Column: What role does social media play in elections?

Social media has become increasingly popular in recent years. Popular sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter attract millions of people to their platforms. In an age where technology is dominant, it is important to note social media’s role in transforming how individuals get their news and the impact that social media has during election seasons.

In a 2019 study by the Pew Research Center, 48 percent of US adults aged 18-29 get their news from social media. Of those individuals, 58 percent are women. The study also shows older groups of people still rely on TV and news websites to obtain their news.

In recent months, social media has started showing advertisements and links to information regarding voter registration and the 2020 election. Personally, I have seen links and posts on Instagram asking if I am registered to vote. By making a pop-up appear on each person’s page when they enter the Instagram app, users are reminded about the election and registering to vote.

The role of social media in elections is growing and evolving. For many people, during the pandemic, our main way of obtaining information has been through social media. Candidates have used social media for years as a means of campaigning but this year it is even more prevalent. Candidates can use social media to show aspects of their personal life in a way that doesn’t get portrayed on TV and during debates while communicating directly with voters. Plus, voters can show their support and talk to candidates without having to donate financially to the campaign.

Twitter is a popular site for political information to spread. President Trump has 87.3 million followers and Joe Biden has 11.5 million followers currently. With one tweet, a candidate can be thrown into the spotlight and either criticized or praised by other users. In recent weeks, a tweet emerged showing a video of Joe Biden comforting the son of a man killed in the Parkland school shooting in 2018. Twitter users replied with warm messages of how sincere Biden was and how that is the kind of president our country needs in charge.

With any social media site, the validity of information is a concern. During the election season, information is being introduced daily and discerning what is true and what is false is difficult. When users spread misinformation without realizing it, it causes those who view the information to be misinformed and form opinions that aren’t correct. Fake news is always prevalent, but people retweet or reshare posts without doing the research to know if it is fake. To combat this, projects such as the News Literacy Project and the Open Mind Legacy Project are releasing public service announcements to suppress bots, trolls, and other pieces and sources of misinformation. Sites like Instagram and Facebook also alert users if a post may contain false information, and some ads are blocked from Facebook altogether.

Social media is also dangerous during elections because individuals who post their political opinions may negatively try to influence the decisions of others. Forming our own opinions on candidates is difficult when Facebook is telling us how to feel on issues, and having a different opinion than someone else starts a feud on the Internet. Each time I get on Twitter, I can’t scroll very far without seeing a tweet about President Trump. On Instagram, I get sponsored ads for Amy McGrath and people I follow post political images and statements to their stories daily. With information and opinions constantly being pushed at us, staying grounded in our own opinions and remaining unswayed is daunting.

Aside from candidate usage and the spread of information, social media has become a place of advocacy for voting among recognizable figures in society. Athletes have taken to their personal social media pages to advocate for voting and express their opinions. Celebrities have done the same thing in pushing for eligible citizens to make their voices heard through voting. The NBA, for instance, created advertisements encouraging people to vote.

I have seen more ads this year urging people to register to vote than I have in my whole life. The Constitution gives us the right to vote and it is our duty as citizens to take part in elections. Social media is pivotal in sparking conversations on voting and elections. Discussions go beyond who is running and why each candidate deserves to be elected. Social media is giving a voice to citizens and creates a space where ideas can be quickly spread.

There will always be critics of social media, but without it, I don’t think this election would have the same results. With all the good and the bad, social media is changing the way we view elections and I anticipate the role of social media will only continue to grow in future elections.

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