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Introduction to Political Science

12.4 The Internet and Social Media

Introduction to Political Science12.4 The Internet and Social Media

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe how the Internet and social media has changed other forms of media.
  • Understand the impact of social media on politics.
  • Detail how social media in particular has different effects on how we understand and interact with politics and political information.

Narendra Modi, Barack Obama, Joko Widodo, Donald Trump, Queen Raina, and Hilary Clinton: What do these names make you think of? Hopefully politics! They also happen to be the most popular politicians on Instagram.110 Why would politicians want to be on the same platform as dogs dressed up in tutus and one-pot cooking recipes? Because around the world, people spend close to two and a half hours a day on social media, and because never before has anyone been able to reach a global audience so quickly and so intimately. The Internet and social media have changed everything about people’s lives, from how they connect to how they understand politics. This section will discuss how the Internet has transformed traditional media and changed how the news is produced and shared, the impact of social media on politics, and how the effects of social media differ from those of traditional media.

Show Me the Data

A bar graph shows the proportion of people in 6 countries using different news media in April 2020. In all selected countries, the largest percentages used online sources, including social media (69% in Germany, 73% in the USA, 79% in the UK, 83% in Spain, 85% in South Korea, and 90% in Argentina). TV was the second most popular source of information, while print media and radio were used least in all 6 countries.
Figure 12.13 In most countries, people rely heavily on online news sources. (source: Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020; attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

In some ways, the table in Figure 12.13 says it all. While circulation and advertising revenue of print media have dropped considerably and viewership of television has also slowed, the share of people who go online for news and entertainment has grown steadily.

The allure of Internet content and social media is easy to understand; the most popular platforms and much of the content are for the most part free, easy to use, highly visual in nature, and dynamic. When it comes to social media, the networked nature of the technology—being connected to multiple other networks of people—is also what makes it so powerful, as this characteristic is what allows users to share information and links quickly and often.111 The Internet and social media have become everything—a tool for information, a tool for entertainment, a way to communicate, and a way to become empowered. At the advent of the technology, many lauded the Internet’s transformative nature because it altered the traditional power structure of the media. In traditional print, radio, and television, the journalists, editors, and producers engaged in gatekeeping; they choose what news or entertainment to publish or air based on their own tastes, professional norms, and their interpretation of audience expectations. Because social media allows users to rapidly share—and create their own—content, it has weakened the traditional gatekeeping model of mainstream media. This is possible because the Internet substantially lowers the barriers to entry, or the economic cost of a newcomer being part of the process. No longer do people need a professional cameraman, a million-dollar set, editors, high-tech editing equipment, a satellite, or a license to broadcast. All they need is a computer, iPad, or phone. This is not to say that traditional media has fallen away; the most trafficked sites online continue to be old-guard outlets such as the New York Times and CNN. At the same time, sites that started online (as opposed to those that moved online), such as Yahoo, BuzzFeed, Mashable, TechCrunch, and many others, stand side by side in popularity with the old guard.112 The fact that twice as many kids want to be YouTube stars as want to be astronauts113 is a sure sign of the power of the Internet and social networking platforms. Children and teens are not blind to TikTok influencer Charli D’Amelio’s 100 million plus followers,114 and they envision endless possibilities for themselves. The Internet can feel empowering to individual users in ways that traditional media never could because the potential to become “famous” or viral on social media and the Internet only takes content—not millions of dollars backed by a movie studio or an anchor on a news network. But it also needs the help of an algorithm.


The Young Turks: Building Hope

The Young Turks is a popular YouTube news content channel that started in the living room of creator/host Cenk Uygur.

