Social Media and its impact on Politics
Ever since the advent of modern democracy, the method and effectiveness of communication has played a pivotal role in determining the fate and future of aspiring politicians. Politics is more about perceptions and the image of yourself as a candidate portrayed to the audience that holds the power to shape opinions and accept or reject a candidate through the power of their vote, than it is about their capability to actually deliver. The most powerful tool in the arsenal of a politician is the ability to spin an image of themselves, so alluring that garners idealization by their followers, turning them not just into just loyal voters but supporters and active advocates of their campaign as well. Winning the hearts of people lies within the art of aligning one’s image with the inherent desires of the greater population of their electoral pool. Over the years, the prowess to project a semblance of people’s inherent wishes has been greatly influenced by the requisites of the prevalent popular medium of communication with the masses, and those who fail to adapt to the evolving trends fall behind in the race. A glaring example of such miscarriage was the Nixon vs. Kennedy standoff in the 1960’s presidential elections in the United States, which saw Nixon’s oversight of the need to restyle his campaign in order to make it come off as convincing on the newly evolving medium of communication of that time: the television, that embodied what was just a voice over the radio for a long time into a two dimensional rendering of the complete persona of the candidate. Failure to exude the charisma through his physical appearance costed Nixon his shot at presidency. The evolution did not stop at radio and later on at television, the decade of 1990s saw the rise of internet as another medium of communication, though it was more personalized, the earlier days of Internet didn’t have much influence on the presently established ways of political campaign and communication, with television and print media still being the driving force. Later on, websites dedicated to politicians made their appearance, but they were mostly there just as an introduction of the politician and his political ideology without any substantial influence on the political scenario. The start of the 21st century saw the emergence of a powerful tool that yet again redrafted the craft of politics – the social media. In its wake, the social media once again uprooted the set customs of political campaigning that were currently attuned to the wavelength of TV and print media. In the present times, we are witnessing the ever so rising popularity of social media in all spheres of life including politics. Social media’s first substantial show of power in the realm of politics that had politicians everywhere in the world sooner or later joining the social media bandwagon was Obama’s presidential campaign of 2008. And hence started a new era of political wizardry that brought with it the evidence of the rosy side of the use of social media, but the darker side also followed at its heels. Eminent politicians like Obama and Trump, both of whose claims to fame on social media are as contradictory as day and night, constitute the essence of social media’s use in politics. The social media fever gradually caught up with the politicians in all parts of the world, and has become the method of choice for communication for many of them. But each politician’s use of social media reflects their own style, some used it to paint a rosy picture of themselves, some used it for verbal sparring with their opponents, and some used it to entice people by feeding and manipulating their fears and by provocation of aggression.
Social media is a broader term that encompasses the use of various social networking sites that allow direct, real time, two way communication to everyone connected to the Internet. There are countless social media platforms, but the ones that enjoy the most following are Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. The ease of using social media for communication just by a few taps on our smart phones makes it the primary choice of many in this fast paced world. It is especially popular among the millennials who gravitate more towards the clickable news and posts rather than sitting through a structured TV news report. The regular use of the microblogging website Twitter by celebrities and politicians to put little snippets of information or remarks that are often controversial has reduced even news anchors to be reporting on the tweets and the consequential uproar that those tweets cause. The pull of social media is so strong that even the monarchs like the Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth II entered its orbit with her first ever tweet personally written by her that read:
What makes social media an appealing mode of communication for the politicians is the ability to reach out to millions of people in real time, allow quick feedback without censor or filters, create support and following, harvest trust, cultivate opinions and even raise funds virtually for their political campaigns. The most notable social media fundraising being Obama’s campaign’s fundraisers in 2008 and 2012 raising a whooping total of $403 million and $504 million respectively. Social media for the politicians is a medium of advertisement with very little cost involved while the returns are plentiful as opposed to TV advertisements, rallies, and public appearances which usually involve high costs. On these social networking websites, the candidate’s claim to fame could vary from emotional appeal to vicious slander of their peers. Social media is reshaping the content of politician’s narratives and is also illustrating a revamped silhouette of an ideal politician.
