Remember the 2008 US presidential campaigns that witnessed the debut propaganda via social media? The very first of its kind, in political landscape, of course. Barack Obama’s stroke at this was a revolution in political campaigning that was sought to alter political organizational structures. With a bid to mobilize stable digital grassroots of what originally looked like a social movement, the campaign was the perfect and most optimal exploitation of network building, collaborations and community organization viable within the scope of social media. With targeted messaging backed by analytics, the campaign generated personalized appeals to voters. This led to creation and manifold amplification of messages regarding the candidates, minus the trouble of moving through formal campaign organizations. One of the most attractive social avenue appeared as viral videos “Obama Girl” and “Yes, We Can” that enjoyed more than a million viewership.
Moving to the present year, in his short lived presidential campaign, past mayor and present entrepreneur Michael Bloomberg loosened his pocket off of greater than $1 billion before he dropped out of the race. An equal of 70% of the expenditure was dedicated towards advertising alone. The lavish budgeting rightly explains the amount of cash you need to run for public office or in the other case, how adversely hard it is for newcomers to stand a chance at polls without influential contacts and connections. This is pretty much the problem with election cycles, nearly 90% incumbents stand reelected in what research would refer to “the incumbency advantage”.
But social media has been a game changer for politics. It has provided an open opportunity to newcomers, incumbents and all political essentials to converse directly to their perspective constituents on almost anything and everything. And it is the simplest medium which promises a substantial boost, at zero cost. All they need to tap citizens is an internet connection. This is a vital finding in politics as it means social media has leveled the playing field for all, in terms of money and communication. Political competitors no longer have to fulfill the otherwise compulsion of having heavier pockets, bigger bank accounts and extravagant fundraisers. A simple tweet delivers the ideas, policies, plans, agendas and visions and even personal experiences to a million in a minimal time. This year just witnessed Donald Trump tweeting about policies, opinions to his dinner meals, unfiltered.
But that’s not how social media intermingled with politics looked like ever since. Political leaders had a standard medium of communication, via official speakers, T.V., newspapers and alike. But today, politics is closer than ever to people, thanks to twitter, Instagram, facebook, telegram.
When talking about politics, all communication counts. If video heralded the end of radio star, will facebook be the end of traditional national TV debates and interviews? No. Newspapers and TV are a platform of organic coverage with a wide reach. And though expensive, paid advertising is a way to project particular messages to set target audience. But, so does social media, it is low-cost and powerful and that’s why it cannot be overlooked in political race.
But it’s not all glitters with this scenario too. When we speak about social media, false conspiracy theories are not far behind. But its negative impact on political processes isn’t just limited to the scope of content like misinformation or hate speech. The problem also seeps down deep into the structure of digital platforms. Propaganda is not new. It has been there all the time, through television, newspapers, books, pamphlets. The problem arises with social media, as it proves to be the most vulnerable to spread of unrefined misinformation. This happens for a reason. Social medium engage audience in what digital designers call a ‘flow’ – a phenomena that persuades the user to move from one element to next, in the form of a recurring cycle, with the aim of fruition from media consumption rather than pure engagement with the content. Even if the messages created and spread are truthful, they are but exposed to a flow. This gives a warning sign to coherent political discourse.
This has manifold effects and undercurrents. There is undoubtedly a major shift in where people get political information from, with favorable turn to digital media and abandoning of traditional sources. This era also saw a fresh element called “twitterverse”, owing to the wide acceptance and welcome of the platform. But this indeed led to hardening of political discourse, making firm the grounds for ‘rule by tweet’. The ‘news deserts’ thus created have strengthened the chain of misinformation.
Nevertheless, elite political figures have always tried to redirect and reshape politics offline, and online too. They have attempted to manage and influence public’s actions on political front. There have been several instances of political houses trying to channel the voters’ involvement in a bid to hyper-manage their online engagement. Based on the personal data and preferences of users, parties have manipulated their access to information through micro targeting specific messages to them. Additionally handful companies like Google and facebook have unrivalled control over how people spend their time online. Their capacity overpowers other sources to attract and maintain audience for political accord.
With campaigning costs and the ever growing need to connect to constituencies rage, social media provides all potential minds a fair platform. With strategic intersection of politics and social media, there arises a potential to end the incumbency advantage. However, there will continue a rage for fair transmission of information through all sources alike.