A social election year, for better or worse

Posted by Christian Manie On July 05, 2016

There is doubt about how much social media actually influences participation in political campaigns and the likelihood of voting, with it being shown to have much greater influence in civic engagement and mobilization.

An analysis of 36 major studies measuring the link of social media and civil and political engagement – a massive and complex task – has found that 80% of the coefficients are positive, but only around half are statistically significant and the influence on election campaign participation is minimal. A 2012 study published in the journal Nature, “A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization,” concludes that online political mobilization does work, but that many studies use too small a sample size to validate its effects. So, it has an effect, probably a small effect, but in many elections the winning margins are narrow and a small effect might be all that is needed.

The AEC estimates that 94% of eligible Australians enrolled to vote on June 2, 2016, with about 980,000 people missing from the electoral role. Of particular interest is the enrollment of 18-year-olds. In 2013, only 51% were enrolled, but that is up to 71%, with about 78,000 missing. In the 19-year-old bracket there has been a less dramatic but still impressive hike, jumping from 76% to 83% in 2016, with 44,500-odd still not enrolled.

The most recent Digital News Report 2016 from Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism states that 18% of Australians claim social as their main news source, up from 12% in 2015. This is split between age groups, with 18-24 year olds most likely to use social as a main news source, and the 55+ demographic least likely.

So a jump in enrollment in younger groups undoubtedly is due in part to social media reach (and also with the ease of online enrollment – I did it myself in about 5 minutes). In the lead up to the May deadline to enroll, online campaigning community GetUp ran a series of posts on its social platforms encouraging younger people to enroll, as did the Australian Electoral Commission and numerous other organisations, with those posts being viewed and shared thousands of times.

The influence and reach of social media is a great help in increasing democratic participation, particularly with younger demographics. It is also a boon to the smaller parties and candidates reaching out to all demographics. It’s cheap or free and little effort can go a long way in spreading a message or mobilizing a group.

So, is social media living up to its promise? It would appear so, at least on a superficial level looking at numbers and reach (and depending on what you say and your mastery of social media to some extent). But it can also be said that social media is pretty much standard these days and all parties are equal in technical proficiency. A great social strategy from a small party really doesn’t make much of a difference to the major parties or candidates with powerful campaign machines behind them. A small party can use social to get established and perhaps affect the bigger players in a small way. But what happens when you have ten parties or candidates using social media to become established? And therein lies the real power of social media in politics: Enough people can be heard enough to make a difference. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, an adage proven by the role social media played in the Arab Spring.

So it is certainly a bonus to the democratic process (as evidenced by the various examples of nondemocratic nations stymying its use). But there is also a downside to social media when it comes to politics, and it’s a pretty big one, yet often overlooked.

In a recent TED talk Eli Pariser, co-founder of Upworthy, said social media is playing an ever-increasing role in news delivery. It is great in regards to elections and the access people have to information, but it also problematic because, mostly, the content you see on your social media feeds tends to be more in line with your views. This is creating a bigger gap in understanding as to why other people vote or act the way they do. This is what Pariser calls the “filter bubble”: The way algorithms feed people only their interests and isolate them in their own agreeable bubble.

Due to who your friends are (generally people you like with similar views) and what you search for and click on, there is an intrinsic tendency for social platforms to exclude other information. Praiser argues that healthy conversations occur when an inclusionary standard is met, whereby people are identified as one thing and can identify others as the same – and are thus more willing to accept challenging facts and cross socio-economic boundaries in these conversations. (An example he gives is a study by Diana Mutz, Ph.D., which found there are healthier cross-partisan political conversations on sports websites or general fan sites, due to the fact that people can identify as being a fan of a team or a TV show and that common identity and inclusionary mindset allows people to be more accepting of the views of others whom they might never normally engage with, and who have opposing opinions to their own.)

Social media in politics is a double edged sword: One the one hand it is making it nearly effortless to access news and political information and it is increasing participation of both voters and smaller parties, but it also is making it less likely that information you receive will challenge your perceptions and allegiances. If your friends don’t participate in political activities or vote, and you don’t engage with that manner of content, then you’re far less likely to be exposed to it on social media.

So despite all the noise about social media being a panacea for democracy and political participation, it is still up to the user to be the ultimate editor of what they watch and read and to seek out a broader range of differing views when formulating their opinions. 

Christian Manie