Social media use in politics

Social media use in politics refers to the use of online social media platforms in political processes and activities. Social media platforms encompass websites such as Facebook, YouTube, WeChat, Instagram, Quora, QQ, QZone, Weibo, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, Baidu Tieba, LinkedIn, LINE, Snapchat, Pinterest, Viber, and VK. Political processes and activities include all activities that pertain to the governance of a country or area. This includes political organization, global politics, political corruption, political parties, and political values.

The internet has created channels of communication that play a key role in circulating news, and social media has the power to change not just the message, but the dynamics of political corruption, values, and the dynamics of conflict in politics.[1] Through the use of social media in election processes, global conflict, and extreme politics, diplomacy around the world has become less private and susceptive to the public perception.[1]


Participatory roleEdit

Social media have been championed as allowing anyone with an Internet connection to become a content creator[2] and empowering their users.[3] The idea of “new media populism” encompasses how citizens can include disenfranchised citizens, and allow the public to have an engaged and active role in political discourse. New media, including social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, can enhance people's access to political information.[4]

Social media platforms and the internet have facilitated the dissemination of political information that counters mainstream media tactics that are often centralized and top-down, and include high barriers to entry.[5] Writer Howard Rheingold characterized the community created on social networking sites:

"The political significance of computer mediated communication lies in its capacity to challenge the existing political hierarchy’s monopoly on powerful communications media, and perhaps thus revitalize citizen-based democracy." [5]

Scholar Derrick de Kerckhove described the new technology in media:

"In a networked society, the real powershift is from the producer to the consumer, and there is a redistribution of controls and power. On the Web, Karl Marx’s dream has been realized: the tools and the means of production are in the hands of the workers."[5]

The role of social media in democratizing media participation, which proponents herald as ushering in a new era of participatory democracy, with all users able to contribute news and comments, may fall short of the ideals. International survey data suggest online media audience members are largely passive consumers, while content creation is dominated by a small number of users who post comments and write new content.[6]:78 Others[7] argue that the effect of social media will vary from one country to another, with domestic political structures playing a greater role than social media in determining how citizens express opinions about stories of current affairs involving the state.

Most people see social media platforms as censoring objectionable political views.[8]

As a news sourceEdit

See also Social media and political communication in the United States.

Adults in the United States who have access to the internet are increasingly getting political news and information from social media platforms. A 2016 Pew Research study found that 62% of adults get news on social media.

In addition, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, lead the social media platforms in which the majority of the users use the platforms to acquire news information. Of all United States adults, 67% use the platform with 44% who use the platform to get news.

According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report in 2013, the percentage of online news users who blog about news issues ranges from 1–5%. Greater percentages use social media to comment on news, with participation ranging from 8% in Germany to 38% in Brazil. But online news users are most likely to just talk about online news with friends offline or use social media to share stories without creating content.[6]:78

The rapid propagation of information on social media, spread by word of mouth, can impact the perception of political figures quickly with information that may or may not be true. When political information is propagated in this manner on purpose, the spread of information on social media for political means can benefit campaigns. On the other hand, the word-of-mouth propagation of negative information concerning a political figure can be damaging.[9] For example, the use of the social media platform Twitter by United States congressman Anthony Weiner to send inappropriate messages played a role in his resignation.[10]

Attention economyEdit

Social media, especially news that is spread through social media sites, plays into the idea of the attention economy. In which content that attracts more attention will be seen, shared, and disseminated far more than news content that does gather as much traction from the public. Tim Wu from Columbia Law School coins the attention economy as “the resale of human attention.” [11]

A communication platform such as social media is persuasive, and often works to change or influence opinions when it comes to political views because of the abundance of ideas, thoughts, and opinions circulating through the social media platform. It is found that news use leads to political persuasion, therefore the more that people use social media platforms for news sources, the more their political opinions will be affected. Despite that, people are expressing less trust in their government and others due to media use- therefore social media directly affects trust in media use. It is proven that while reading newspapers there is an increase in social trust where on the contrary watching the news on television weakened trust in others and news sources.[12] Social media, or more specifically news media- plays an important role in democratic societies because they allow for participation among citizens.Therefore, when it comes to healthy democratic networks, it is crucial that that news remains true so it doesn't affect citizens’ levels of trust. A certain amount of trust is necessary for a healthy and well functioning democratic system.[13]

