What do demonstrations on city streets in the Philippines in
2001, the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States in 2008,
revocation of the results of the fraudulent elections in Moldavia in 2009, the
M-15 movement with their camps and demonstrations in Spain in 2011, the “Arab
Spring” in the Middle East, and the “Occupy Wall Street” movement that started
in New York, all have in common?1
They have all used social media to help organize such protests and mobilize
their responsible promoters. Yet these were much more than just about arranging
a party: they all greatly made use of social media to establish communication
networks and move towards their objectives. Today’s social media have helped
make real the idea of a “global village”, first put forward by communications
theorist Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s, and suggests the claims of a “flat
world” by twenty-first century essayist Thomas L. Friedman are true. According to Friedman, personal computers and
the speed of the optic cable in the transfer of information have marked the
modern revolution and almost removed the limitations of time and space2.
Social media’s quick development into an important tool that
influences society is part of the advancement of information and communication
technologies, with the first noteworthy trend having been the evolution of the
This essay aims at analyzing and putting in evidence the influence that social
media has had in politics. Both positive and negative aspects of the issue will
be brought forward, followed by an examination of the current situation and possible
future outcomes. How has social media transformed politics and how will this
Twice before in the last hundred years a new medium has
transformed elections. In the 1920s, radio disembodied candidates, reducing
them to voices. It also made national campaigns far more intimate. Politicians,
used to bellowing at fairgrounds and train depots, found themselves talking to
families in their homes. In the 1960s, television gave candidates their bodies
back, at least in two dimensions. Image became everything, as the line between
politician and celebrity blurred. Today, with the public looking to smartphones
for news and entertainment, we seem to be at the start of the third big
technological makeover of modern electioneering. The presidential campaign is
becoming just another social-media stream, its swift and shallow current
intertwining with all the other streams that flow through people’s devices4.
We are able to see how each generation has had to face its own struggles,
consequence of the continuous technological revolutions.
Not long ago social media offered a promise of a more
enlightened politics, as accurate information and effortless communication
would help “good people” drive out corruption, bigotry and lies. Yet, Facebook
acknowledged that before and after the last American elections, between January
2015 and August 2017, 146m users may have seen Russian misinformation on its
platform. Google’s YouTube admitted to 1,108 Russian-linked videos and Twitter
to 36,746 accounts5.
Therefore, far from bringing enlightenment, social media have been responsible
for complicating the political scenario even more.
All over the globe, politics seem to be getting uglier. Part
of the reason is that, by spreading untruth and outrage, influencing voters’
judgment and aggravating partisanship, social media erode the conditions for
negotiation and communication, key elements in preserving liberty and democracy6.
Nonetheless, it is important to keep in mind the fact that the use of social
media do not cause division so much as amplify it. Similarly, nor are social
media alone in their power to polarize, as the examples of the cable TV and
talk radio show. But, whereas Fox News is familiar, social-media platforms are
new and still poorly understood7.
And because of how they work, they exercise extraordinary influence. Social
media companies make money by putting photos, personal posts, news stories and
ads in front of us. They are able to measure how we react and therefore also
know just how to get under our skin. Some of the biggest values of social media
lies in its immediacy and its effective ability to engage with a wider scale of
the public, especially younger voters. A good example is that of President
Barack Obama, who was the first politician to tap into the power of social
media during his two campaigns8
and the so-called Facebook elections9.
It would be ideal if
such a system helped only wisdom and truth rise to the surface and influence
millions of others across the world. But, this is hardly the case, especially
when one disagrees with it. To give an illustration, it is commonly known for
those who scroll through Facebook how, instead of imparting “wisdom”, the
system dishes out compulsive stuff that tends to reinforce people’s biases10.
Because different sides see different facts, they share no common basis for
reaching a compromise, tending to slowly discredit the subtleties of liberal
democracy and boosting the politicians who feed off conspiracy and nativism. In
Myanmar (an example of contemporary relevance) since Facebook is the main
source of news for many, it has deepened the antagonism directed against the
Notably, social media’s impact on politics
has become a new trend as it grows in importance as a forum for political
with its rise transforming the way in which political communications were
traditionally carried out. Political leaders, political parties, institutions,
and foundations are all using social media as a new way to establish contact
with and engage with the voters. Individuals, politicians, thought leaders and
similar people are able to express their opinions, interact with an extensive
network and connect with other like-minded individuals13. An
important way through which social media have transformed politics is the
increased speed at which news, poll results and rumors are shared14.
While in the pre-internet days, people had to wait for the next newspaper or TV
news show to get the latest information, online news is a 24/7 phenomenon, and
social media have taken this a step further. However, while there is the
possibility to access news on many websites at any hour, most people tend to
spend more time on specific websites such as such as Facebook and Twitter
than they do on more serious or professional news or political websites. This
means that what people mostly get is all of the latest trending news stories
and opinions shared by their own “friends” or highlighted by the system itself
due to the algorithms in the website15.
