Skip to main content

Each week David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week's blog post looks at the relationship between social media and politics. 

There’s been a lot of talk lately about politics and social media. Some have seen Facebook, Twitter and the like as champions of empowerment; others, more recently, as vehicles for hate. I’d suggest they’re both and more; that their impact’s messy; and that it’s changing and will continue to do so. Some thoughts, then, about what’s happening and what we need to know.

Phase one: Insurgency (or not)

Social media are still new. They’ve gone from novelties to powerful information sources in around a decade. They’re used by different social groups (especially age groups) in different ways, to different degrees. Of course they’re not going to have just one impact that stays the same as circumstances change. I’d suggest three phases – if not in impact, at least in attitudes.

In the beginning, most Internet insiders thought their impact on politics would be insurgent, empowering, liberalising. Social media, it was argued, would expose people to ideas they’d otherwise not encounter and increase political diversity. This would undermine traditional authorities, expose corruption, give voice to the voiceless. (They were not the first medium to be greeted thus. Much the same was said of mobile phones a decade earlier; and of printing in the Reformation.)

Facebook and Twitter were credited, famously, with advancing popular uprisings like the “Arab Spring”. Whether they did is now more questioned, and any impact certainly has not been sustained. I’d say they added to the mix of factors influencing politics rather than determining. Uprisings don’t occur because of media platforms; they occur because of pent-up political/social/economic problems, for which the platforms may have offered extra outlets.

Phase two: Across the political spectrum

Five things, I’d suggest, we’ve learnt about politics and social media since the “Arab Spring”.

First, insurgents on the right as well as on the left use social media to advance their cause. Apps like Facebook and Twitter may have helped liberals and dissidents to speak out and organise more freely in repressive countries (not least through anonymity), but they’ve helped populists in many countries too, and authoritarians in more and less democratic states. Racists have felt liberated as well as radicals. The medium itself does not favour one side or another in political debate; it can be used by all.

Second, they’ve contributed to coarsening political discourse. Social media messages are too short for much sophistication and can be sent without much thought. Anger and aggression have become commonplace, intended to jeer or to intimidate. Women and those from ethnic minorities who engage in political debate are particularly likely to face abuse from trolls. Such abuse may be coordinated. (One British politician reported 600 rape threats in a day.)

Third, reliance on social media for news and views has, at least, tended to focus people’s politics in like-minded communities, rather than exposing them to more diversity as had been expected. The advertising business model incentivises social media platforms to offer users content that its algorithms think they’ll like. Instead of spending more time with ideas that challenge them, they spend more with those that don’t.

Fourth, fine lines between news, opinion and propaganda are being redrawn. These boundaries were always blurred. Mainstream print and broadcast media are highly partisan in many countries – and in some, they’re government-controlled. In social media, though, there are no editorial constraints. US politics, in particular, has seen an upsurge in falsehoods going viral (the politics of conspiracy theory). Clickbait matters more than credibility.

Fifth, governments, political parties and lobbyists are well aware of this. Some governments hire staff specifically to influence what’s said on social media: to spread memes, build tropes, raise awareness, confidence or anger. Parties capitalise on social media with varying degrees of effectiveness and truthfulness. Pressure groups of all kinds seek to mould opinion in their favour by maximising online noise. They’re most influential when readers don’t realise they’re being influenced.

Phase three: Mainstreaming

What’s happening with political engagement now? I’d suggest we’re entering a third phase. Rather than insurgent, social media are becoming mainstream in politics within democracies. Five points again, and some questions about implications. I’ll draw on Britain’s recent general election.

First, the power of traditional media’s waning. Britain’s national newspapers are mostly pro-Conservative, some viscerally so. They’ve often claimed the power to decide elections – though, their power’s lain as much in setting the tone of political debate as in influencing voters on the day. This year’s election was a shock to them. Conservative-leaning papers backed their party, which was expected to win easily. It didn’t.

Second, this may be generational. One of the reasons for Britain’s election outcome was that younger voters turned out more than usual. The political divide in Britain has become more generational: opinion polls suggest that the old predominantly vote Conservative, the young for other parties. The old, also, still read newspapers, particularly Conservative-supporting papers like the Mail and Telegraph. The young don’t; they share their thoughts and plans on social media, which suggests that they’re exposed to different, self-referential, influences.

Third, political parties are becoming more sophisticated in their use of social media. They’re learning from experience and hiring those that understand those media better than they do. They’re using algorithms to target voters where they matter most (in swing constituencies), in target groups (ethnic minorities, young voters, single mothers). That’s nothing new, but they’re doing it more effectively, and with much greater granularity through social media. They may even be getting some help from platforms themselves.

Fourth, campaigning’s becoming less transparent thanks to this. In the old days, parties spoke to voters in public – on doorsteps, in speeches, manifestos, interviews, newspaper articles, campaign literature. Misleading claims that are made in public are likelier to be exposed as such than those in targeted advertisements received online. British political parties spent heavily on online advertising.  Such adverts weren’t transparent. They’re not subject to scrutiny.

Fifth, all this gives power to the platforms. In Britain this year, I’d say, they’ve striven to be neutral. But in the end they are commercial businesses, whose interests may be served by one or other party being elected. (Think taxation, for example, or content regulation, rules on media plurality, drone deliveries, driverless cars.) Businesses in other sectors – tobacco, oil, pharmaceuticals and indeed print media – most certainly aren’t neutral. What’s to stop these platforms using algorithms to tip the balance in their favour? We know there’ve been experiments to influence emotions. Electoral commissions should keep watch.

Where next?

A lot of talk about politics and social media now’s about ‘fake news’/propaganda: what it’s done within elections (especially in America and Britain); whether and how it should be tackled (by politicians, voters, platforms). This seems to have been more important in some contexts (the United States) than others (e.g. France). It’s clearly important, but I think it’s part of bigger questions about the role the Internet and social media play in changing politics.

Social media, I’d suggest, are now part of politics’ mainstream. They’ve changed the ways that people access political ‘information’ (and the kind of ‘information’ that they access), and done so in ways that weren’t initially expected (‘filter bubbles’). They’re changing ways in which politicians seek support and votes. They’re almost certainly having different impacts in different cultures. Perhaps they’re fostering diversity where there is little, but polarising where there’s more.

More research is needed on these impacts as they influence the way we’re governed, but I’ll end here with a word of caution. Many social media impacts so far – in politics as in much else – have been unexpected. They’ve also changed rapidly as more people have joined networks and more services have been included in them. Social media are highly dynamic, and their relationship with politics is likely to be dynamic too. Whatever’s happening today may not last long. We should look at what Facebook and friends have in store for us in future, as well as what they offer now. 

Next week I'll look at the Internet and children.

Image: Second round of the French presidential election of 2007. By Rama on Wikimedia Commons 

More about David Souter.