Younger generations are becoming more involved in politics due to the increase of political news posted on various types of social media. Due to the heavier use of social media among younger generations, they are exposed to politics more frequently, and in a way that is integrated into their online social lives. While informing younger generations of political news is important, there are many biases within the realms of social media. In May 2016, former Facebook Trending News curator Benjamin Fearnow revealed his job was to "massage the algorithm," but dismissed any "intentional, outright bias" by either human or automated efforts within the company.[14][15] Fearnow was fired by Facebook after being caught leaking several internal company debates about Black Lives Matter and presidential candidate Donald Trump.[16]

As a public utilityEdit

A key debate centers on whether or not social media is a public good based on the premises of non-rival and non-excludable consumption. Social media can be considered an impure public good as it can be excludable given the rights of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to remove content, disable accounts, and filter information based on algorithms and community standards.

Arguments for platforms such as Google in being treated as a public utility and public service provider include statements from Benjamin Barber in The Nation

"For new media to be potential equalizers, they must be treated as public utilities, recognizing that spectrum abundance (the excuse for privatization) does not prevent monopoly ownership of hardware and software platforms and hence cannot guarantee equal civic, educational, and cultural access to citizens."[5]

Similarly, Zeynep Tufeckig argues online services are natural monopolies that underwrite the "corporatization of social commons" and the "privatization of our publics." [5]

One argument that displays the nature of social media as an impure public good is the fact that the control over content remains in the hands of a few large media networks, Google and Facebook, for example. Google and Facebook have the power to shape the environment under personal and commercial goals that promotes profitability, as opposed to promoting citizen voice and public deliberation.[5]

Government regulationEdit

Proponents and aims for regulation of social media are growing due to economic concerns of monopolies of the platforms, to issues of privacy, censorship, network neutrality and information storage. The discussion of regulation is complicated due to the issue how Facebook, and Google are increasingly becoming a service, information pipeline, and content provider, and thus centers on how the government would regulate both the platform as a service and information provider.[5] Thus, other proponents advocate for “algorithmic neutrality”, or the aim for search engines on social media platforms to rank data without human intervention.[17]

Opponents of regulation of social media platforms argue that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter do not resemble traditional public utilities, and regulation would harm consumer welfare as public utility regulation can hinder innovation and competition.[17] Second, as the First Amendment values are criticized on social media platforms, the media providers should retain the power to how the platform is configured.[17]

Effect on democracyEdit

Social media has been criticized as being detrimental to democracy.[18] According to Ronald Deibert, "The world of social media is more conducive to extreme, emotionally charged, and divisive types of content than it is to calm, principled considerations of competing or complex narratives".[19] On the contrary, Ethan Zuckerman says that social media presents the opportunity to inform more people, amplify voices, and allow for an array of diverse voices to speak.[20] Mari K. Eder points to failures of the Fourth Estate that have allowed outrage to be disguised as news, contributing to citizen apathy when confronting falsehoods and further distrust in democratic institutions.[21]


The Arab SpringEdit

During the peak of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, the Internet and social media played a huge role in facilitating information. At that time, Hosni Mubarak was the president of Egypt and head the regime for almost 30 years. Mubarak was so threatened by the immense power that the Internet and social media gave the people that the government successfully shut down the Internet, using the Ramses Exchange, for a period of time in February 2011.[11]

Egyptians used Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube as a means to communicate and organize demonstrations and rallies to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak. Statistics show that during this time the rate of Tweets from Egypt increased from 2,300 to 230,000 per day and the top 23 protest videos had approximately 5.5 million views.[22]


Though fake news can generate some utility for consumers, in terms of confirming far-right beliefs and spreading propaganda in favor of a presidential candidate, it also imposes private and social costs.[23] For example, one social cost to consumer is the spread of disinformation which can make it harder for consumers to seek out the truth and, in the case of the 2016 Election, for consumers to choose an electoral candidate.[23] Summarized by a Congressional Research Service Study in 2017,

