Politics are raging hard again this election year, with each of the current nominees making waves. The nation is strongly divided, and instead of coming together, we seem to be swinging wildly from one extreme to another. I’ve actually heard people state that if they can’t vote for Bernie Sanders, they’ll vote for Trump, making a full swing from a self-described democratic socialist over to a republican capitalist.
While this is a confusing election on its own, we’re also seeing an increasing social media presence from politicians. In 2015, the White House created its own Twitter account, @POTUS, which stands for President of the United States. If you don’t follow it, you should.
Just as we have seen an ever-increasing importance of social media in our professional lives, politicians are sweeping over our Facebooks, Twitters and LinkedIn accounts in record time. At this point, it’s only a matter of time before they’re filling up Instagrams and Tumblrs to try and sway the votes.
Why is this happening? Clearly politicians have noticed how quickly people can communicate and form a strong group online. The #BlackLivesMatter movement went from a small outcry over the verdict on George Zimmerman to a world-wide movement for black equality in a matter of weeks, thanks to social media.
That’s an incredibly impressive feat for any movement, and it forced racism into the center stage even more so than in the last presidential election. That’s kind of insane, considering Obama was our first black president, and yet systemic racism has gotten more coverage during an election where all the candidates are white and very rich.
It’s not the only movement that’s gotten started in social media. #BringBackOurGirls was designed to draw attention to a group of schoolgirls that were kidnapped in Chibok, Nigeria. Without the campaign the incident, which involved the kidnapping of 276 girls, would have gotten little international coverage. Following the campaign, which was started almost entirely on Twitter, news media covered the story, and other nations, including the U.S., offered aid. Even with all that help however, 230 girls are still missing.
One of the more impressive movements that was helped along by social media was the Arab Spring uprising. People in the Middle East and North Africa where the state controls many media outlets suddenly found an outlet through the internet. Throughout oppressed areas in the Middle East and throughout the Arab world, people organized protests and riots through social media. They enabled people everywhere to see the oppression in other parts of the world. This made their world bigger, and it made their fight more important.
Social media also contributed to the conflict in Syria. It’s been a few months since calls for help from the refugees have been part of mainstream media, but the war is still going on and the refugees are still fleeing the country. Like Syria, other countries that were involved in Arab Spring have not yet resolved their crises, including Egypt and Libya.
So What’s the Problem?
The real issue is that people are condensing their political ideals into hashtags, headlines and 140 characters. There is no hashtag long enough to detail all the smaller issues that go into a bigger one, like abortion, Wall Street or genetically modified foods. Also, as clearly evidenced by Arab Spring, the situations can easily get out of hand, and violence can erupt. Even in the U.S., there were riots over the Black Lives Matter movement. Baltimore, MD, experienced a minor riot, but Ferguson, MO, had the most violence.
Anyone who has been trolled online understands just how mean people can be. Hiding behind a mask of anonymity entices people to say things they would never say to an actual person. Jimmy Kimmel’s “Mean Tweets” segment is a lighthearted look at some of that, but in a darker take — as readers of a few of the worst tweets sent to female sports reporters learned — the humor evaporates pretty quickly.
You can say whatever you want online with almost no credibility or responsibility. This isn’t any different for politicians than it is for the average person. Consider the lies that went around earlier this year regarding Planned Parenthood, which all stemmed from a series of fake videos posted to YouTube. Planned Parenthood dealt with all the backlash, lost major funding and had establishments burned to the ground. The people who made the video and the politicians who supported it got more fame than ever.
How Can They Play It?
There’s no real way that politicians can avoid using social media. However, fact-checkers should hold them accountable for the information they spread. While this year may have been an anomaly as far as the variety and vigor of candidates, there’s nothing to say we won’t see something like this again.
Politicians need to treat the internet like they treat all other forms of media. While this is a new game, so was television, and they figured out how to make that work without excessive cruelty or lies. Social media can be a wonderful thing, drawing attention to areas that weren’t even on the radar a month ago.
Do we, as a nation and a world, understand how to meld our politics and our newfound technology yet? Not really. But the technology’s not going away anytime soon. We’ll get there. We have to.
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