As we tweet, You Tube, Google and Facebook our way into the maze that is the political world, a whole new game has emerged. Social media, with its democratization of thought, is allowing more and more of us to publicly pick sides and declare our allegiance to the candidates and ideologies of our choice. No one can deny the medium’s power to shape conversations, but can social media actually shape the elections? I don’t necessarily think so.
Reason one: While the massive amount of online chatter would make you think otherwise, most political conversations tend to follow a pre-set traditional media event, speech or news show while people chime in with their comments about it. Even with the proliferation of video chats and other types of “social programming”, these have yet to reach the critical mass needed to produce or replicate the scale of broadcast programming as conversation drivers. This means that, as a medium, social media is still – more often than not – taking a supporting role in terms of who drives the conversation, following whatever the mainstream media think is news or important.
Reason two: The candidates have yet to fully embrace the one true strength of this medium: to really engage with their constituents and potential voters. True, both campaigns are now more involved than ever in social media, but how many times do they retweet, reply or hold true conversations with the people online? Beyond a few exceptions – i.e. Obama’s recent stints on Google+ and Reddit – online campaigning has so far consisted of broadcasting “ads” or campaign messages, which kind of defeats the purpose of being “social,” doesn’t it?
The proliferation of social and mobile poses an unprecedented yet wasted opportunity for candidates to actually pick America’s brain and shape their messages, to show a more human side of themselves, to turn the conversations into something more meaningful: true connections versus mere numbers on a social media report. Conversely, for us users, this means we’re being deprived of an opportunity to be heard, to steer policy on the issues that we care about most. Until truly open, two-way exchanges between candidates and constituents become the norm, social’s immense possibilities will continue to be truncated.
Reason three: The nature of the networks in themselves. Twitter, Facebook, You Tube and others tend to function as places where one goes to crystallize existing political sentiment, not necessarily to explore ideologies. For instance, while there are political chats all over twitter, these at times become hubs for extremist views, turning into “silos,” where one side attacks the other for simply sharing their thoughts. Similarly, on Facebook, many political groups and pages are usually laden with one-sided information on a given candidate and attacks on the other. In doing this, they tend to create isolated “echo chambers” versus open-minded, non-biased, diverse cyber-systems.
This results in mistrust, according to a 2011 Pew Internet study, the reason why 54 percent of adults who use the Internet for political purposes hold mixed views about the impact of social media. This lack of trust means that, while more and more people use social media as the go-to place for breaking news, the information found in it is only valid once it’s subject to verification. Until the space is able to gain trust levels comparable to traditional media, and we as users, treat it as a place to respectfully learn about one another and get informed, I’d say it can not truly shape what happens in an election.
At the time of the last election, social media was still in its infancy. Four years, and a couple of worldwide and U.S. movements later, it’s time for it to finally come of age. Which brings me to my main point: I believe social media is up for a big test this year, and it’s up to us if it gets to make the cut. The true test of social media this year will be its ability to drive people beyond passive clicking/sharing and into the voting booths.
Many things have to happen before the full potential of social media can truly change the game in an election. While not all of these factors are within our control for now, there’s one that no one can take from us: our individual and collective ability to connect and use our influence as a catalyst to action.
The hundreds of individuals and groups are out there who are investing their energy, sharing their opinions and promoting the candidates and issues they care about – people like YOU and ME on both sides of the aisle – are the spark that’s needed to get people out on the canvassing trenches and at the polls in record numbers. Next month, once we get an outcome to go with the barrage of online political output, let’s hope that social media – and our efforts – make the grade.
Do you agree? How can we use social media to get more people voting? Let me know in the comments!
Elianne Ramos is Principal/CEO of Speak Hispanic Marketing and Vice-Chair, Marketing and PR for Latinos in Social Media (LATISM). Under LATISM, she is also Chief Editor of the LATISM blog, and hostess to weekly Twitter chats reaching over 18.8 million impressions. Follow her on Twitter @ergeekgoddess.