What Role Does Social Media Play in American Politics?

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Does social media play a big role in politics? Most people would say yes. But what are the dynamics of that role? How does social media impact our understanding of politics, and in what ways should politics take platforms like Facebook and Twitter into account?

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To answer these questions, we reached out to Natalie Pennington, assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Los Vegas. Here’s what she had to say on the subject.

1) Do you think social media has made a positive impact on politics?

I think social media, like any other new medium introduced, has created the potential for additional political discussion. Just like radio and television and the internet broadly created more opportunities, social media has as well.

What I think is interesting about social media is the push-pull. Advertising and fake accounts or news on the one hand may be viewed negatively; however, the potential for exposure to political talk and increasingly offline civic engagement through motivating people to vote can also be seen as a real positive potential for sites like Facebook.

2) Do you think voters feel more connected to political figures who use social media?

It depends heavily on how candidates use their accounts! The ability to personalize more, like through Twitter, can create the potential for what are called parasocial relationships, wherein the voter may feel closer to the candidates as they share glimpses into their lives. But that all depends on, if a candidate takes the more personal route, is it clear they’re the one posting?

Elizabeth Warren has worked to balance that with her campaign in particular, engaging in live events and also sharing about her dog as a way to connect with potential voters. Importantly, the question is: Are candidates only posting about policy or campaign issues? If that’s the case, then it doesn’t necessarily create the same degree of closeness they can by sharing about themselves as people.

In my own research, I found that following candidates on Facebook had no effect on participant’s knowledge or likelihood to vote during an election. This would suggest there are some nuances to the sites and the potential to connect on different social media platforms.

Facebook may be better for example in connecting with other individuals who are also motivated through groups dedicated to that candidate, while sites like Twitter or Instagram can give you a closer connection to the candidate.

3) How do you see social media affecting the 2020 election?

I imagine it will, as with past elections, play an important role in a variety of ways. Being able to connect with younger and new voters on these platforms is a great advertising opportunity for candidates to humanize themselves while also sharing about their campaign messages.

On the other hand, increasingly we have to be aware of how some features can be misleading–fake accounts and news can be easily spread through social media. I thought it was interesting how Twitter took a stance, saying they would not allow for political advertisements as we enter the primary season. While that is certainly one outlet for connecting about candidates, it does little to offset concerns related to misinformation that can occur online.

Accounts can be manipulated and gain followers and as a result re-tweets and shares that can be damaging to the political process. Hopefully, steps can be taken to push back against the worst of this during the 2020 election cycle, but I have my doubts.