It was Barack Obama who brought the use of social media in politics in the limelight
Although, the use of social media has been in play for a while, but it was Barack Obama who brought the use of social media in politics in the limelight with a bang by his brilliant use of social media as his major campaign strategy in the 2008 American presidential elections. The mission of his campaign was “Involvement through Empowerment” and his two terms as a very successful President bear testimony to the success of his campaign. By November of 2008, Barack Obama had amassed 2.5 million fans on Facebook, 115,000 followers on Twitter and his YouTube channel recorded a viewership of over 50 million. Obama’s use of social media saw his popularity sky rocketing in a matter of months. Since the first time he took to social media to reach out to his people, he has won the hearts of many across the globe and not just the American people who constituted his electoral pool. Over the years his fan following has reached 49 million on Facebook and 77 million on Twitter. Obama’s sense of humor, humility, strong family ties, reflection as a loving husband and a caring father, and political deftness has made him the pacemaker of social media. Obama uses the social media effectively to engage in dialog with his peers as well as his supporters, he also has a gracious and quirky way of responding to criticism directed his way through the various social media forums. He was dubbed as the Instagrammer-In-Chief when he personally took over the official Instagram for the President of the United States and posted pictures with captions from his trip to Alaska in 2015. Obama’s tweets, Instagram posts, and Facebook posts instantly receive millions of likes, comments, hearts and retweets.
As surprising as it seems, somehow the grumpy old guy Bernie Sanders has acquired over 2 million fans on Facebook for his presidential campaign in 2016 which had the New York Times refer to him as “The King of Facebook”. He likes to keep it simple and genuine which has in turn attracted so much attention towards him. His Facebook posts mostly constitute of pictures sharing inspirational quotations written by him or found during his extensive reading.
Trump has discovered a way to rise in popularity through the glamour of controversy
When there is talk of the King of Facebook, it’s important to mention the troll of social media as well. Yes, you have guessed it right – Donald Trump. With the most outrageous, slanderous and absurdly ridiculous Facebook posts and Tweets, Trump has unbelievably festered a huge fan following. His steep rise to fame despite his questionable slander against anything and everything is a glaring example of all the dark side of social media. Trump preys on divide, hate, inherent fears and tribalism. His popularity is a clear signal that flash messages rather than substance is what is driving the likes and following on social media sites. From his anti-immigrants and anti-Muslims rhetoric to his character assassination of so many of his peers, Trump has discovered a way to rise in popularity through the glamour of controversy. Each of his outrageous comment makes him the topic of discussion both on TV and social media and keeps him in the news. Though, the outcry against his statements is huge, he has found a way to always stay in the headlines. The controversy mongers are turning him into an unapologetic attacker. Even his vicious remarks about veterans while pointing his guns at John McCain who is a veteran "He's not a war hero," Trump said mockingly. "He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured." No one in the history of America would have ever thought to tarnish veterans like that, and the media did take up the issue in hopes of getting a retraction and apology but that quickly faded amidst the raging amount of public attention it afforded him, this only made him bolder. His ruthless tweets keep on coming, building up momentum of the wave of popularity that he is riding.
Hilary Clinton was one of those who like Nixon, took too long to realize that the winds are changing and rather than adopting to the new ways of social media, Clinton stuck to the conventional methods and joined the social media as a delayed shoo in. Her Facebook and Twitter posts are spitting images of each other accumulating no particular significance. Her focus is on depicting an affable image of herself through the social media.
Let’s widen the scope and take a look at other parts of the world and their use of social media in politics. In Asia, specifically China, Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Iran, India and Pakistan, the main crux of the social media’s use in politics is that of verbal sparring with their political counterparts as well as the neighboring countries with whom they don’t enjoy good diplomatic terms. Character assassinations, accusations and baseless claims pretty much rounds up the social media politics of this region.
Ever since the Arab Spring, that denotes the democratic uprisings that arose as the Tunisian Revolution and quickly spread across a greater part of the Arab world in 2011, the use of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as a political tool gained immense boost in the African region. The effectiveness of social media for political causes became evident in the event that transpired in Senegal, social media helped mobilize people during the water shortages in the capital of Dakar in September 2013. Using Twitter, protests were launched against the present government and city of Dakar’s lack of action to solve the problem. Social media was also instrumental in locating neighborhoods where water was still available. Social media has played an important in political activation of the youth of Africa. With increased awareness about political matters through social media, the youth had been enabled to make educated choices while using their right to vote.
