Politics have changed quite a bit in the last 10 years. There are countless factors that have contributed to this change in one way or another. However, if you had to narrow it down to one overriding reason, it would be difficult to choose anything over social media.

The thing is, there seems to be a disconnect on how social media affects elections and politics in general. Is it social media itself, or what social media reveals about ourselves. It’s a disconnect we plan to explore here.

What is Social Media?

It may seem like a dumb question, but try to answer it without just naming a few social media sites. A working definition is a platform for the public sharing of thoughts, ideas, and the sweet selfie you took in Cabo. It’s almost like a town hall, where people hold speeches, have presentations and otherwise socialize with the community around them. The big difference is everyone has a space to say (largely) whatever they want to (pretty much) the whole world without the inconvenience of leaving the house. Hopefully, you’re starting to see why this is such a game changer in the realm of politics.

The Great Divide

We will be mostly examining American politics; however, a similar polarization has happened throughout much of the democratic world.

Many people trace the beginnings of this new phase of hyper-partisan politics back to 2008; the most significant political event of that year being the victory of Barack Obama in the presidential election. It’s true, while the current president may have dramatically raised the bar in this particular arena; Obama was a polarizing figure in his own right.

What else was happening around this time? Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were all starting to grow exponentially. Before anyone knew it, everyone had a megaphone to share (often anonymously) any thought that popped into their head on any subject. At first, people were saying things they would never say in real life on social media. Then when they found out that people were liking or favoriting the things they were saying, it made them more comfortable to say them out loud. Strong beliefs + strong conflicting beliefs = division.

A civility in the political discourse has been lost, but is it really social media’s fault? Is it fair to blame the microphone for what’s said into it? I’m going to stop short of the “guns don’t kill” people analogy.

Fake News

One of the arguments that social media is to blame is the propagation of fake news. Here’s an example:

If I say something on social media that is not true, whether I know it or not, a couple hundred people might see it. Of that couple hundred, let’s say 50 believe it, and share it with the couple hundred people in their network, and on and on.

That’s not great, but it’s a relatively small amount of people believing and sharing that is false.

Now, imagine a celebrity or politician shares something that is untrue, whether they know it or not. That’s millions of eyes on that piece of false information. Of those millions of eyes, tens of thousands could believe and share it. See the problem.

People don’t know what to believe because one of the things being told to them is that they can’t trust any source of information. So what ends up happening is that people believe what they want to believe. This fortifies the positions they already held, making them willing to fight for them even more fervently; hello hyper-partisanship.

So where do we go from here? Is there a way to mend a country that fundamentally disagrees with itself on most major issues, and sometimes just for the sake of disagreeing. Only time will tell. Let us know how you feel about it…on social media…