3 Signs Social Media is Changing Politics

No social media user would argue that politics hasn’t found a home—welcome or not—on their newsfeed over the last several months. If social is an unofficial town hall, then (at least speaking personally) those meetings sure have been noisy lately. In an election year, escaping chatter about the debates, the scandals, and the pundit predictions is impossible; social media only makes that more true.

But at this point, something else is happening, too. After all, social media is unique precisely because it’s not a one-way communication medium. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that not only are Americans talking about politics on social, but social is influencing politics, too.

Here are three signs we’ve noticed over the past few weeks that social media has tremendous power to shape our political landscape, rather than simply report or comment on it:

1. You can register to vote on social

In 2012, 46 percent of all eligible Americans did not make it to the polls to vote. Social media just might change that this election—in many cases, making registering as easy as one click. Our savvy marketing team started sending screenshots my way last week—first, Facebook served me one. The CTA was simple: “Are you registered to vote? Register now to make sure you have a voice in the election.” Then, this morning, one of our designers sent me a screenshot of the Instagram ad that’d encouraged her to register:

And then there’s Twitter, who is taking the process further by allowing folks to register via DM. I tested it out to see how the process works: First, you say hello to the official Twitter Goverment account (@Gov) in a DM. Then a bot responds, asking you for your zip code. Once you’ve provided that, said bot also links you to an easy voter registration site for your state.

But something else remains true: It is still impossible to register to vote completely online in many states. While there are awesome services around to help snail mail-averse millennials with just that, the fact remains that there are only about 25 states where you can do the whole process online. So while social can be a great nudge—and studies have shown that social reminders do make more folks show up at the polls (more on that in our conclusion)—it isn’t a panacea for voter turnout, either.

2. Super PACs are going after hashtags now

It’s common practice for the Super PACs in support of one party to attack the candidate of another in campaign ads. But a pro-Hillary super PAC called Priorities USA wove social into its very strategy and messaging in this attack ad:

According to the Huffington Post, the ad itself attempts to coopt Trump’s signature hashtag, #TrumpTrain and turn it against the candidate. Social allows for a whole new kind of messaging for candidates—#maga and #imwithher are just the beginning. But that messaging can also be hijacked, transmuted, and used against each candidate by their foe. What else might future campaigns find in the social pasts’ of their opponents in the next four, eight, even twenty years?

3. It’s perfectly reasonable to watch the debate over livestream

Due to some poor errand planning, I almost missed the first few minutes of Monday night’s debate. I knew NPR could cover me in the car, but then I smiled, realizing my walk between car and apartment could be handled by my trusty cell phone—ABC News used Facebook Live to broadcast the entire debate. And indeed, as I climbed the stairs to my apartment, Lester Holt blaring, my neighbor Wade gave me a knowing nod, saying, “Bloomberg’s livestream is doing on-screen fact-checking.”

Our social marketing specialist and I had agreed before the debate—she’d watch on Twitter, I’d do so on Facebook. We’d compare notes. On my phone, or within the context of my feed, I watched as hearts and angry faces flew past the candidates like so many fish in a (coughsocialcough) stream. Safely at home I pulled up my browser, but I wanted to take notes and watch political commentary roll in on Twitter, so I couldn’t full-screen the livestream (no emojis or comments on full screen). As a result, I sort of half-willfully watched comments roll in—at some point, I saw that at least 170 thousand people were tuned in, so you can imagine that the stream of comments was basically constant. And, as you can likely also imagine, these comments were not exactly well thought out, impassioned and informed arguments. Eventually, I scrolled to position my feed exactly so that I could no longer see them as they came in.

For her part, my co-worker Jennifer said the only thing that surprised her about the Twitter livestream was just how good it was—that you missed basically nothing vs. if you had watched on TV. And I had made a similar note for Facebook Live as well.

So social is changing politics — will it change us?

It was big news several years ago when researchers discovered that Facebook could influence behavior, not just opinion. In 2010, Facebook ran a single election-day message, and a result, 340,000 more people headed to the polls to cast their ballot. The study was the first to demonstrate that “the online world can affect a significant real-world behaviour on a large scale,” the researchers said.

But one final note related to that study: It also found that users’ closest Facebook friends exerted the most power in getting them to the polls. James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, led the study in collaboration with Facebook's data-science team. “Our study shows that the truth is somewhere in between: online networks are powerful,” he says, “but it is those real-world ties that we have always had that are making a difference.”

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Jaime Netzer is Spredfast's Senior Content Marketing Manager, leading content operations. A Lawrence, Kansas native, she traded seasons for breakfast tacos seven years ago and hasn't looked back since. Also a fiction writer and journalist, Jaime tweets semi-regularly and reads constantly.