“Cyber tools were also used [by Russia] to create psychological effects in the American population. The likely collateral effects of these activities include compromising the fidelity of information, sowing discord and doubt in the American public about the validity of intelligence community reports, and prompting questions about the democratic process itself.” [24]

The marginal social cost of fake news is exponential, as the first article is shared it can affect a small number of people, but as the article is circulated more throughout Facebook, the negative externality multiplies. As a result, the quantity demanded of news can shift up around election season as consumers seek to find correct news, however the quantity demanded can also shift down as people have a lower trust in mainstream media. In the American public, a Gallup poll in 2016 found “Americans’ trust in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ was, at 32%, the lowest in the organization's polling history.” In addition, trust in mainstream media is lower in Republican and far-right political viewers at 14%.[25] About 72% of American adults claim that social media firms excessively control and influence the politics today, as per the June 16-22 survey conducted by Pew Research Center. Only 21% believe that the power held by these social media firms over today’s politics is of the right amount, while 6% believe it is not enough.[26]

Algorithms can facilitate the rapid spread of disinformation through social media channels. Algorithms use users’ past behavior and engagement activity to provide them with tailored content that aligns with their interests and beliefs. Algorithms commonly create echo chambers and sow radicalism and extremist thinking in these online spaces.[27]


Political advertisements—for example, encouraging people to vote for or against a particular candidate, or to take a position on a particular issue—have often been placed on social media. On 22 November 2019, Twitter said it would no longer facilitate political advertising anywhere in the world.[28]

Election interferenceEdit

The 2016 United States Presidential Election was an example in which social media was used by the state actor Russia to influence public opinion. Tactics such as propaganda, trolling, and bots were used to leak fake news stories that included an "FBI agent had been killed after leaking Clinton’s emails" and "Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump.” [29] Studies have found that pro-Trump news was as many as four-time more than pro-Clinton fake news, and a third of the pro-Trump tweets were generated by bots.[29]

Election resultsEdit

In October 2020, Twitter announced its new policy that candidates will be forbidden to claim victory until their election win has been credibly projected by news outlets or officially certified.[30][31]

Impact on electionsEdit

Social media has a profound effect on elections. Often times, social media compounds with the mass media networks such as cable television. For many individuals, cable television serves as the basis and first contact for where many get their information and sources. Cable television also has commentary that creates partisanship and builds on to people's predispositions to certain parties. Social media takes mass media's messages and often times amplifies and reinforces such messages and perpetuates partisan divides.[32] In an article by the Journal of Communication, they concluded that social media does not have a strong effect on people's views or votes, but social media does not also have a minimal effect on their views. Instead, social media creates a bandwagon effect when a candidate in an election commits an error or a great success, then users on social media will amplify the effect of such failure or success greatly.

The Pew Research Center finds that nearly one fourth of Americans learn something about the candidates through an internet source such as Facebook. Nearly a fifth of America uses social media with two thirds of those Americans being youth ages of 18-29. The youth's presence on social media often inspires rallies and creates movements. For instance, in the 2008 presidential election, a Facebook group of 62,000 members was created that sponsored the election of President Obama and within days universities across the countries held rallies in the thousands. Rallies and movements such as these are often coined the "Facebook Effect".[33] However, social media can often have the opposite effect and take a toll on many users. The Pew Research Center in a poll found that nearly 55 percent of social media users in the US indicate that they are "worn out" by the amount of political posts on social media. With the rise of technology and social media continuing, that number increased by nearly 16 percent since the 2016 presidential election. Nearly 70 percent of individuals say that talking about politics on social media with people on the opposite side is often "stressful and frustrating" compared to 56 percent in 2016. Consequently, the number of people who find these discussions as "interesting and informative" decreased from 35% to 26% since 2016.[34]

