to very important in discussing or debating political topics with other people. A further 20 percent have changed their own political attitudes in response to posts or discussions on Facebook. In every outlet of social media, those who lean toward the Democratic end of the spectrum are more likely to view these sites as important.

These online media trends evoke political discussion or even backlash on social media sites. The fact remains that these sites have an effect on our own connection to political figures, campaigns and debates. Politicians themselves have their own Facebook pages or Twitter accounts that allow them to engage more directly with the online populace. In terms of directing social media, President Barack Obama has taken the lead so far. From his Ask Me Anything post on the popular social forum site Reddit to his response to the Republican National Convention — the most tweeted thing from the RNC — Obama  has effectively dominated the social media sphere. Obama’s commitment to online supporters and skeptics may be one of the reasons his presidential outlook is still quite hopeful.

The race to capture voters by mouse-click is still underway, and through social networking we will be able to follow and impact the direction of this year’s election.