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  • Writer's pictureFrank Romans

Social Media

from the book, The Hokey Pokey of Politics by Frank Romans

"For the first time in human history, we have available to us the ability to communicate simultaneously with millions of our fellow men...widening vision of national problems and national events." - Herbert Hoover, 1924

Hoover, of course, was referring to the radio. Every time technology improves, our methods of communication change with it.

The whole premise of social media is to grab your attention and not let go. Have you noticed that when you go on the site to look at one thing, it leads you to view another, then another? That's the point, and it can be used as entertainment, or it can be used as a form of political indoctrination by feeding you endless conspiracy theories, misinformation, and hate speech.

Let us call it out for what it is, propaganda. Propaganda is the spreading of ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated, to garner support for a cause, a political leader, or government. It is not anything new and has been around since the printing press was invented, or likely before.

Social media companies utilize the same technology as video game companies. The concept is called "flow," which is a psychology of keeping you moving from one thing to the next and keeping you on their platform. The motivation is obvious: they earn their money when you stay and view more ads. Your captive attention is worth billions in advertising and subscription revenue. Here's the problem: today, Americans are getting a lot of their news from social media. It is used not only by politicians but also by extremist groups. Many are so ridiculous that one wonders why they are believed, yet the viewer is bombarded with them. QAnon gave us Hillary Clinton and other Democrats running an international child sex-trafficking ring, Robert Mueller secretly working with Trump to expose Democrats, and Angela Merkel is Hitler's granddaughter. Deep state rumors and an international cabal with Queen Elizabeth as a member. Sadly, there are many Americans who believe and have an appetite for this stuff. It defies understanding.

In the 2016 Presidential election, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton spent eighty-one million dollars on Facebook ads. The use of social media in politics including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube has dramatically changed the way campaigns are run and how Americans interact with their elected officials. Barack Obama was one of the first politicians to tap into the power of social media. His campaign collected and analyzed data on a large scale, enabling them to coordinate and target their communications. Using social media not only allows politicians to target and have direct contact with voters but also allows them to advertise without paying for advertising. For example, they can put something on YouTube for free and journalists writing about it help to publicize it to a wider audience at no cost. The share function on Twitter and Facebook gets their message out to like-minded voters helping the message to go viral. (going viral means that it spreads quickly to millions)

The beauty of a campaign in these outlets is the analytics and targeting capabilities. Messages can be tailored to voter demographics such as over sixty, or under thirty, male, female, etc. They can also serve as a means of fundraising. Most of us have been on the receiving end of the request for a donation by a certain deadline to compensate for some urgent problem. Smart politicians do nothing without knowing how it plays with the electorate. Twitter and Facebook allow them to gauge the public reaction to issues and controversies immediately, so they can adjust their campaigns accordingly. There is also power for citizens to form groups together on these platforms to leverage influence with their elected officials.

With all the benefits to a campaign or a candidate, there are some downsides. A wrong post or tweet can derail a politician's support, or even cost them their seat, as we have seen on a few occasions. Most campaigns have staffers that scrub the social media accounts of anything unflattering, but there is some risk of negative feedback showing up on a feed.

The advances in media technology continue to impact our everyday life. With regards to government and political information, social media has become an important tool for citizens to gain knowledge, and perhaps to engage in the political process itself. Some believe this can lead to an online town hall format and serve to increase citizen engagement, certainly a positive impact.

The power of social networking sites is in their ability to reach people who may not have had an interest in voting previously, and to excite them over an issue or candidate. For example, a Facebook group known as "Students for Obama" was created after Obama announced his candidacy. In less than one year, it had 62,000 members and chapters at eighty colleges. The take-away from this is that the support for Obama was not being driven by the campaign and was more spontaneous.

It is not all good news. An interesting observation from the inauguration of Brazil's new far-right President, Jair Bolsanaro, had supporters chanting Facebook and WhatsApp cheers, obviously crediting those platforms for his success. They were not wrong. During the campaign, there was a massive propaganda campaign funded by an ultra-conservative pro-business group on WhatsApp. They spread false and damaging information about his opponent which spread rapidly leading up to the election. Authoritarians had learned to utilize social media to their advantage.

It is very easy to use social media to inflame public opinion, and if we are completely honest we can admit, it has become a useful tool for authoritarians. Both Russia and China are skilled at manipulating these platforms, and the platforms themselves allow for ease of avoiding censorship. If you place a deluge of false information, conspiracy theories, rumors, and reported "leaks," the fact-checking cannot keep up and the fake stories go viral, taking on a life of their own.

Here is an uncomfortable truth that is sure to alienate Trump supporters. Donald Trump and his allies employ a similar strategy to what was seen in Brazil. He lies; he lies frequently. Right-wing outlets spread the falsehoods, many times with manufactured supporting evidence, to his hardcore supporters who perhaps unwittingly, share and post the lie as factual and truthful information.

Researchers from the University of Oxford conducted a study on social media sharing, and their findings are interesting. Conservatives were more than four times as likely to share fake news on Facebook than liberals. "On Twitter, a network of Trump supporters consumes the largest volume of junk news, and junk news is the largest proportion of news links they share," and, "Extreme hard right Facebook pages - distinct from Republican pages - share more junk news than all the other audiences put together." The point is this; maybe we cannot blame social media companies for what is occurring, but their very platforms enable a politician to abuse it, spread misinformation, and gain an unfair advantage over his opponent. All of this is damaging to our democracy. When the news is deemed as all fake news, citizens may become indifferent, disengaged, cynical, and even hostile to democratic institutions.

There is some more positive information for us as we enter the 2020 election year. PEW research reports in a most recent study that Democrats and Republicans alike, do not place much trust in social media sites. I would add that confidence in government is at an all-time low as well. Obviously, social media has become an important news source for American politics, but an unfortunate reality is that consumers stay in their polarized news bubble, and only listen to unfiltered and unchallenged reports.

One important thing social media (primarily Facebook) is doing today that changes our political picture is through their use of "dark posts." Bloomberg Businessweek published an article just before the last Presidential election about this. They found the Trump campaign utilized what they called "dark operations" to undermine support for Hillary Clinton. They used non-public posts that can only be seen by followers, and they were designed to depress the African American turnout in Florida and elsewhere. Just like in Brazil, it had an effect. You could never get away with that on a traditional media site.

When we see ads on TV, they are required to note the source, who paid for it, etc. Social media platforms should be required to open themselves for that kind of scrutiny by analysts and the public. Then we could know how much of this is out there, and who is paying for it.

A final note on social media and President Trump: when critiqued about his use of social media, particularly Twitter, as not being presidential; his response was, "Not presidential - it's modern-day presidential."

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