In terms of social media's effect on the youth vote, it is quite substantial. In the 2018 elections, nearly 31 percent of the youth voted compared to just 21 percent in 2014. Social media use among the youth continue to grow as around 90 percent of the youth use at least one social media platform. Of the 90 percent, 47 percent received information about the 2018 elections via a social media platform. The messages shared on the social media platform often include messages to register to vote and actually carrying out their vote; this is in contrast to receiving the message from the candidate's campaign itself. Subsequently, of the first time youth voters in the 2018 election, 68 percent relied on social media to get their information about voting. This is in comparison to the traditional methods of being notified to vote of just 23 percent first time voters. Furthermore, just 22 percent of youth who did not hear about an election via social media or traditional means were very likely to vote; however, 54 percent of youth who found out about the election via social media or traditional ways were very likely to vote.[35] However, the youth are becoming distrustful of the content they read on social media as Forbes notes that there has been a decline in public trust due to many political groups and foreign nations creating fake accounts to spread a great amount of misinformation with the aim of dividing the country.[36]

Social media often filters what information individuals see. Since 2008, the number of individuals who get their news via social media has increased to 62 percent.[37] On these social media sites, there are many algorithms run that filter what information individual users see. The algorithms understand a users favorites and dislikes, they then begin to cater their feed to their likes. Consequently, this creates an echo chamber.[38] For instance, black social media users were more likely to see race related news and in 2016 the Trump campaign used Facebook and other platforms to target Hillary Clinton's supporters to drive them out of the election and taking advantage of such algorithms.[39] Whether or not these algorithms have an effect on people's vote and their views is mixed. Iowa State University finds that for older individuals, even though their access to social media is far lower than the youth, their political views were far more likely to change from the 1996-2012 time periods, which indicates that there are a myriad of other factors that impact political views. They further that based upon other literature, Google has a liberal bias in their search results. Consequently, these biased search results can affect an individual's voting preferences by nearly 20 percent. In addition, 23 percent of an individual's Facebook friends are of an opposing political view and nearly 29 percent of the news they receive on the platform is also in opposition of their political ideology, which indicates that the algorithms on these new platforms do not completely create echo chambers.[40]

Washington State University political science professor Travis Ridout explains that in the United Kingdom the popular social media platforms of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube are beginning to play a significant role in campaigns and elections. Contrary to the United States which allows television ads, in the United Kingdom television ads are banned and thus campaigns are now launching huge efforts on social media platforms. Ridout furthers that the social media ads have gotten in many cases offensive and in attack formation at many politicians. Social media is able to provide many individuals with a sense of anonymity that enables them to get away with such aggressive acts. For example, ethnic minority women politicians are often the targets of such attacks.[41] Furthermore, in the United States, many of the youth conservative voices are often reduced. For instance, PragerU, a conservative organization, often has their videos taken down.[42] On a different level, social media can also hamper many political candidates. Media and social media often publish stories about news that are controversial and popular and will ultimately drive more traffic. A key example is President Donald Trump whose controversial statements in 2016 often brought the attention of many individuals and thereby increased his popularity while shunning out other candidates.[43]

In the 2020 Presidential Election, social media was very prevalent and used widely by both campaigns. For Twitter, nearly 87 million users follow President Donald Trump while 11 million users follow Joe Biden. Despite the significant gap between the two, Biden's top tweets have outperformed Donald Trump's top tweets by nearly double. In terms of mentions of each candidate on Twitter, from October 21 to October 23, there were 6.6 million mentions of Trump and Biden and Biden held 72% of the mentions. During the 2020 Presidential Debates, Biden had nearly two times the mentions as Donald Trump with nearly half of the mentions being negative. For Trump, he also had have of his mentions being negative as well.[44]

In Europe, the influence of social media is less than that of the United States. In 2011, only 34% of MEPs use twitter, while 68% use Facebook. In 2012, the EPP had the highest social media following of 7,418 compared to the other parties. This is in relationship to the 375 million voters in all of Europe. When comparing the impact to US social media following, former President Obama has over 27 million fans while the highest in Europe was former French President Nicolas Sarkozy of over 700,000 fines, a stark difference. The 2008 US presidential election skyrocketed the need for technologies to be used in politics and campaigns, especially social media. Europe is now following their lead and has been increasing their use of social media since. [45]