Another interesting novelty is related to political polls,
an important part of every campaign. As with other types of political news, the
internet has greatly increased the number of poll results available each day
and once more social media have helped to accelerate this process even more.
Not only do social media sites report the results of polls but they also enable
users to participate on them (like for example in Facebook). And this matters
because polls results have a big influence on elections, even if they are
flawed. A poll can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if people think
one candidate is far ahead in the race, they might conclude there’s no point in
voting for the underdog16.
One of the typically mentioned positive effects that social media have on
politics is the increased opportunities and simpler and easier ways for voters
to interact with candidates and elected officials, since traditionally, if you
wanted to meet a politician or candidate, you’d have to attend a live event
which was available only to a certain number of people. However, as with the
other two previous examples, this also has its downsides, since the lack of
intermediaries or filters, such as trained journalists or editors, allows for
this influence to emanate from the other side as well, uncontrolled and
uncensored, something potentially dangerous if the message being widespread
serves to promote hatred and anger towards a specific target such as a minority
Targeting, a used technic throughout the advertising
industry that makes sure that ads and messages reach the right audience, has
become an important phenomenon in the political world as well, enabling (in the
age of social media) politicians and people running for office to target their
If a candidate wants to address the concerns of women, college students,
retired people, Latinos or any other group of voters, they can now specifically
tailor their messages. Just as advertisers on Facebook are able to use
analytics and targeted advertising, so can candidates and politicians18.
Thus, it is not a coincidence if we notice that quite often political messages
seem to be talking to us personally.
One of the biggest concerns regarding the relationship
between social media and politics is the fact that political campaigns are now
influenced by every story, whether true or not, that gets spread around social
media. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate actual news from fake
news online, especially since the core characteristics of social media
contribute for this distinctive line to become even thinner. It has become easy
to be influenced by misinformation posted by “friends” and followers, even if
there is no actual intention to mislead. Likewise, one of the hidden forces
that operates on social media (especially powerful when it comes to
controversial topics, such as politics) is the before mentioned confirmation
The majority of people tend to have internet interactions with people that
share their outlook, which means that one continually gets content that express
their same point of view, especially on social media sites, where this can
create the illusion that “everybody” thinks the same way, leading us to live in
differentiated “filter bubbles”20.
It is interesting to mention the formation of what has come to be called as tribal epistemology. Information is
evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or
correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it
supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders.
“Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one21. This
applied to politics can help foster growing intolerance of others. It is due to
dangers like these that (social) media literacy becomes increasingly
significant, since it helps to raise awareness and use a great deal of
discernment, elements necessary before believing anything.
In short, it can be argued that social media has changed the
political landscape in four main ways. First, it has created a direct
interaction channel between voters and politicians, giving voters the
opportunity to interact more easily with the political entities and the latter
to transform the traditional process of reaching citizens, increasing
considerably the number of people influenced. Live streaming is a great example
to illustrate this, as it makes it possible for an unlimited number of people
to attend virtual events hosted by a political party, which strengthen the bond
between the public and candidates22.
Second, the social media platform allows political parties to advertise their
campaigns without paying huge amounts of money for it or being able to raise in
a short period of time a vast sum, through online campaigns. As often
journalists also cover campaigns and write about such social media ads, this
essentially broadcasts the messages of the politicians to a wider audience at
This also relates to the critics towards the old system of media “gatekeepers”
(such as newspapers), who are accused of slavish adherence to the agendas of
Third, it enables the customization of messages based on audience demographics
in order to increase the effectiveness of the campaign. And lastly, rumors,
fake news, controversies and the speed with which those are promoted hinder
ability to discern “good” from “bad” information.
Social media has redesigned structures and methods of modern
political communication. While the positive aspects of it can be attained, such
as an increase in democratic engagement and voter turnout, the lack of
traditional filters and the easiness with which news get spread put in evidence
the difficulties associated with this phenomenon. The often wild tendencies of
the online world may seem to be the spontaneous actions of a newly liberated
public to express their views25.
Social media serve as a mere amplifier, just augmenting the proportions of
everything that reaches the web, but not really being the core causer or motive
of any major change. It is a catalyzer of things that are already on the doing.
In face of all that, the question of “what is to be done?”
surely pops to mind. In the end, people will adapt, as they always do. Yet, in
the time it takes for this adaptation to take place, bad governments with bad
politics could do a lot of harm. Some are calling for social-media companies,
like publishers, to be accountable for what appears on their platforms; to be
more transparent; and to be treated as monopolies that need breaking up.
