Recently, I got to thinking about how social media and the transformational impact it’s having on our broader communications process might be affecting overall political awareness. This came up during the election lead-up in my home state – throughout much of the campaign the general consensus of people I spoke to was that they didn’t really have much of an opinion either way on who won. Of course, the people I spoke to are not indicative of everyone – a great many were very invested in the outcome – but in seeing the low levels of engagement around me, and the sense I got about the campaign overall, I wondered whether social might be lowering our levels of political engagement.
The arrival of social has given people a whole new way of consuming media. Online sources are now among the main players in news media, and through social media, people can now curate and customise their own info feeds. This enables people to choose which outlets they read, where they get their news from – and it also means people don’t need to see content they’re not interested in. For many, this may mean cutting out politics, which effectively weakens political influence and leads to a less politically engaged society overall – but is that what’s really happening?
The Numbers Don’t Lie
I sought to test my theory – if I was right, the easiest way to prove it would be to look at the rate of donkey and ‘informal’ votes in recent elections. If that rate was increasing significantly, year-on-year, that would suggest political engagement is falling, which would tie into my wider theory of the impact of social media. And in Australia it is – the rate of informal votes has jumped from 3.78% in 1998 to 5.55% in 2010, and it’s increased every year except 2007, which was the year that the Kevin Rudd won the Australian Federal Election – in which the ‘#Kevin07’ hashtag formed a key element of his campaign. This aligns with my theory – people are overall less interested in politics, but the incorporation of a social media element into Rudd’s 2007 strategy may have actually countered that and kept those less interested more engaged.
But there was a flaw. Yes, informal voting was increasing, but it’s been increasing every year since compulsory voting was introduced (rates jumped in 1984, but that’s attributed to a change in the voting process). Looking at the data, and considering social media’s influence, any real impact from social engagement would only possibly be significant in the last ten years, and the higher 2007 result is among the three elections held within that time, so it’s hard to draw any definitive conclusions from those figures alone. State-based elections provided no definitive logic either – informal rates had dropped in some, increased in others – there was nothing concrete in the numbers to conclude that the changing media habits, caused by social media, were impacting negatively on voter engagement. At least, not at this stage – in five years time, when the communications shift is really in full effect, we’re likely to have a better understanding of the potential impacts.
I found the same with US Presidential Elections – voter turnout in the United States has remained steady at around 55%, with an increase to 57.1% in 2008, the election in which social media was a key platform for eventual winner Barrack Obama (labelled by some as ‘The Facebook Election’). Other nations too showed no significant patterns – while the case may be that people are less politically engaged, the sample size, at this stage, is too small to draw and solid conclusions – though the increases in participation relative to social media activity did indicate the importance of engaging audiences on new mediums.
Of wider concern with the shift towards more customizable media inputs is the potential spread of reinforcement theory. Reinforcement theory is where people seek out and selectively remember only information that supports their pre-existing beliefs. You see and hear this all the time, people will pick and choose certain aspects of an argument in order to support what they choose to believe. And it’s damaging – people who’re locked into certain thought processes are not beneficial to the advancement of rational debate – you can’t argue with a mind that’s not open, you can’t reason with a person who won’t listen. If you’re stuck in your view of how things are, and you align with that perspective as indisputable fact, then there’s no way that you’ll ever be able to empathise or re-align your view if new facts emerge. It’s one thing to stand up for what you believe – that’s something that should always be encouraged and supported – but it’s another to stand up for what you believe while being closed-off to any other point of view. There’s an onus on everyone to learn the facts, to educate ourselves on all aspects of any particular issue before we set forth on solidifying what our opinion will be. But too often we see people accept a narrow perspective, form a belief based on a limited amount of information, and then perpetuate negative influence through their own confirmation bias, seeking out sources that support they’re stance.
While people have always been able to do this to some degree – you listen to the same radio presenter regularly or read the same newspaper and you’re effectively enlisting your own reinforcement theory on some level – there is a level of concern that the customisation of our media consumption might actually narrow people’s worldly awareness. While social media and the web are great for connecting with likeminded people and building communities around shared beliefs, the potential negative of that is that it may also embolden the disenchanted and facilitate more siloed cultures around limited and narrow viewpoints. If you choose, you can create a news feed of totally one-sided perspectives and shut out everything else. Whereas in the past people would need to watch the nightly news to get an understanding of the events of the day, many people now rely solely on their social feeds for the same info, which reduces the breadth of information being shared. Is that a good outcome? Is that what will lead us to a more understanding, connected society?
‘Is This Thing On?’
There have been various studies on the impact of social media on political consciousness, particularly among younger generations. In general, the findings seem to indicate that social media is good for political engagement because more people are talking about a wider range of issues online – trending topics, for example, inspire more people to evaluate their opinions on a particular subject. What studies can’t conclusively deduct is what impact those increased discussions are having on our wider political awareness – that can only be evaluated, effectively, by voter participation, which, as noted, is inconclusive given the data at this stage. What is clear, however, is that it’s becoming increasingly important for political parties to understand the growing reliance on social platforms as a means for building and fostering political engagement. It may be that the time for political jargon is dying out – it’s much easier in the connected era for people to tune-out anything that’s not engaging to them. Parliamentary Question Time, which is broadcast on TV in Australia, is a complex performance of political formalities and strategic doublespeak – you can easily see why people might opt to change the channel. The problem is, with the growing application of algorithms working to show users only the news relevant to them, based on their historical activity, the more people are switching away from politics, the less likely they’ll ever be switching back. Given that, it’s crucial for politicians to understand where their constituents are at, what they’re discussing, and importantly, how they’re discussing the issues of relevance to them. Just like businesses, politicians can access the abundance of audience data being logged every day online, the opportunity to build an understanding of the electorate is available and accessible to them. But it may mean a change of tact for the modern-day politician, a move away from the spin of old and towards a more connected process.