“Three debates scheduled for October 3rd, 16th and 22nd will decide this year’s presidential election with social media at the helm.”
Articles espousing social media’s great influence over the Presidential election are ramping up in the final weeks of the U.S. Presidential campaigns. What is especially interesting about these assertions are that they ignore the mechanisms of amalgamated “social media” and assign these channels magical powers that they don’t possess.
Social media is a quite effective means to distribute information, but the quality of the information is more important than the actual channels for proliferation. The argument that social media will sway the Presidential election is imprecise. It also makes an assumption that may be likewise incorrect. Let me explain:
“Social media” is code for Twitter
One of the first red flags that should generate some doubt in people’s minds is how the “experts” making assertions about the power of ambiguous “social media” channels are describing Twitter. The fact that Facebook oftentimes requires an additional click to deliver context from its news feed disadvantages it as a real-time news source.
The fact that people attribute Twitter’s qualities to a class of applications ranging from Instagram to LinkedIn seems to undermine their expertise in the subject. If (as I propose) Facebook is a less powerful means for real-time data than Twitter, the number of undecided voters that can be reached diminishes quite substantially.
Twitter will sway elections like local news sways elections.
The fundamental assumption that the “social media will change the election” argument has is that there will be notable content to discuss. Sure, people on either side of the political spectrum will spin banalities – but odds are nothing is going to happen.
If you recall the 2008 election, Obama was unflinching even when his opposing candidate John McCain increased more bizarre tactics such as pacing the stage during Obama’s comments. Four years later, Obama is further seasoned and is unlikely to be provoked into a dreaded gaffe. Romney likewise is unlikely to say or do anything more provocative than his 47% comment. Odds are, nothing substantive will happen.
This problem elucidates the issue with trying to attribute great power to social media. It is a channel no different than a local TV channel. If a debate happens they will report it so people are aware. If something shocking happens they will report it. The likelihood that the interpretation of any event will differ substantially between social media and local news is low. Even if social media perpetuates news faster than local TV or newspapers, if the content is qualitatively equal does it matter that a person learns about it on social versus traditional media? Probably not.
The last assumption that may be important is whether anyone is listening to political posts at this point. If I were an undecided voter I would have long since stopped reading political posts (even as a decided voter I have).
So, in order for social media to sway the election all of the following conditions must be met:
- Facebook has to be the primary means of influence
- Something really impactful has to happen in the debates
- Interpretation of that event has to be different in social media than on other channels
- Undecided voters must still be listening
Does anyone think all of those things will happen?