Social Media and Politics: A fruitful alliance or a new way of dispensing propaganda?

Social media has changed the way we communicate, how we get information and how we choose to spend our free time. And it is disrupting an essential power that influences our daily life – politics.

Once upon a time, politics was discussed by old men in a pub while sipping their pint of beer. Nowadays, the passionate political gossiper knows where to express and underpin their opinion most effectively – on social media.

Power to the people

The barrier between governments and the people is lower than ever. On Twitter and Facebook we are being informed about important political decisions the moment they’re being made. As soon as the news is sent out to the world, thousands of people react and share it and give their opinion. This feedback can be read by anyone – including the politicians themselves.

There is a direct connection between the constituents and their elected representatives.

Some governments are even using it to include people in the political process of decision-making. Iceland, for instance, established a campaign dubbed “Better Reykjavik“ in 2010. Citizens can discuss, rate and put forward ideas to improve the standing of living in the city. To date, almost 60% of the population has participated.

Living in a bubble

But just as people can influence politics through social media, so they are being influenced by it. The reason can be found in Facebook’s algorithms. You like pages, you react to articles and posts positively or negatively, you share them. And from that moment on, Facebook will present you more articles with similar content and a similar tendency of opinion. You liked a few right-wing pages? Facebook will suggest more of them.

People easily get caught in a self-perpetuating bubble. Back in the good old days of TV’s and newspapers‘ dominance, where there was no way of easily segmenting an audience, and so you were necessarily confronted with different opinions. In the age of social media, you are running around with blinkers on. You won’t see what you don’t want to see.

Left and Right

If you live isolated from any opinion contrary to your own, you’re bound to doubt every piece of information that doesn’t fit with your perception of the world. Enter fake news. Some of it, indeed, is false. Some of it is difficult to palate, and must be untrue.

Reality distortion is a trait of both the left and the right. Embarrassing pictures of Donald Trump allegedly suffering from diarrhea or a little boy apparently being handcuffed after the so called “muslim ban” are only the tip of the iceberg in left-wing misinformation.

U.S. American advertising technology company “The Trade Desk” recently carried out a brief study on this topic. They observed the reactions to two different fake news articles, one left-wing, one right-wing, and with the help of cookies collected data about the readers, calculating a relevance score in the process. The result: everyone is affected by fake news on a similar level, no matter where you’re from, how educated you are or which social and political background you have. Only the characteristics of the left-wing and right-wing readers differ. On the right, readers are likely to be older, caucasian people working in the property industry, military or government; people on the left are more likely to be college graduates, positive idealists and obsessive workers in the finance sector.


Catalyst of radicalization

Social media galvanizes long-existing feuds of different political camps and causes a highly explosive atmosphere. Throughout Europe, and of course in the U.S., radical movements are on the rise. Trump, Brexit, “Alternative for Germany“ – without social media they could be peripheral phenomenons of political culture. But thanks to Facebook’s information bubbles and Twitter’s one-sided, pointed commenting system, followers can unite and turn their backs on well-balanced reporting.

Social media can be an instrument of true democracy. But currently it promotes misguided idealism, stirs up hatred, and skirts the edges of propaganda - sometimes even falling over the edge entirely. It is government’s duty to foster debate for the good of society as a whole, not just a list of agenda items that further their own policies. Perhaps, one day, the left-right debate will exhaust itself and we’ll meet in the middle.

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