In terms of analyzing the role of fake news in social media, there tends be about three times more fake new articles that were more likely to be pro-Trump over pro-Clinton articles. There were 115 pro-Trump fake news articles while only 41 pro-Clinton fake news articles; pro-Trump articles were shared 30.3 million times while pro-Clinton articles were shared 7.6 million times on Facebook. For each share there is about 20 page visits which means that with around 38 million shares of fake news articles there are 760 million page views to these articles. This means that roughly each US adult visited a fake news site three times.[46] Whether the spread of fake news has an impact on elections is conflicted as more research is required and is difficult to place a quantification on the effects. However, fake news is more likely to influence individuals who are over 65 and are more conservative. These groups tend to believe fake news more than other groups. College students have difficulty in determining if an article shared on social media is fake news.[47]

Role in conflictEdit

There are four ways social media plays a significant role in conflict:.[48]

  1. Social media platforms allow information to be framed in mainstream platforms which limits communication.
  2. Social media enables news stories to quickly go viral and later can lead to misinterpretations that can cause conflict.
  3. Strategies and the adaption of social media has caused a change in focus amongst leaders from administrative dynamics to new media technology.
  4. Technological advancements in communication can increase the power of persuasion leading to corruption, scandals, and violence on social media platforms.[49]
Map of 2011 Arab Spring Protests

The role of technological communication and social media in the world can lead to political, economic, and social conflict due to its unmonitored system, cheap interface, and accessibility.

Non-state actors and militant groupsEdit

As the world is becoming increasingly connected via the power of the Internet, political movements, including militant groups, have begun to see social media as a major organizing and recruiting tool.[50] The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIL, ISIS, and Daesh, has used social media to promote its cause. ISIS produces an online magazine named the Islamic State Report to recruit more fighters.[51] ISIS produces online materials in a number of languages and uses recruiters to contact potential recruitees over the Internet.

ISIS in Iraq and Syria

In Canada, two girls from Montreal left their country to join ISIS in Syria after exploring ISIS on social media and eventually being recruited.[52] On Twitter, there is an app called the Dawn of Glad Tidings that users can download and keep up to date on news about ISIS.[53] Hundreds of users around the world have signed up for the app, which once downloaded will post tweets and hash-tags from accounts that are in support of ISIS. As ISIS marched on the northern region of Iraq, tweets in support of their efforts reached a high of 40,000 a day.[53] Support of ISIS online is a factor in the radicalization of youth. Mass media has yet to adopt the view that social media plays a vital link in the radicalization of people. When tweets supportive of ISIS make their way onto Twitter, they result in 72 re-tweets to the original, which further spreads the message of ISIS.[53] These tweets have made their way to the account known as active hashtags, which further helps broadcast ISIS's message as the account sends out to its followers the most popular hashtags of the day. Other militant groups such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban are increasingly using social media to raise funds, recruit and radicalize persons, and it has become increasingly effective.

Weaponization by state actorsEdit

Social media platforms have been weaponized by state-sponsored cyber groups to attack governments in the United States, the European Union, and the Middle East. Although phishing attacks via email are the most commonly used tactic to breach government networks, phishing attacks on social media rose 500% in 2016.[54] As with email-based phishing attacks, the majority of phishing attacks on social media are financially motivated cyber crimes that install malware.[55] However, cyber groups associated with Russia, Iran, and China have used social media to conduct cyberattacks and undermine democratic processes in the West. During the 2017 French presidential election, for example, Facebook detected and removed fake accounts linked to the Russian cyber group Fancy Bear, who were posing as "friends of friends" of Emmanuel Macron associates to steal information from them.[56] Cyber groups associated with Iran, China, and Russia have used LinkedIn to steal trade secrets, gain access to critical infrastructure, or recruit spies.[57][58][59] These social engineering attacks can be multi-platform, with threat actors initiating contact on one platform but continuing communication on more private channel. The Iranian-backed cyber group COBALT GYPSY created a fake persona across multiple social media platforms and initiated contact on LinkedIn before moving to Facebook and email.[60]

In December 2019, a chat and video calling application developed by the United Arab Emirates, called ToTok was identified as a spying tool by the US intelligence. Suspicion over the Emirati app emerged because it banned the use of VoIP on applications like WhatsApp, FaceTime and Skype.[61]

See alsoEdit


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