Politics is not like other kinds of speech; it is dangerous to ask a handful of
big firms to deem what is healthy for society. Nevertheless, breaking up
social-media giants might make sense in antitrust terms, but it would not help
with political speech—indeed, by multiplying the number of platforms, it could
make the industry harder to manage26.
With this in mind, there are other remedies. Social-media companies should
adjust their sites to make it clearer if a post comes from a friend or a
trusted source. They could accompany the sharing of posts with reminders of the
harm from misinformation. Bots are often used to amplify political messages27.
Twitter could forbid the worst—or mark them as such. Nonetheless, because these
changes cut against a business-model designed to monopolize attention, they may
well have to be imposed by law or by a regulator28.
And as mentioned before, social media literacy has become and should continue
to be seen as an indispensable skill in the nowadays (online) world.
In conclusion, one thing that is certain is the fact that
social media are highly influential and are being abused. This shift is
changing the way politicians communicate with voters, altering the tone and
content of political speech. It’s changing what the country wants and expects
from its future leaders. Social media’s effects in politics are not black and
white. However, with a will, society can tackle this issue and revive that
early dream of enlightenment29.
An interesting example is that there are now proposals for internet voting,
which could lead to a higher democratic engagement in elections, making social
media even more influential as an empowering component of democracy30.
Other advancements such as polling techniques are also expected to become more
common and more accurate.
But, above all, it is important to keep in mind that social
media are relatively new, so it we’re just starting to see its impacts on
society and how it will develop in the future entirely depends on our
relationship with it now. These are difficult but important questions that need
to be deliberated and answered in the interest of societies adapting appropriately
to a fast changing social order and innovation in the political process. Are we
bound to live in a Black Mirror31
type of dystopia or can we expect that “The
Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip”?32.
1 Social Media: The new power of political
influence, Suomen Toivo Think Tank, CES (Center for European Studies),
Version 1.0, Dec 18 2012, consulted on the 01/17/18, p. 4.
3 Social Media: The new power of political
influence, Suomen Toivo Think Tank, p. 4.
4 CARR, N.; How
Social Media Is Ruining Politics, Politico Magazine, Sep 2 2015, consulted on
the 01/19/18, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/09/2016-election-social-media-ruining-politics-213104.
5 GORWA, R.; Twitter has a serious bot problem, and
Wikipedia might have the solution, Quartz, Oct 23 2017, consulted on the
6 Do social media threaten democracy?, The
Economist, Nov 4th 2017, consulted on the 01/17/18,
8 MURSE, T.; How Social Media Has Changed Politics,
ThoughtCo., Aug 16 2017, consulted on the 01/17/18,https://www.thoughtco.com/how-social-media-has-changed-politics-3367534.
9 CARR, N.; How
Social Media Is Ruining Politics, Politico Magazine, Sep 2 2015.
10 Do social media threaten democracy?, The
Economist, Nov 4th 2017.
S.; Power of Online and Social Media:
Changing The Political Landscape, ReportGarden, Sep 18 2017, consulted on
the 01/19/18, https://reportgarden.com/2017/09/18/social-media-political-landscape/.
S.; Power of Online and Social Media:
Changing The Political Landscape, ReportGarden.
15 Cookies & Other Storage Technologies, Facebook,
consulted on the 01/18/18, https://www.facebook.com/policies/cookies/.
H.; How Social Media Affects Politics, Sysomos,
Oct 5 2016, consulted on the 01/20/18,
H.; How Social Media Affects Politics, Sysomos.
19 PARRAMORE, L.; The
Filter Bubble, The Daily Dish
(The Atlantic), Oct 10 2010, consulted on the 01/19/18, https://www.theatlantic.com/daily-dish/archive/2010/10/the-filter-bubble/181427/ .
21 ROBERTS, D.; Donald Trump and the rise of tribal
epistemology, Vox, May 19 2017, consulted on the 01/18/18,
H.; How Social Media Affects Politics, Sysomos.
23 MURSE, T.; How Social Media Has Changed Politics,
24 PICKARD, J.; When politics and social media collide, Financial
Times, Nov 6 2016, consulted on the 01/19/18, https://www.ft.com/content/27a7d6c8-702f-11e6-a0c9-1365ce54b926.
25 PICKARD, J.; When politics and social media collide, Financial
26 Do social media threaten democracy?, The
27 GORWA, R.; Twitter has a serious bot problem, and Wikipedia might have the
28 Do social media threaten democracy?, The
29 Do social media threaten democracy?, The
H.; How Social Media Affects Politics, Sysomos.
31 Black Mirror, IMDB, consulted on the
32Caught in the Net, The Economist, Jan 23rd
2003, consulted on the 01/20/18, http://www.economist.com/node/1534249.