Fact: social media has become an integral part of modern society’s fabric. More than 78% of the U.S. population has a social network profile. One benefit of social media is that it allows for real-time news and speedy flow of information. According to the Pew Research Center, 62% of U.S. adults get their news on social media (Gottfried & Shearer, 2016).
Many argue that social media has changed the way citizens of the U.S. engage in political discourse… but is this positive change? Has social media made citizens in our democracy more aware? Has it facilitated an exchange of ideas that contributes to the improvement of our democracy?
I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment now to point out that the current POTUS tweeted 2,843 times in 2018. He once sent 22 original tweets in one day. If the President’s preferred method of communicating with the American public is Twitter, with a 280-character restriction, what does that say about the quality and accuracy of his political communication? Maybe his social media habits are representative of society’s social media habits. Is it all just fodder for cartoon artists making a mockery of the way we get our news?
I will admit that as an undergraduate majoring in political science back in 2010, I believed social media was an incredible force with untapped potential that could make democracies stronger and civic involvement more prevalent. I believed that the widespread availability of news, political information (to include election dates and poll locations) and others’ ideas and opinions would improve citizens’ knowledge of current events and the general open-mindedness of our society.
While it is somewhat disheartening to learn that empirical studies, such as this one featured in Computers in Human Behavior, indicate the overall impact of social media on political knowledge is negative, I can’t say I am surprised by such findings. I am on Facebook every day. When I see content and conversations about anything remotely political, I scroll right past it. I refuse to go down these rabbit holes. Unfortunately, I don’t think everyone on social media reacts this way when they see a friend, family member, co-worker, role model, influencer, etc. post politically-charged content. I do not want to sound like I think I am more enlightened, discerning or generally aware than the rest of the country, but I am trying to be real here. Maybe it is because I came of age in an era when you had to have a “.edu” email account to even get a Facebook account, but Facebook is just not where I go to read about anything related to politics—or really anything I consider to be truly important.
Researchers who analyzed the 2008 Presidential election and the role Facebook played in it determined that despite the enthusiasm surrounding Facebook, individuals engaged in limited political activity via Facebook during the campaign cycle (Carlisle & Patton, 2013). These same researchers concluded that despite the idea that the internet and technology can enrich and nourish civic and political life (i.e. what college-aged me thought about it), existing inequalities in real life are “translated and carried over into online life creating a digital divide that exists as a result of the interplay of national, institutional, and individual characteristics.” In other words, Facebook and other social platforms are not empowering disadvantaged or underrepresented populations in a significant way.
All this is to say that social media is not making our democracy stronger, and it is not making us more politically aware. Maybe we should make an effort to use it for its most valuable purposes: to connect with long-lost friends from 2nd grade, see pictures of our friends’ kids and pets, and to discover fun recipes for food we will probably never get around to making.
Carlisle, J. E., & Patton, R. C. (2013). Is Social Media Changing How We Understand Political Engagement? An Analysis of Facebook and the 2008 Presidential Election. Political Research Quarterly, 66(4), 883–895. https://doi.org/10.1177/1065912913482758
Gottfried, J., & Shearer, E. (2016, May 26). News use across social media platforms 2016. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.journalism.org/2016/05/26/news-use-acrosssocial-media-platforms-2016/