Social media and politics: an overview


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Social media has emerged as a grassroots tool in political campaigns worldwide, used to promote candidates, discredit or make fun of the opposition, create discussion amongst the youth, start movements, and follow election trends.

Politicians are increasingly turning to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter as a fast, easy and cheap way to connect with voters, while still relying on traditional campaigning tactics such as door knocks and advertising.

What sites are being used to promote political candidates, and how do they work?

Facebook and Twitter are still the main players in the game- most western political figures and their respective parties have accounts.

Facebook allows users to “like” a candidate and gives them the opportunity to post messages/videos/pictures on the candidate’s page and to contribute to discussions on the page, thereby actively engaging with the candidate and other followers.

Twitter allows its users to send messages (tweets) directly to the candidate and to view tweets from the candidate and messages about the candidate. Similar tweets are categorised by using a hashtag (eg #election) at the end of the message so that they can all be viewed at one time. Users can also “follow” candidates so that their updates automatically show up on the user’s home page.

During the American election, both candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney used social media extensively. Both had active facebook, twitter, google plus, tumblr, instagram and spotify accounts and their wives had competing pinterest boards.

Obama who heralded as the social media King also used Reddit to host an AMA (ask me anything) forum.

What is engagement?

Engagement refers to those users who actively involve themselves in political discourse on social media sites.

This is used as a better tool to judge the relevance of social media rather than looking only at the numbers as some users simply hit the “like” button and leave it at that.

During the American Election last year, Obama had more followers on all the social media sites used than Romney, but the level of engagement was the same, meaning just as many people actually interacted with Romney as Obama. See here for more.

There is debate about whether social media sites are actively encouraging political discussion. Kathy Gill is a senior lecturer in the University of Washington’s Department of Communication is quoted in the Seattle times saying

“Much, perhaps most, of the political discussion online […] takes one of two forms. It’s a whole bunch of people talking to one another who already agree with one another, or it’s people shouting at one another,”

And more on here about how ubiquitous the use of social media has become and that politicans are garnering more attention by not having a role in social media than by being actively present on it.

What are the pros and cons of social media for global leaders?

The pros:

• “The power of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook is that they connect people globally and bring citizens closer to their leaders”

• “No other social network allows a government message to go viral or potentially reach such a worldwide audience” …

and the cons:

• “The trouble with Twitter, the instantness of it — too many twits might make a twat.”- David Cameron

• “Not following someone back on Twitter is tantamount to a diplomatic snub, and blocking someone on Twitter will soon be synonymous with severing diplomatic ties.” See here for more.

How is social media being used to discredit the opposition?

Social media was also used to create fake profiles, which have been used to make fun of candidates.

Some of these became so widespread they made it to the mainstream media, such as the memes (pictures with superimposed text) made during the American presidential debates.

How can you follow election trends on social media sites?

The American election, dubbed the twitter election, could be tracked and trends followed on sites created for that express purpose, and it created popular memes particularly during the debates where the “women in binders,” “big bird” and

This is a change from polls, but it does not rank highly as reliable information.

It follows the trends meaning how many likes each candidate had, how many tweets were sent and the problem is that its scope is not limited to one country, so for example, someone living in New Zealand could go on and like Obama and that would count as a vote.

There has also been research done into the type of users that follow each candidate. For example, reported that “ Romney attracts active quilters, gun enthusiasts, and churchgoers, while Obama fans are often video gamers, meditators, and jigsaw puzzle fans.”

How has social media created political movements?

The Mexican election campaign created unrest in Mexico sparking the yosoy132 (I am 132) movement.

The frontrunner in the election, Enrique Peña Nieto, was accused of manipulating the media to his advantage. A student protest was held during one of Peña Nieto’s university visits.

He accused the 131 students of being paid protesters and a youtube video was made to negate that. It featured students holding up their ID’s and saying they were number132.

The hashtag #yosoy123 went viral on twitter and a facebook group was also set up.

The movement continued, and spread through the use of social media.

The movement was not widely broadcast on mainstream media, but there was speculation it would be nominated for the student peace prize.

A group in Senegal called Y’en a marre (enough is enough) was set up as a strong political presence against the corruption and political inertia of the Senegalese politicians.

The group is heavily involved with Senegalese rappers and uses hip-hop as a way to spread the message as well as twitter, facebook and other forums and websites.

In Belarus opposition groups on social media sites were officially sanctioned.

A blogger who dropped teddy bears carrying political messages into the country, was arrested.

This resulted in Opposition groups have calling for people not to vote in the Belarus election, and some pulled their candidates out of the running, citing the “presence of political prisoners in Belarus, a lack of legislative framework for fair elections, an absence of control over vote counting and persistent repression against opposition groups” (Belarus digest)

How else is social media being used to make changes?

In Iceland, a referendum was held on social media, where questions were put to voters on facebook, flikr and twittercreating the world’s first crowd sourced constitution.

Icelanders were then asked for feedback on social media sites.

How is all of this relevant for New Zealand?

While the phrase “when America sneezes the rest of the world catches a cold” was written about the stock market, the phrase is relevant here.

American President Barack Obama paved the way for social media to have an impact on election campaigns and there has been a trickle down effect. It is being used more widely worldwide in political campaigning.

There is also the global problem of people getting into Political discussion on social media sites and have got themselves in hot water by posting public messages and opinion. See here.

There is also the concern about a gender imbalance in social media blogging. This blog post refers to the Australian situation where 90% of political bloggers are male.