The recent presidential election provided mountains of material for a case study on the effect social media can have on political events. Twitter and Facebook have created outlets for everyone to share opinions on political events, from Egyptian protesters to the Bielibers to trailer park dwellers in West Virginia. While millions of tweets and Facebook posts circulate the globe regarding elections and political events, we have to wonder: does this increasing amount of social talk sway opinions or simply add noise to the conversation?
Several things are clear about how Americans and politically active people around the world are using social media and the concrete change that they are affecting: Millions of Internet users are sharing, learning, connecting, and engaging in conversations via social media in ways that were previously impossible. With 140 characters and a hashtag, like-minded individuals can find each other while opening the conversation for those with opposing thoughts to join in. Protesters are uniting through the rapid circulation of text messages, Facebook pages, groups, and Twitter lists. People are even petitioning (though unsuccessfully) for the construction of a Death Star. And people who disagree are engaging in debate to try to change minds through instant online forums.
But the question remains: while it’s clear that social media extends the voice of the individual, how much power of persuasion does that voice have when it comes to a political disagreement between free citizens?
Pew Research performed a poll of Americans following the first presidential debate to determine how people use social media to engage with the election process. The poll shows that American adults use social media for political expression in eight different ways:
- “liking” political material posted by others
- encouraging others to vote
- posting their own thoughts or comments on the issues
- reposting content originally posted by others
- encouraging others to take political action
- linking to existing political stories and articles
- joining social networks based on politics
- “following” elected officials or candidates
Aside from voicing political opinions, each type of post or interaction is a way of distributing content that already exists. In this context, social media allows people to reach a broader audience with their opinions, but most people don’t share their opinions. Only about 34% do so, primarily people between 18-39 years of age.
Of course, even people who repost content are passively voicing an opinion and, one would imagine, trying to sway their friends and family to their way of thinking. Many of the people who do post are diehard politicos voicing an immovable opinion for one side or the other, and the rest are mostly people who joke about gaffes or comment on the First Lady’s attire. Certain studies have tried to prove that this type of social media manipulation works, but researchers remain skeptical.
Pew Research Center found that only 5% of the overall debate audience shared their reactions to the debate online. When you consider the percentage of the country who watched the debate (a little less than 5%, or 67.2 million people) and take just 5% of that figure, only about 0.0025% of the country shared a reaction to the first debate through social media. That’s hardly an election-changing percentage.
The Pew Study also found that people and campaigns primarily use social media for distribution of information, not actual dialogue. That means 5% of people logging into Facebook or Twitter to post about the debate did not, for the most part, have any interest in having their political views swayed. Rather, they wanted to make their own voices heard.
Given the numbers, it’s unlikely that the political opinions are swayed based on social media talk. However, social media did give more people than ever before the opportunity to express their opinions, to be exposed to a greater quantity (if not quality) of information, and to make their voices heard. Social media gives politicians and political groups a new platform to promote their ideas, raise money, and expand their bases. Ultimately, while its power of persuasion may be lacking, social media’s power of connection only continues to grow.