Authors: Bolane Olaniran and Indi Williams
Site of publication: National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI)
Type of publication: Report
Date of publication: February 2020
Computer-mediated communication, a novel and emerging area just a few decades ago, has evolved from an academic collaboration tool to what is commonly referred to as new and social media. New and social media have been touted as an equalizer for disenfranchised individuals to participate or contribute in civic engagement and to foster democratic ideals. However, the current state of social media and networking sites leave individuals to conclude that these media platforms may be holding democracy hostage instead of leading to the free and equal democratic ideals they were believed to support. Consequently, this chapter emphasizes that it is imperative to figure out a way to maintain sensible dialogues that promote democratic principles.
New and social media are hailed as vehicles for providing a voice to the voiceless. They are also viewed as a way to overcome state-controlled media and content. However, social media platforms are also increasingly being used as a means for empowering disruptive voices, messages, or ideologies.
The ability of a person or group to overstate an agenda and dominate the conversation is easily accomplished on social media such as Twitter. This is because social media do not subscribe to the same established journalistic rules of vetting and reporting news. Furthermore, the size of a group or an organization pushing a particular message no longer matters.
New and Social Media
New and Social media provide information for individuals in certain networks while they also create multiplier effects as those same individuals attempt to reach others in their networks. Multiplier effects such as these that occur through social media can go on in perpetuity. For instance, it was noted that in 2010 that individuals between 8 and 18 years of age were exposed to a daily average of 10.45 hours of various media technology.
However, recently people have been exposed and engaged in what has been termed as a mass-self communication that is embedded within ubiquitous computing. Ubiquitous computing is also known as the third wave of computers, in which hand-held devices with Internet wireless technology are widespread and highly accessible. In essence, this dynamic constitutes social media that readily put information and messages in the hands of individuals at a speed never seen before.
This evolution is stimulating new patterns of production, reception, content, and circulation, allowing for new forms of engagement through participation, production, and consumption. Consequently, communication is no longer confined by geographical boundaries, but rather globalized to the extent that it is linked to the “ideology of worldwide communication”. In other words, social media enable power where an online community or the virtual world has become a dialectical space. It is within this space that people can initiate or perform roles as producers of content, broadcasters, audiences, and political actors.
Social Media and Political Discourse
The political landscape has been transformed by new and social media. This transformation has resulted in an increased rise of populism around the world. Subsequently, the active role of the audience as made possible by social media has become a great opportunity for populist actors to spread their political messages or agendas. The proliferation of populism through media is not new. Historically in Europe, the populist radical-right parties (PRRPs) and actors have been using media (e.g., TV, radio, print press) as platforms for their messages since World War II. However, new and social media reache a larger audience with political content via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or Weibo. This audience can now be reached at greater speeds and within a short time span.
However, recently people have been exposed and engaged in what has been termed as a mass-self communication that is embedded within ubiquitous computing. Ubiquitous computing is also known as the third wave of computers, in which hand-held devices with Internet wireless technology are widespread and highly accessible. In essence, this dynamic constitutes social media that readily put information and messages in the hands of individuals at a speed never seen before
The role of new and social media is central to the populism movement because it represents political strategies in novel and exciting forms. In this vein, social networks are better suited as a method of creating social webs designed to facilitate the diffusion of desired behavior among groups of people.
However, the nature of social media in a political discourse must be conceptualized within the context of democracy theory. For the most part, democratic theory subscribes to the idea of human involvement in non-activist decision making, otherwise referred to as participatory democracy. At the core of participatory democracy theory is the role of the public or citizens in rational evaluations of the pros and cons of an issue. This is especially the case when individuals are participating in decision making or offering rewards. However, with the introduction of social media, affected people are encouraged to voice their opinions even though they do not necessarily engage in the democratic process. More specifically, the coherent discussion of ideas has been substituted with the spread of fragmented ideas, resulting in the spread of populism.
