We are a plugged-in generation. Glued to our phones and armed with virtually endless access to the Internet, we communicate by tweeting and reblogging, posting and messaging. Instead of the mailbox, it’s the inbox, and politicians have tapped into social media to reach a demographic of citizens who may not otherwise participate in political dialogue—a demographic largely consisting of the youth.
“Social media has an important effect, especially on younger people, by sparking interest in elections,” Daniel Glossenger, history teacher, said. “It’s just one more way for campaigns to reach audiences that may not respond to traditional outreach methods.”
Social media has revolutionized the dissemination of political information. From political gaffes to policy updates, social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook allow information to be seen almost instantaneously by millions of passive Internet surfers.
But at the same time, this information passes through without a journalistic filter and can lose a degree of credibility.
“Social media absolutely helps information travel faster,” Glossenger said. “But it has also helped misinformation travel faster.”
Even before the first presidential debate was over, social media outlet Tumblr was flooded with Big Bird related “memes” and “gifs,” two forms of satirical photo and video commentary, mocking presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s plan to cut
funding to PBS. And after President Barack Obama told a crowd of supporters “You didn’t build that,” conservatives on social media outlets had a field day, resulting in a wave of parodying photos by hot-dog joint owners.
“Often times, it is trite details or minutia that go viral,” Rebecca Dohrman, assistant professor of communications at Maryville University, said. “But at the same time, though social media may focus on what is at the surface level unimportant, it may encourage
people to read an article about an issue they would otherwise never think about.”
For Matt Harris, sophomore, social media is a primary source of political information. Without it, Harris said he would not know much about candidates or the issues relevant to the upcoming election.
“I’m not going to go watch the news or read the newspaper,” Harris said. “But I do always have my phone on me, so it is really quick and easy to get political information from Twitter or Facebook. It is impossible to ignore. Seeing posts on there has influenced my opinion on things a lot.”
Glossenger said Twitter and Facebook are especially important because they reach into people’s personal lives. But while social media does bring the message to young people, it doesn’t necessarily change anybody’s minds if they already have established political opinions. What it does do is expose users to different ideas when friends and peers retweet or share certain opinions.
“I’m not going to woo anyone with my political tweets,” Alec Hartman, freshman said. “I know that, but I still post. I’m a big believer in letting the world know how you feel about something.”
But political discussion on social media outlets is not completely futile. According to a September Pew survey, 16 percent of social media users report changing their minds about a political issue based on a friend’s post.
Dohrman said the key to social media is it starts a social conversation. When people see their friends talking about an issue, they are more likely to take note of an issue, thereby becoming more politically knowledgeable.
“It is almost like peer pressure,” Dohrman said. “When a person sees someone they trust discussing a political issue, they are much more likely to respond.”
At the same time, Glossenger said social media creates a short attention span that contributes in some way to our desire for the “soundbite,” or condensed version of complex issues. However, Dohrman said social media is not unique in this
“I don’t think this soundbite culture is new to social media,” Dohrman said. “For a while we have been having short conversations with people and watching 30 second television commercials. Ultimately if it is bringing political information to people who may not otherwise be exposed to political discussion, I think it is a generally positive way to start a conversation.”
Dohrman said politicians are most successful when they use social media not only to push information through an agenda, but also to connect with constituents on a more personal level. Obama and Romney have made Spotify playlists sharing their favorite songs and uploaded photos to Instagram of them behind the scenes on the campaign trail.
Dohrman said showing a more human side can help politicians truly reach out to a demographic and even persuade them to vote.
“Nowadays, it is the best way for politicans to connecet to us,” Moriah Stone, senior, said. “They are actually able to converse with us by posting in places we spend the majority of our time.”
Despite the tendency of social media to oversimplify issues, Dohrman said she thinks there is a net benefit to using social media outlets in politics.
“I think social media is incredibly beneficial in spreading political information,” Dohrman said. “The more channels we have open, the
more educated our citizens will be overall.”