After the 2016 election, many political scientists turned their attention to the ways social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are impacting and evolving political discourse in the US. And while Facebook has been around for a long time, its use as a conduit for the spread of political information feels much newer. Facebook, which started out as a social network to help college students meet and connect, has grown into a platform for over 2 billion people, companies, and brands around the world to reach each other in ways people could hardly imagine just 15 years ago.
But is this phenomenon really new? Or is it just new to our democracy? Much research has been published on the effects of social media on governments in other parts of the world. The Arab uprisings, which began with the ousting of Tunisian President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali in 2011, have been repeatedly cited as evidence of the destabilizing effects social media can have on longstanding regimes. Most Western talking heads pointed to social media with pride while examining its role in tumbling governments in other parts of the world. However, now that the focus has shifted to the US and we are beginning to see exactly how powerful and disruptive social media can be to the usual order of politics, suddenly there is a sense that we may have created a monster that even we cannot control.
According to a study by the Pew Research Center, Facebook may in fact be contributing to increased polarization on both sides of the aisle. Pew reported that 25% of social media users follow government officials or political candidates online, and that Facebook is the main social media site most Americans go to for news. Pew analyzed data from January 2015 to July 2017, and found that of the news articles shared by Members of Congress on Facebook nearly half (48%) were to outlets predominantly linked to by members of just one party – and 5% of those news links pointed to outlets that were exclusively shared by members on only one side of the political divide. Additionally, they found that the more partisan the news source was that the Member of Congress linked to, the more likely it was to be shared among Facebook users – meaning the most partisan stories had the farthest reach.
In analyzing this data, it’s no surprise that many have been feeling a rise in political tensions in the US relative to the past few decades. But the heightened tension online has not escaped those in Silicon Valley. Facebook has faced intense scrutiny over its role in spreading “fake news” with executives even being asked to testify before Members of Congress about vetting practices of political advertisers. In response to growing concerns by Congress and the public, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced some surprising changes to its News Feed algorithms, changes that he said in a Facebook post, “should encourage meaningful interactions between people” by making public content like posts from businesses, brands, and the media less visible to Facebook users. He also conceded that he expected time spent using Facebook to decrease among users as a result. Advertisers and media outlets alike have decried the change, arguing that it will hurt American democracy and advertisers’ revenues. But the true impact of the imposed changes remains to be seen.
What do you think about the role of social media in politics? Has your office faced challenges adapting to the age of social media? For tips on using social media to connect with younger demographics, check out our best practice tips here.