BY COURTNEY DITTO
Among the daily flurry of tweets, hashtags and statuses in today’s society, social media exists as a vital element in the way people communicate. According to Pew Research Center, as of Jan. 2014, 74 percent of online adults use social networking sites. The rise of social media use has even worked its way into the realm of political campaigning.
Political figures have recently started to capitalize on the powers of social media in their campaigns, from Hillary Clinton’s presidential announcement on Facebook, to Donald Trump’s consistent presence on Twitter. For politicians, social media provides an audience far wider than that of a debate stage or a public appearance, and can be a very useful tool.
University of Michigan Telecommunications Professor Scott Campbell believes that the use of social media in current politics is an opportunity for candidates to “shake things up,” outside of the traditional advertisements premiered on television.
“Social media isn’t inherently good or bad, it’s about how people use it. It’s become part of the structure, candidates have to use it. I don’t think they can ignore that outlet anymore, especially if they’re trying to attract young people,” Campbell said.
With the wide range of resources provided by the internet, political news is often hard to ignore, highlighted by another Pew study which shows that 38 percent of those who use social networking sites promote material related to politics or social issues that others have posted.
Washtenaw Community College political science instructor Francisco Sanchez considers social media to still be a “young” technology that has yet to find a set place in politics. Sanchez says that it remains as a good starting point for anyone looking for information on political candidates, however. Sanchez emphasizes that social media should only be the foundation for a knowledge of politics as opposed to using the sole information found on social media to form an opinion.
“It (social media) creates a social discourse; it gets people talking about politics. On one hand, it’s positive, but because of the influx of sources, any consumer of that information needs to develop a set of skills so that you can differentiate between good information and garbage,” Sanchez said.
“Social media does have its pluses and minuses. Yes, we like the discourse, yes, we like that people are reading about it and talking about it, but at the same time, it’s astonishing to see the kind of of information put out there without facts. That’s the drawback: people are forming opinions based on facts provided by people who aren’t qualified to put them there.”
The distrust that comes from social media is very common in the public and why many people steer clear from social media altogether. Campbell is in agreement, referring to this common problem as “uncivilized.”
“The internet provides a place for people to be unaccountable for what they say,” Campbell said. “I think a downside is that it provides a lot of anonymity and freedom for individual voices to have collective power. It makes it easy to participate in non-constructive discourse.”
Despite the doubt that comes from pairing politics with social media, state Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, says while he likes that conversations about politics and legislature starts on social media due to its ability to reach more residents, he prefers to follow up with a more personal approach.
“I always request, very openly, that we have a conversation face-to-face because I think that just, like with email, when utilizing social media platforms to communicate, things can get confused or emotions can get misread, and I don’t want people to misinterpret something, especially something that matters to them,” Zemke said. “It is a great way of starting and engaging with folks who care about the political process and who care about the legislative process, but it has its limitations in terms of personal interaction, so I always try to follow up with that.”
Aside from the possibility of miscommunication, Campbell believes that social media provides a voice for voters on an “individual level” and uses the most recent Democratic debate as an example.
“After the debate, everyone will say that Hillary won, but if you look at social media, Bernie Sanders was the one generating the most amount of recognition and positive attention. Social media is an opportunity to really counter some of the institutional structures and forces that have kind of shaped the contours of the political theme,” Campbell said. “It’s very controversial. We’re seeing a lot of powerful evidence through social media.”
Both Sanchez and Zemke also stated that mostly good can come from gaining the starter knowledge of politics through social media. Zemke refers to social media as a “communication tool” and speaks of an office policy that every vote processed is to be posted on social media. Zemke says that he has received mostly positive feedback by being an advent social media user and politician.
“I keep all of my social media very open. Now, that doesn’t mean I haven’t had a negative interaction where I haven’t disagreed with something someone has said, but that’s part of the conversation,” Zemke said. “If we all agreed, we wouldn’t have much to say, so I think the back and forth dialogue is important, and I like being able to do it. So, I think this experience has always had positive value.”