Social media and its influence on elections

By Greg Bondar, Commtractor, Social Research and Government Relations Professional 

Ask Donald Trump and he’ll tell you journalists wield a lot of power over the U.S. political process.

It’s true that social media has played an important role in politics since the freedom of the press sems to be the cornerstone of democracy. Voters need information to make educated decisions, and social media is as good as any source – so it seems.

But can social media really alter the outcome of an election?

The upcoming US elections, Donald Trump is alleging the election has been “rigged” through biased media coverage. Recent shifts in the media landscape have changed how the press interacts with candidates, campaigns, and the voting public. And, at a time when trust in the media is at an all-time low, the fourth estate has come under fire from critics on both sides of the aisle for coverage of previous elections. For example, the media got it all wrong with the election of Scott Morrison despite social media favouring Morrison.

So, how does social media influence elections?

1. To cover or not to cover
The first way social media can influence elections is by choosing which candidates to cover and how much. Those choices alone can have a huge effect on voter perceptions.

As hard as it is to believe, the biggest thing that drives elections is simple name recognition. Research has shown that some candidates can be literally left invisible because they can’t win enough interest from the media.

2. Bias and the polarisation of Voters
Research reveals that many major media outlets attract partisan audiences, which reflects political biases in their coverage so voters opt to get the basic facts from a quick internet search and then use social media to ‘advertise’ their findings since many media publications have differentiated themselves by shifting from straight news to context and analysis.

Campaigns get covered a lot like sports events, with an emphasis on who’s winning, who’s losing, who’s up, who’s down, how they are moving ahead or behind in the polls.

3. Social media: Echo chamber and direct line to the masses
According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 62 percent of Americans get their news via social media platforms. What they might not realise is that the news they see is heavily filtered. Latest Pew Research also shows that 55% of U.S. social media users say they are ‘worn out’ by political posts and discussions.

What we see on Facebook is dictated by algorithms that decide what you see based on what you like and dislike, what you comment on and click on. Rather than getting a diversity of perspectives that contribute to political discourse, we see an ‘echo chamber’ where users see posts only from like-minded friends and media sources.

On the other hand, social media gives users more direct access to candidates than ever before. With social media, voters may believe they have an intimate relationship with a candidate they will probably never meet in person.

And candidates have unprecedented control over the images they present. Social media provides candidates with a direct means to communicate with the voting public, thereby bypassing the news media as a gatekeeper.

4. A picture is worth 1,000 words
For most people, visuals carry an even more powerful impact than words on a page.

Visual communication research has shown that images on social media, especially of political candidates, convey emotions, actions, realism, and credibility. These images form a lasting impression in the mind of the voting public.

I suggest we tweet thinking more about issues and less about politics. That’s just basic civil prioritisation.

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