Social media has become the strongest conduit for the news; today, news sources are updating minute-by-minute, and they’re all being aggregated to social media platforms, where people are spending an average of two hours per day, according to Statista.
Facebook has become an outlet for activists, officials impulsively take to Twitter to make 280-character political statements, and electoral candidates can campaign on Instagram, thereby accessing many potential voters.
Citizens’ social media activity has proven to influence the actions of public figures. Take, for example, the instance of family separation at the US-Mexico border; after overwhelming online outrage, further validated by news reports on the response, President Trump went from deflecting to the Democrats to suspending the “zero tolerance” policy.
Congressman-elect Anthony Brindisi spoke to the Observer-Dispatch about politics on social media, saying: “Social media, overall, has had a positive impact on the way that people and politicians interact with each other. Politicians can get important information out to the people faster than ever, helping people stay aware of the issues that affect our community. Similarly, it’s easier for the people to let politicians know about their concerns. Social media, however, is not a substitute for other forms of political engagement. The most productive political conversations in our community happen face-to-face, when people sit down and are willing to listen to each other. That sometimes gets lost on social media platforms, and it’s why I’ve made an effort to meet people where they are in their communities to talk about the issues.”
Brindisi noted that those who don’t have access to social media and those who are disinterested in social media politics are not being represented in these online conversations.
“The more tangible means of making a statement – from [physical] petitions to peaceful protests as well as letters [and calls to your representatives’ offices] – help demonstrate how important an issue is, because people are willing to put in extra effort. People shouldn’t limit themselves to one way of making their voice heard,” Brindisi continued.
Social media can be an equalizing space that allows people to seek justice, spread awareness, and share their stories, and while these opportunities cannot be undervalued, it’s oftentimes only a first step. People need to be careful about feeling satiated, pacified, and overly empowered by their ability to post a news story or type their name onto an online petition.
Dr. Megan Dowd, who holds a Ph.D. in communication studies and formerly taught at Hamilton College, expanded on this two-sided coin: “There are people in our lives with whom we do not have a common background; we might disagree on everything from issues of equality and rights to how to tie your shoes. These people, who are distant or different from us, are important social media players. Social media has the ability to foster these connections, to [facilitate] contact [between] people who live in another part of the world, have had different experiences, and use a different lens when analyzing the political space. … Perhaps asking people to embrace difference is a tall order, but we can start by allowing ourselves to be exposed to diverse ways of being.”
As described, social media can be a catalyst for productive, eye-opening conversations. However, this isn’t always the case. In some ways, social media may divide people even further.
“Due to the highly customized nature of social media platforms, people are largely not exposed to a variety of news and political perspectives,” Dr. Dowd warned.
Facebook manipulates each user's feed to cater to their interests, and people don’t always know which sources are credible. Declaring “fake news” and “alternative facts” has become an easy way for people to stay in their cozy bubble, and with all of these online voices, anyone can find a blog that “validates” their opinion. This can result in misinformation, confirmation bias, and a generally limited point of view of the world. Dr. Dowd cited the 2016 Presidential Bid as an example of just how misconstrued people’s perceptions can be after spending some time on social media, and this confused conception can have drastic consequences.
“The campaign saw a strong and unified presence supporting Clinton on social media. What it missed, though, was the large and silent audience who supported Trump in the national election. … Some believe [that] many voters stayed at home on election day, thinking that Clinton [had already] won the presidency,” Dr. Dowd explained.
Even when two oppositional viewpoints meet, it’s easy for social media users to dehumanize people whom they’re only seeing as two-dimensional pictures and black-and-white text. Heated debates can quickly turn into personal attacks when the participants aren’t earnestly seeking to expand their mind. This can be due, in part, to the limited nature of online conversation. Communication isn’t all about the literal content of the dialogue, but the participants’ tone of voice, facial expressions, nonverbal ques, and the immediate back-and-forth flow between them as they speak; all these factors add complexity to face-to-face communication, and they’re largely missing from the social media sphere.
What’s worse, readers' gravitation toward sensationalist news stories results in writers honing in on tragedies or using exaggerated click-bait titles; consequently, readers can become fatigued, emotionally desensitized, or even suffer from a case of "mean world syndrome," in which they believe the world to be a more villainous place than it really is. For example, are the streets actually more dangerous for kids these days, or are parents simply more aware of the threats against them due to worldwide calamities constantly being highlighted on their Facebook feeds? Furthermore, how can this pessimism subsequently affect everything that one does in their daily life?
Social media has paramount power over its users’ actions and mental states, both in the personal and political realm.
Dr. Dowd offered this conclusion: “The really neat thing about social media is that, ultimately, it's a tool. It can be used to find events, connect with friends, join discussion groups, and even view an unending stream of cat videos.”
People can make a difference by using social media to learn, plan, and connect with others in a more positive, tangible way. For example, the Utica Charity and Volunteer Facebook Page offers an uplifting, informative space that empowers people to connect with their community and act in ways, both big and small, that will progress the betterment of the world.
Still, social media is very new to us all. Gaining social media literacy can help everyone better communicate with one another as well as identify the potential threats and rewards that the internet poses. What’s more, online politics has only just begun making waves. We will increasingly see the government going digital over our lifetimes, as countries like Spain, Taiwan, and Iceland are already using internet tools to gauge public opinion in the processes of funding projects, prioritizing projects, passing proposals, and ratifying legislation.
Cheyenne Dorsagno is a foodie, family-lover, art-enthusiast, freelance writer and advocate at the Resource Center for Independent Living. She lives in Utica.