Social Media Impact on Voting Turnout
Online political mobilization messages distributed via individual self-expressions and shared through personal social networks (i.e., Facebook or Twitter) lead to self-guided information seeking and, perhaps, self-serving behavior. Consequently, these messages subsequently impact voting turnout behavior.
When political mobilizing messages are disseminated by close friends in a given personal social network, the influence is four times more on the total number of validated voters mobilized compared to the informational message group and control group. In other words, social networks have been and continue to be used to impact individuals’ voting turnout behavior.
Hence, sharing messages in social networks impacts an individual’s emotions, which ultimately results in actual real-world actions. This finding serves to rule out any naïve understanding of social networks as a mere way of contacting “old friends” and family members or in positioning commercial brands.
Polarized Political Groups Influencing Human Behavior
The use of social media platforms allows people to share messages with a larger audience in a way that was not previously possible. All this sharing can now be accomplished without running the risk of censorship, a common barrier of traditional media outlets. On social media there are active communities that seek to disseminate hate messages to their members and distribute propaganda to recruit new membership. These groups rely on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to communicate. Consequently, messages sent via social media will continue to spread through followers to others. Reciprocation of messages occurs in the same manner.
Perhaps a significant contribution of social media to any ideological or political movement, such as populism, lies in the fact that it helps to influence users’ behavior. An attempt to influence behavior must not only focus on the informational effect, but also on the effect the message will have on the recipients. Additionally, it must increase the likelihood of the various behaviors the message will spur as it transmits from person to person through the social network. This variation is based upon online mobilization as messages spread through strong-tie networks existing offline and in online arenas.
The Impacts of Social Media in Political Elections
The story of the last two US presidential campaigns focuses on the use of social media. However, each candidate used social media for different reasons and in order to accomplish different goals. The 2008 election focused on disseminating campaign-relevant information based on facts, while the 2016 election focused on propaganda through the deployment of fake news and bots. The research indicated that the election of President Obama brought about an increase in the surge of the white nationalist movement. Specifically, the study showed that the day after Obama was elected president occurred the biggest single increase in membership of Stormfront (a White nationalist organization) and that Trump rode the wave to become president in 2016.
Social media were used in a way to upset established paradigms on how to run and win elections to the extent that President Trump’s campaign broke established norms of politics. However, President Trump and the 2016 election is not the only occurance of populist nationalism that appears to thrive on social media. Other examples include the rise of the Five Star Movement in Italy, the pirate party in Iceland, and the keyboard army of President Duterte in the Philippines. Furthermore, in Europe the successful Brexit referendum revealed that supporters were seven times more active than their opponents on Twitter and five times more active on Instagram.
Fanaticism and Viral Nature of Social Media
It is important to understand what make social media so powerful as a communication tool. The legacy of traditional media as gatekeepers or campaign mediators is declining in terms of influence and power, with no alternative institutions to fill the void. More importantly, President Trump taped into this void by excessively using social media and Twitter. It was noted that from August 2015 to election day there were more than a billion tweets regarding the presidential election.
Furthermore, Trump’s followers on the platform outnumbered Clinton’s followers by 33%. Subsequently, every tweet from Trump or his allies was further retweeted by his loyal followers and supporters. Particularly, it was found that in mid-2016, Trump’s tweets were retweeted three times as much as Clinton’s, while Trump’s Facebook post were re-shared five times more.
Perhaps the viral nature of information on social media gives it power. This may be because messages (e.g., political) in social networks influence users’ emotions, making social media messages effective tools of persuasion. The ability to deliver both real and junk news (i.e., propaganda, misinformation) makes the media platform potent. Malicious activities such as harassment, hate speech, and spamming are just a few of the negative ways social media are being used.
