Social media has become a commonplace place to share political opinions. What does this mean for democracy?
Years of debate have raged over the importance of symbolism and expressive political activity on the level of everyday citizens.
Critics worry that it’s just self-satisfying “slacktivism“. This is a way for people to feel like they are contributing to a good cause without having to engage in more intense political participation.
On the other hand, optimists believe that civic engagement will flourish on the internet and give people an easy entry into politics. It can help them develop a political identity and sense of agency. This will lead to more participation in the future.
Both of these opposing positions have merit. But are the people who hold them asking the correct questions?
We risk ignoring a much more important set of issues by evaluating online political communication only in terms of its possible impact on traditional political activities.
Get rid of slacktivism.
Many organizations and institutions view this expression of citizens on social media platforms as more than just a personal or private matter. The power of its collective promotion is becoming more and more valued. This is known as electronic word of mouth by marketing professionals.
All political groups use social media to increase the credibility and reach of their messages. While each act of posting and linking, as well as commenting, may seem insignificant, they are all part of the larger networked dissemination of ideas.
This is a powerful tool for mass influence, and it can be done one viral share at the time. We ignore this power at our peril.
In the US Presidential election of 2016, social media reached new heights in terms of prominence within the political media landscape. We are now beginning to recognize the power of social media.
Further reading: Trump, the wannabe king ruling by Twist
For instance, controversy over fake news on sites like Facebook has drawn attention to how peer-to-peer sharing can influence public opinion and even the course of elections (in this case, by spreading false and defamatory messages about Hillary Clinton that consolidated her image problems). New research has highlighted how:
The far-right develops techniques for ‘attention-hacking’ in order to make their ideas more visible through the use of memes, bots, and social media.
Fake news stories on websites such as End The Fed are meant to spread virally via social media. End The Fed
The alt-right, or “meme-magic,” is a group that promotes white nationalist ideologies online to support Trump. The pro-Clinton “Correct the Records” political action committee admitted to paying people to make posts on social media in her primary fight with Bernie Sanders. The persuasive power of citizen-level media is becoming more apparent.
It is important to consider how each of us uses this power. This means thinking about the implications of what we post online and how that can strengthen or harm democratic values.
The citizen marketer
Social media sharing of political opinions is not insignificantly a form of marketing. The practice of persuasive media messaging has been used by its practitioners for many years to influence public opinion and political outcomes.
This requires a new form of media literacy. This requires that individuals acknowledge their position in media influence circuits and take their ability to shape the flow of ideas between networks of peers seriously.
Political marketing, or its conceptual predecessor, propaganda, is no longer something that only the powerful elites can do. We all must acknowledge that this is a process that involves us every time we use media platforms we control to spread political messages.
Many people are aware of the power they have to influence their friends and family through online posts. They are now social media influencers. They focus more on bringing together like-minded people or the undecided than trying to convert those from the opposite side.
The citizen consumer concept is a natural outgrowth of this citizen marketing approach. The citizen consumer uses their purchasing power to influence politics.
For example, they may boycott companies that donate to causes and campaigns the consumer does not support or buy only environmentally-friendly products. We are also seeing citizens leverage their influence as micro-level agents for viral media promotion and word-of-mouth endorsement to advance political agendas and interests.