The Politics of Social Media

May 05, 2016

For the past few weeks, I've been super stressed out. It's not because of work or money or any of the normal reasons people lose sleep. I'm stressed because it's 2016-an election year-and it seems to me that the whole country has gone off the deep end. Given the current political climate and how messy the primaries have been so far, the 2016 general election is not shaping up to be a quiet or calm one, no matter who the candidates are. It'll be a spectacle. And, thanks to the social media generation, that's just the way we like it.

Let me preface the rest of this column by saying I'm not usually a very political person. I have my beliefs, just as we all do, and for the most part I keep them to myself. I know that having division between parties, and even between voters within the parties, isn't necessarily novel. To me, this election up to this point feels meaner, louder, and less productive than years before. Blame the media, blame the political construct of our country, media? Bear with me...

Over the past few months, my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have become places where political allegiances are forged and enemies are condemned. Full on Twitter brawls have erupted over a harmless comment about one candidate or another. It's getting scary out there. And I have to wonder, what is it about politics that brings out the worst in people, or, more appropriately, what it is about politics on social media that brings out the worst in people?

It's simple: we love to hate.

See, for the most part, many of us are more likely to stop our endless scrolling to read a negative post and the comments around it, than read a positive post. Just look at this article from BigThink. It details how in one study, researchers analyzed 70 million tweets on Weibo, China's equivalent to Twitter, "mapping both interactions among users and four key emotions they were expressing." Unsurprisingly, the study found of the four major emotions charted (anger, sadness, disgust, and joy), anger spread more widely throughout social media. Turns out we just love to hate.

A recent study from the University of Michigan found that college-age people today are less empathetic than young people from previous generations. According to Sara Konrath, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research, "college kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago, as measured by standard tests of this personality trait." It makes sense that, since social media is populated in large by Millenials, those same Millenials that, according to the University of Michigan study, are less empathetic than previous generations (and are now of age to vote) we have a royal rumble of sorts breaking out over the social media landscape. In essence, this group of voters and social media users has been training their entire lives for this moment.

I'd be remiss if I didn't take the time to admit that social media's influence on politics (and vise versa) isn't all bad. I'd even dare to say that there are a few things even the media industry can learn from how politics and social media compliment and feed off one another. Take, for example, how candidates are able to leverage social media as a way to connect with their followers on a more intimate basis that in past elections.

An article on The Shield highlighted how a 2014 Pew Research study found that "35 percent of registered voters who use social media to follow a political candidate say a major reason is it makes them feel more personally connected to a politician or group." The article even goes on to assert that "with so much sharing, liking, posting and retweeting about politics, it's easy to assume social media has helped increase voter turnout." It very well may have. Just look at Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump using social media to their advantage.

Then there are the times when social media presents such perfect opportunity for a politician, we in the media industry can only be jealous. I'm thinking of the "Woman Card." Mere moments after Donald Trump used this term in reference to Hillary Clinton's skills during one of his victory speeches, social media exploded with the #womancard commentary. Days later, Hillary Clinton's campaign used this to her advantage by offering a real life "Woman Card" for $3 donations.

So where does this leave us? In the months leading up to Election Day, I'm sure there will be more and more examples of how social media and politics just don't mix well. Facebook friendships will end, Instagram accounts will go unfollowed, and Snapchat stories will go unviewed. But through these venues, the collective voice will feel heard and understood in a way it hasn't before. Questions will be answered, beliefs recognized, and feelings shared. Now that's just good politics.