Social Media, Politics, and Propaganda
Twitter, for example, has increasingly been used in political elections of nation-states and in the spread of ideologies such as displayed in the Brexit movement and the 2016 US presidential election. Additionally, web-based botnets represent a significant number of Twitter traffic. To this end, propaganda and misinformation appear to be the norm in social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook. Social media bots (i.e., botnets, bots) are designed to manipulate the passage, transfer, and volume of the social narrative, which makes them ideal for the spread of homogeneity, as opposed to diversity, within their message. This inherent functionality is why bots are frequently used to spread beliefs (e.g., populism) and computational propaganda. Message distribution via botnets is popular due to the fanaticism of select users who demonstrate an insatiable desire to consume and redistribute information despite the source. Many of these messages carry divisive narratives that tend to transform civic engagement into dichotomies, pitting one group of people against another without allowing for consensus or compromise. Furthermore, fake news websites and bots attract traffic and drive engagement. Collectively, they aim to influence conversations and demobilize opposition through false support.
The size of a group or an organization does not necessarily have to reflect the level of influence delivered through social media. Twitter has been used in a manner that can create both stability and chaos within regions. Twitter has also arguably become an authoritative vehicle for persuasion.
This may be because messages (e.g., political) in social networks influence users’ emotions, making social media messages effective tools of persuasion. The ability to deliver both real and junk news (i.e., propaganda, misinformation) makes the media platform potent. Malicious activities such as harassment, hate speech, and spamming are just a few of the negative ways social media are being used
Prior to the Brexit vote, some of the messages tweeted to sway votes included “We are British not Europeans”, “Immigrants are terrorists”, and “Immigrants have taken away our jobs”. Additionally, Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan “Make America Great Again”, was coupled with Twitter messages referring to Mexicans as rapists, Muslims as Islamic terrorists, and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) agreement as the worst trade policy ever. In all cases, the opposition always touted the supporters of such ideologies as a basket of deplorables. Unfortunately however, these extreme viewpoints are now the norm, reality in a post-truth world. New scientific evidence attributes this not to the fact that politicians are more crooked than before, but rather that facts are futile. In other words, it is not that particular negative beliefs are more popular than positive beliefs, but that followers at times become more aggressive at distributing their views over other groups. More importantly, misinformation through social media, once limited to select viewers, has become shareable to all.
In social media, trending, tweeting, and retweeting are key metrics, even though the metrics can be manipulated, bought, or faked to create the impression that a particular issue represents the opinions of the majority. The reality though is that these messages are designed to appear as truth. Thus, political agendas such as populist ideologies, among others, can be manipulated as original or authentic when in fact this is not the case. Quite often, crazy ideas, lies, and conspiracy theories spread more rapidly than facts through social media. Subsequently, by the time information is fact-checked, the damage is already done and remains irreversible.
Therefore, it becomes difficult to engage in a democratic process where everyone can deliberate and consider all points of view. Moreover, the implication for the socio-cultural perspective may be greater especially when hatred, ethnocentrism, and separatism philosophies become the norm, as both the Brexit and the 2016 US elections indicate.
To this end, propaganda and misinformation appear to be the norm in social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook. Social media bots (i.e., botnets, bots) are designed to manipulate the passage, transfer, and volume of the social narrative, which makes them ideal for the spread of homogeneity, as opposed to diversity, within their message. This inherent functionality is why bots are frequently used to spread beliefs (e.g., populism) and computational propaganda
User Anonymity and Authenticity
With social media, authenticity and trustworthiness of information, along with a sender’s identity, are hard to discern. Furthermore, the anonymity facilitated in social media contributes to phony online personas that can be created by users or even botnets. According to PBS NewsHour, bots can be purchased very cheaply, and as a result, they become a critical tool to influence political movement and manipulate metrics. Furthermore, it is hard to verify messages that bots distribute versus messages from a real person. Also, bots contribute to fake tweets, since they are soley designed to sway opinions.
The sheer number of followers of a particular message is likely to convince individuals of the need to subscribe to similar beliefs and ideologies being promulgated by a sender even when such ideas may be false or run contrary to an individual’s beliefs or values. This approach to information or message dissemination is contrary to what democracy theory of participation is proposed to accomplish in terms of not functioning or serving activism, as discussed previously. Specifically, the populists attack opponents or blame the elite for whatever problems they see in the democratic process.
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