Simply defined, algorithms are mathematical sets of rules. When applied to social media platforms and search engines, algorithms play a critical role in what people see when they search for a topic in a search engine or what comes across their social media feeds. Algorithms search, sort, and rank things based on predictions about what users should see, which means what comes up in one person’s search results and social media feed will be different from what comes up in other people’s results and feeds. This is accomplished by the use of cookies, or blocks of data that allow web browsers to track and save information about the sites people visit. By utilizing cookies, social media algorithms predict what users want to see in an attempt to keep them engaged online. Because what one person chooses will be different from what any other individual chooses, the content of their social media stream will look different from anyone else’s. This represents a monumental shift in how media is presented to users. In the 1970s and 1980s, when there were only four or five television stations to watch, all content was delivered to viewers at the same time, in the same fashion. The most watched television finale in the history of US television was the last episode of M*A*S*H, a comedy set during the Korean War.115 This meant that more than 105 million people watched the finale at the same time—something unimaginable to younger viewers today, who can stream almost anything, from sports to comedies to YouTube videos, on demand. This is due to another unique characteristic of online content, which is that it is asynchronous content, or content that can be shared among a network of people outside the constraints of time and space.

For the vast majority of college students (and increasingly for their parents), using social media makes perfect sense—they were born into the technology and cannot remember life without it. Universities and colleges are ground zero for experimentation and political socialization, and increasingly, college students are using social media in ways that promote the creation of social capital and political participation. A study of university students in the United States, Australia, and Britain found that they are adept social media users and that they are aware of both its practical value and its limitations. The study notes that social media platforms are an increasingly significant sphere “for the political messaging, discussion, disruption and the presentation of the political self” among college students.116 But it is worth it to stop and ask why social media is so useful for politics in general. As New York University professor Clay Shirky notes, for generations, the formation of groups has relied on traditional institutional structures (think political parties or the Freemasons). The advent of social media has transformed group formation and even global cooperation.117 “Social media,” Shirky explains, “have become coordinating tools for nearly all of the world’s political movements, just as most of the world’s authoritarian governments (and, alarmingly, an increasing number of democratic ones) are trying to limit access to it.”118 One can see the potential of social media as a valuable organizing tool for political movements in the case of the Arab Spring, during which social media users organized wide-scale protests first against the government of Tunisia, with additional pro-democracy movements spreading across much of the Middle East and North Africa. In Egypt, a Google executive named Wael Ghonim created the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said” to protest the murder of a 28-year-old Egyptian man at the hands of Egyptian police. The page, which had 300 users within two minutes of its creation, swelled to 250,000 users within three months.119 Ghonim was later imprisoned and interrogated for his Facebook activities criticizing the Egyptian government; upon release, he gave a televised speech that led to further protests, which in turn ultimately led to the resignation of Egyptian then president Hosni Mubarak.120 In China, social media has been a valuable tool of empowerment for political dissidents. Journalist Emily Parker writes that, via social media, “millions of wangmin, or netizens . . . are surrounded, at least virtually, by like-minded individuals. They learn the power of collective action. They become parts of networks that extend outside their country’s borders.”121 While authoritarian governments such as China’s “have long tried to control the spread of information, . . . ordinary citizens have long used creative ways to get around these controls.”122 Contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, an early Twitter adopter, famously used the social media platform to alert people outside of China to the government’s corrupt activities.

In this black and white photograph, Ai Weiwei stands in front of a brick wall looking at the screen of a cell phone he holds horizontally at the end of his outstretched arm.
Figure 12.14 Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei has more than 367,000 followers on Twitter. (credit: “Ai Weiwei” by Alfred Weidinger/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

In this way, social media can create social cohesion, facilitate collaboration, and serve as an indispensable tool for activists. However, the technology has its drawbacks, particularly when it comes to politics. Online environments in which the same opinions are repeatedly voiced and promoted to the exclusion of opposing views, often referred to as echo chambers, are a recurring and real problem. For example, Twitter users are, to a great extent, exposed to opinions that agree with their own, and bipartisan users are not rewarded in terms of visibility on the platform.123 Echo chambers are problematic in that they are linked to political polarization, or the divergence of political attitudes toward ideological extremes. Social media is particularly ripe for this problem because the technology allows users to silo themselves off more easily than traditional media does. However, as University of Chicago professor Cass Sunstein notes, citizens within a democratic system require shared experiences, and when individuals can restrict themselves to hearing only voices they agree with—only “louder echoes of their own voices”124—this will lead to political fragmentation and political polarization.

