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The Power and Pitfalls of Social Media in Politics

Both the concept of misinformation and the fear that comes along with change is nothing new. Back in the 1900s, many worried that the rise of radio and television was going to negatively affect politics. It was thought that only charismatic candidates would succeed, even if they were not as qualified as their opponents. Then again in the early 2000s with the rise of the internet and chat rooms, many worried these new forms of technology would create “echo chambers” due to only communicating with like-minded people online due to algorithms.

As social media platforms have grown in popularity, so has the fear of misinformation. Programs like Facebook are very different from anything we’ve seen in the past. Because of the algorithms and technology behind these websites, people with no background have the ability to post something and gain just as much traction as a credible news source or reporter.

The whole reason people create fake news in the first place is because it is cheap and relatively easy to produce. So much so that people have taken the initiative to create easily confusing sites that appear to be local news channels.

Fake news and misinformation titles have been all over headlines for more than a decade. However, it can be difficult to see the effects of misinformation in real life. However, social media changed that fact. Now, both everyday people and those in charge use social media to garner support or create fear. This can be both good and bad.

A few examples of social media mobilizing actual movements are the 2009 Iranian presidential election, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Arab Spring. After the 2009 election in Iran, people took to the streets to protest what they felt was a fraudulent election. There, a young woman was murdered, and some other activists got it on film. Her assassination was shared on YouTube and Twitter until it went viral. What would have most likely been a regional protest at most, became worldwide news as the video circulated until it was broadcasted across large media sites worldwide.

A similar mobilization many Americans are familiar with is the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which largely mobilized in 2014 through social media. Groups and individuals shared videos and posts about experiences of Black Americans with the police in the U.S. After Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, the movement gained immediate traction. Many scholars believe the BLM movement succeeded in mobilizing so many people because of how it provided context, showed the reality of the situation for many Black Americans, and those posting provided people with clear goals of the movement

One of the largest examples of mobilization on social media is in the Arab Spring. Protestors against Ben Ali’s dictatorship in Tunisia took to social media in 2010 to share images, and call for a revolution. These protests led directly to a change in leadership in Egypt and spurred conflict in Iraq, and Libya, as well as the Syrian Civil War. This civil war exemplified social media’s role in politics on both sides. While rebels used social media to fundraise and spread the word of their movement, ISIS and other groups in power used social media to recruit members. They used Twitter and other platforms to offer tips on how to successfully enter Syria, stage attacks and hide from law enforcement.

Overall, social media has created a new world of communication globally and all sides are using it in some way shape or form. While not everyone can be charged of using social media to spread misinformation, most politicians have a Twitter, Instagram and some are even creating TikTok accounts to reach younger audiences. Many college students learn about current news issues on some form of social media. Gen Z rarely subscribes to newspapers, but usually see things online, then look up an article on the subject and just believe the credibility, etc. 

Nonetheless, social media is a tool to be used by all as it reduces the costs of communication. Social media has fundamentally changed the access that people have to information. So yes, social media is shaping political discourse. It is important to understand that human rationality is the greatest weapon against misinformation. So next time you’re on TikTok and you see something about current news, take a moment to check the backing for the statement, or look up the issue on a scholarly source or website before you start sharing it.

If you are looking for a more concrete guide on spotting misinformation in your news, Forbes wrote an article titled “Spotting Misinformation On Social Media Is Increasingly Challenging” where they suggest ways to check your sources and make sure what you are reading is reliable.


Edited by: Liz Coffman

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