The European Union referendum was a time when political activism via social media was widespread throughout Europe
Coming back to Europe, the leading and quite endearing example of the use of social media in politics has been displayed by Queen Elizabeth II as mentioned earlier. Other than using Twitter to communicate to her people, she also used Twitter to engage in a lighthearted banter with the newly elected Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau:
The use of social media is common among the politicians of Europe, though it is mostly one way as the audience is less enthusiastic in responding to the messages. The European Union referendum was a time when political activism via social media was widespread throughout Europe, capturing the cumulative attention of almost all of Europe. Although the use of social media in politics prevails, but the preferred medium for political information and discussion still remains the television and print media in all the European states.
If we take a closer look at the impact of the use of social media in politics in Germany, we will find out that over the last few years, social media has proven itself to be instrumental in public discourse and political communication throughout the society. A marked rise in the use of Facebook and Twitter to create political awareness and participation has been observed in the German nation in the recent years. The local political parties are not only using the social media platforms for increasing political awareness among their citizens but they are also effectively applying it as a tool to initiate a meaningful and progressive political dialog and discussion at each level. During the 2011 Berlin state elections, a major upset was observed as the Pirate party unexpectedly bagged 8.9 percent of the total votes casted and won 15 seats in the state parliament. The party acquired the 120,000 votes cast in their favor from diverse sources like those who had just reached the required age to vote, voters who didn’t cast their votes in the previous elections, the Social Democrats, the left-wing, the Greens, the liberals and Christian Democrats. One out of five voters between the ages of 18 and 34 chose to vote for the Pirate party. The surprising fact about the sudden surge in the popularity of the Pirate party was that they had a very modest budget of just 50,000 Euros allotted to their election campaigning. The secret behind their success was that they had successfully implemented social media as their campaigning medium. By using this platform, they were not just able to carry out an efficacious political campaign within the constraints of a very limited budget, but they had also been able to tap different electoral bases, hence drawing votes from many different sections of society. According to a recent study, it was noticed that all the five major political parties of Germany, Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), The Left (Linke), Green Party (Grüne) and Free Democratic Party (FDP) have an active presence on different social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. According to 2012’s statistical studies, it was evident that when compared to the findings from the year 2010, the relevance of social media as a political instrument has seen a sharp incline for both the political parties and their intended audience. The average number of fans for each of the five political parties grew more than four times in number in two years. Politicians in Germany are rapidly becoming adept at using social media and monitoring the trends.
Just as America has Donald Trump with his appalling ideas that he expresses ever so freely, Germany has an even more abhorrent political party named the AfD or Alternative for Germany. In order to get some insight into the twisted ideology of this party, here is a deranged statement that had upset Germany’s harmony based politics, which entails urging Germans to produce more children in order to avoid the need for immigrants. Frauke Petry, the AfD’s co-leader, issued an outrageous statement that police must “prevent illegal border crossings, using firearms if necessary.” Just like Trump had capitalized on the fears of people regarding immigrants and enjoys their support, German citizens who were wary of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policy to welcome immigrants, alleged their support to the AfD. The AfD has also taken to the social media to forward their political agenda, which resulted in significant rise in its popularity, which has become apparent as the results of Germany’s latest elections with a 15.1 percent, 12.6 and 22 percent expressed support from the two regions. The raise in popularity of such parties is evidence to the fact that despite all the benefits of the social media, it can also be used as a catalyst to kick-start a hate based approach born out of manipulated fear.
In conclusion, we can unequivocally say that just like everything has its positive and negative aspects, the use of social media as an instrument for political outreach isn’t without its downside as it enfolds both the positive and negative sides of the coin of social media. But in comparison, the good that is being brought forward by the use of this medium far surpasses its use for darker purposes by the likes of Donald Trump and AfD. In my opinion, social media is an excellent platform for the political parties to proliferate political awareness and to advance its agenda while creating greater public engagement. The relatively direct are more interactive connection between the candidates and the citizens created due to the use of social networking sites establishes trust and a deeper commitment to the political party they support, which results in a greater voter turnover. Moreover, the use of social media reduces the cost incurred for political campaigns which in turn helps political parties who have a vision but not a huge financial backing, to be given a chance to make a difference. This can be the first step towards a more just balance of power. All this being said, I look forward to a day where social media ensures clear and meaningful dialog between the political parties and their voters as well as a system of accountability which has to be a natural product of a transparent connection between the leaders and their followers.