This is not a uniquely American phenomenon. A study of the 2011 Canadian election found evidence of political polarization on Twitter,125 while a 2014 study similarly concluded that Twitter led to more political polarization than it did cross-ideological discourse (though such discourse on Twitter did appear possible).126 Comparative research on the 2013 US and French presidential elections found polarization among Twitter users in both countries, though at a higher level in France.127 Research on Facebook usage during the 2014 Thai presidential election also supports the claim that users do not engage in cross-ideological discussion but instead sequester themselves in politically homogeneous social media pages.128 Political polarization results in lower levels of trust in institutions, higher levels of suspicion of “the other side,” and the inability to work toward compromise.129 Media concentration (covered in an earlier section of this chapter) can also contribute to political polarization because the media oligopolies have the resources to create a plethora of niche and partisan media. As University of Antwerp professor Peter Van Aelst writes, “The success of partisan news broadcasters, such as Fox News and MSNBC, and online platforms such as Breitbart and The Huffington Post, in the USA, also contributes to the view that there is a trend towards increasing polarization of media content.”130 Research has found that exposure to partisan information makes people more inclined to support their own positions in an entrenched manner.131

What Can I Do?

The Media and Personal Responsibility

Three rectangular screens displayed side-by-side on a wall show rotating front pages of newspapers from around the world. Signs on the wall above the screens read: “Today’s News From Around the World” and “How the World sees the World: A Snapshot View of What’s Important to Different People on the Planet.”
Figure 12.15 This display of the front pages of newspapers around the world provides “a snapshot view of what’s important to people around the planet.” (credit: “Newspapers” by Alper Çugun/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The media play a critical role in helping people understand the political world around them. For example, the media provide information about what governments are doing and inform voters about candidates running for office. What people often do not think about, however, is how individuals engage with and utilize the information that they receive from the media. Information is one of the most powerful tools available to the public, particularly when thinking about specific information related to government and politics. Do individuals use this information in an ethical manner? Do they think about what choices are available to them based on the information provided? Do they fully understand all of the actions and consequences of those actions based on the information provided? By studying how the media works as a political institution and with political institutions—and how people interact with the media and the information provided by the media—you can begin to understand your own personal responsibility vis-à-vis the media. In an era when social media can spread disinformation almost instantaneously or exacerbate political polarization, it is important to really consider and take into account how your actions concerning media utilization impact those around you.

The loss of the traditional gatekeeper is one explanation for the existence of the echo chambers, polarization, and self-segregation that allow for an alarming increase in misinformation, or incorrect information that is spread regardless of intent to mislead. (Disinformation is misinformation that is explicitly intended to mislead.) As Senior Vice President and the Director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) James Andrew Lewis writes, “The effect of the internet on the mediation of content is especially pronounced, with a decentralized media displacing the editors and fact-checkers of the past. Social media amplifies the trend toward disintermediation.”132 In other words, when people got political information from the newspaper or television in the past, they knew that there were institutional checks in place, from editors to fact-checkers to the journalists themselves, to ensure its accuracy. Now, anyone with Internet access can be a journalist, and no one needs a news station to create news. In this way, the Internet has democratized news production and empowered previously ignored voices while simultaneously creating a minefield of misinformation. The networked nature of social media platforms makes it easy to pass along misinformation. Studies of Twitter have shown that falsehoods travel further and faster than the truth, thanks in part to the emotional responses they elicit and in part to the novelty of the falsehoods themselves. Perhaps more notably, studies found that it is the work not of bots (automated Internet applications that run repetitive tasks such as retweeting) but of people retweeting falsehoods that cause disinformation to spread so quickly.133 The Center for Countering Digital Hate found that only 12 people were responsible for 65 percent of the misinformation spread online about COVID-19 vaccines.134 In addition, the Internet and social media make it easier for foreign agents to spread disinformation online. In a report issued for the US State Department in 2019, Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea were highlighted as the worst offenders, spending millions of dollars on state-backed activities designed to actively spread disinformation.135 Herein lies the paradox of the intersection between social media and politics: the technology can be a revolutionary tool for creating and dispersing information and encouraging broader political participation, but it is this very participation and ease of information production and dissemination that leads to such high levels of misinformation. Media scholars such as Lianne Chin-Fook and Heather Simmonds are hopeful that new gatekeepers will evolve to allow for a healthier information environment on social media platforms in the future.136

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