How individual politicians as well as political parties, exploit social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook has garnered much interest in recent years. It has recently attracted even greater attention in the U.K. as the Conservative Party were accused of uploading deceitful or downright false information throughout the General Election campaign. This week, Donald Trump took to Twitter to threaten Iran in the wake of his decision to assassinate the top Iranian general, Qasem Soleimani. Twitter and Facebook have therefore become the platforms of choice for politicians around the world and this, in turn, fosters a different type of politics, a different type of discourse and a different type of debate. An understanding of how politicians use social media platforms as well as an understanding of how social media has changed the way that we communicate and learn is essential given the importance of social media in modern political discourse. Social media has also impacted upon our interpersonal communications and this, in itself, poses challenges to a democratic society that we, as citizens, must adapt to.
Firstly, it is important to understand the aim of electoral candidates’ online political communication. Does their communication seek to change the hearts and minds of voters, or does it simply aim to evoke actions based on voters strongly held attitudes? Academic research suggests that electoral candidates’ political communication serves to mobilize voters based on their fixed beliefs as it is very hard to change these beliefs hence, political advertising is not likely to change these strongly held attitudes. Electoral candidates’ political communication, therefore, aims to reach out to receptive voters in order to influence their overt voter behaviour through an emotional broadcast which surfaces the feelings that voters already have. This is a view shared by the academic David Ott who, through analysing Trump’s online discourse, observed that the negativity of his tweets seeks to ‘heighten their emotional impact’. He goes on to argue that this is reflected in the ‘intense emotion of his followers’, a phenomenon he terms as ‘emotional contagion’. The aim of an electoral candidate’s online communication is, therefore, to elicit responses through emotive communication that surfaces voters’ pre-held beliefs.
It has therefore been ascertained that politician’s online communication seeks to elicit an emotional response from their digital followers however, what particular emotions are politicians’ playing on? More often than not, politicians, especially populists, rely on the emotion of fear and this is especially pertinent in regard to Donald Trump’s online communication. Most of Trump’s online discourse, both during and since the election in 2016, is based on portraying different segments of society, individuals and countries as threats to his followers. Most infamously, Trump has demonized Mexicans in order to construct an external threat, against which the American people must protect themselves from and this was done through framing them as criminals, killers and rapists through his online discourse. An equally evident trope within a politician’s online communication is the construction of an in-group. This can be done linguistically, through using words such as ‘we’ and ‘us’ to refer to the in-group and through referring to opponents or threats as ‘they’ and ‘them’. Trump also did this through the use of simple, uncomplex language with low readability which sought to differentiate him from other political opponents which he referred to as ‘elites’. Through using uncomplex language and linguistically inserting himself within the in-group, Trump managed to portray himself as a ‘man of the people’ through his online discourse. Trump has therefore not only managed to construct enemies from which the in-group must protect itself from, but he has also created the in-group itself through constructing the ‘people of populism’ as well as placing himself within this group.
These tropes, evident within Trump’s online discourse have become commonplace within online political communication. Similar online campaigns have been run by Nigel Farage in the context of the EU referendum in 2016 as well as by the Conservative Party during the recent General Election. Why is it then that social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook have become such a popular platform for politicians and political parties? There are a multiplicity of reasons for this including scope for micro-targeting, reach and agency as it doesn’t allow the politician’s message to be edited or diluted by traditional media platforms such as newspapers or broadcasters. Most importantly, however, messages and ideas are not challenged as communities within the online sphere are almost always homogeneous, meaning that ideas are echoed rather than challenged. Even if ideas are challenged, they are not challenged in a way that facilitates discussions or learning and this is a structural problem with social media that is seemingly insurmountable. In addition, the Internet is enabling people to segregate themselves communicatively into homogeneous in-groups, which consequently reduces exposure to common political messages. As a result, personalized realities with a high degree of variation emerge which therefore leads to a lack of common perceptions, these conditions facilitate the ‘fragmentation phenomenon’. This fragmentation represents one of the greatest challenges to society in the 21st century. Through the rise of social media sites, we have been given the opportunity to decide what information we want to consume and to decide with whom we interact. This is not necessarily a bad thing; however, it is true that it has led to the rise of personalized realities and, at least within the online sphere, homogeneous in-groups where ideas are not challenged. This means that social media users choose to follow like-minded people, for example, a Republican voter would inevitably follow Donald Trump, and when he tweets an opinion or a ‘fact’, the user will not engage critically about it. This is because of the echo chamber effect of social media which merely reinforces people’s pre-held beliefs as we can tailor our conversations through whom we ‘follow’ and thus one need not listen to voices that are not of interest. This is, therefore, a structural feature of the medium that means that opinions are merely refined or sharpened rather than contested.
The rise of social media sites has therefore restructured the way in which we communicate with each other and the ways in which politicians communicate with us. This has irreversibly changed the way that politics works and has created challenges to a democratic society. Gaining an understanding of how politicians elicit responses from their social media followings alludes to how uncontested, false information comes to be accepted as fact by large swathes of the population. This acceptance must be contested. Although structural features, innate to social media sites, make considered discussion that leads to political learning difficult, it is still possible to have meaningful discussions that do facilitate learning and impact upon idea formation. In this way, fearful, populist rhetoric can be truly challenged. Now, more than ever, it is also important to consume different sorts of information from different sources in order to fight back against the fragmentation phenomenon that has been exacerbated by social media. If we can better understand other people’s ideas and belief-systems, the easier it will be to challenge them. These are the challenges that social media pose and that we, as citizens must try to overcome.
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