Hofstra College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Journalism Lawrence Herbert School of Communication Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of American Presidency Peter S. Kalikow School of Government, Public Policy and International Affairs Social Media

Short Takes: Social Media, Politics & Policy

Two panels sponsored by the Peter S. Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency on Feb. 16 will examine the impact of social media on the 2016 presidential election, and how it will continue to shape politics and policy-making in the coming years. Both panels will be held in the Student Center Theater, the first at 9:30 a.m. and the second at 11:10 a.m. Ahead of these panel discussions, several participants have offered short op-eds on media, social media and politics:

The Hybrid Media System in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election

Kelly Fincham, Department of Journalism, Media Studies, and Public Relations, Hofstra University

Journalism’s role in politics is being transformed by new communication technologies to such a degree that the traditional political/journalism relationship is itself at risk. The emergence of social and digital media has impacted the mutually-beneficial – albeit often fraught – relationship between journalists and politicians which has prevailed since at least the 1840s when Thomas Macaulay coined the phrase, “the fourth estate.”

Professor Kelly Fincham
Professor Kelly Fincham

That symbiotic relationship – where politicians needed access to the media to increase their potential to influence discourse and journalists needed access to politicians to legitimize their role in democracy – has remained relatively stable through other major disruptions in communications technology (such as the telegraph and television) but the always-on, always-accessible, nature of social media has radically disrupted political communications because it is has radically disrupted the information delivery systems.

Older media platforms, such as newspapers, TV and radio, tightly controlled the flow of information in the pre-internet era because they corralled the production and dissemination of information but the rise of newer platforms such as social media has collapsed the once-high barriers to publishing and and given non-media actors a way to bypass journalists to share their messages. This convergence of older and newer media systems has created what the British political scientist Andrew Chadwick calls a hybrid media system and he argues that fluency with both older media and newer media systems is essential for political and journalism actors as they compete for control over information.

Nowhere is this hybrid media proficiency more visible than in the unorthodox election campaign of Republican candidate Donald Trump where the former reality TV star used his inside knowledge of the norms and routines of traditional media along with his almost instinctive aptitude with social media to huge effect. Trump’s TV experience of portraying a successful business leader combined with his innate understanding of Twitter as a more intimate information channel combined to create a perfect hybrid media candidate. Equally at home with the TV cameras or the Twitter screen,  the reality-TV-star-turned-politician leveraged Twitter to drive the news cycle, leaving journalists, and political journalism, flailing in his wake.

Trump – unlike Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton – understood the more personal appeal of social media and his success highlights the importance of understanding this new hybrid media system for both media and political elites. The emergence of social media and the concomitant collapse of the mass media audience means that both politicians and journalists must adopt different strategies – or logics – to target a hybrid media audience rather than relying on older media or newer media alone. Both media and political elites have much to lose from the emergence of newer media and the evidence from the 2016 U.S. presidential election shows that both groups must adapt, and quickly, or see their power decline.


New Players, New Agendas, and New Voices: Social Media and the Presidential Race in 2016

Daniel Kreiss, School of Media and Journalism, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Fake news received a lot of attention during the 2016 U.S. presidential race and yet it is only one aspect of what are likely far more sweeping changes in electoral politics.

Professor Daniel Kriess
Professor Daniel Kriess

First, social media has fundamentally changed the types of people who speak in the voice of their candidates on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram. Campaigns now routinely hire young, technically-savvy digital staffers, including from the start-up technology industry, to implement strategic social media communications that reach millions. Second, during the 2016 presidential election it was apparent that President Trump figured out a way to parlay his celebrity and polarizing rhetoric into legacy press attention through Twitter. The president’s success was due, in no small part, to his ability to set the agenda and frames of the professional press through social media. Third, candidates, especially the president, used social media platforms such as Facebook to speak directly to their supporters.

In the end, it is likely that the Trump campaign’s use of Facebook far outstripped the impact of fake news, given that the candidate’s Facebook Live events at times rivaled and even exceeded the audiences of network and cable news and targeted advertising helped the campaign connect with persuadable voters and mobilize supporters. Finally, social media has conjoined identity with information in new ways, as it provides new distribution mechanisms for ideological outlets that tell moral stories about the campaign trail and powerfully invite voters to see themselves in the democratic struggle for power.

What are the implications of these things for politics and policy-making? There are continual changes in social media technologies and the ongoing de-professionalization of the political practitioners that seek to leverage these platforms for strategic communications purposes. The ongoing fragmenting of public attention and rise of new social information flows means that ways of getting the message out, connecting with audiences, and influencing the professional press will continually be unsettled. While Trump is a unique candidate, it is also likely that candidates and policymakers in the future will also strategically flaunt political norms, create controversies, and leverage social media technologies to influence legacy press coverage. Meanwhile, populist and demagogic candidates, or simply those wielding a perceived authenticiy, can leverage social media technologies to reach and mobilize audiences. And, the increasing reach and visibility of ideological and partisan outlets will likely further erode knowledge-producing instituions and the status of agreed-upon facts in policy-making, even as they have the potential to undermine a broad consensus in multicultural and pluralist democracy.

In the end, social media have brought about unprecedented potential opportunities for popular democratic participation and collective action. At the same time, social media platforms have provided strategic actors with opportunities to exploit fragmented public attention, distrust of expertise, and strong partisan identities.


How Is Social Media Changing Political Discourse?

Charlton McIlwain, Department of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University

 By the early 1990s, everyone from presidential historians to media scholars to political journalists began to lament television’s impact on the political process in general, and presidential politics in particular. Effective political candidates truncated complex policy into palatable sound bytes. Looking good on television became more important than actually governing. Public pandering overshadowed policymaking. According to those sounding the warning, nothing short of our democracy was at stake.

Professor Charlton McIlwain
Professor Charlton McIlwain

If the previous “new” medium posed a DEFCON-1 level threat to our democracy, today’s new media – social media in particular – has catapulted us to a DEFCON-5 level situation. Social media’s impact on our most recent presidential election, and the ways that our new President, his administration, and other political actors are engaging social media, should do much more than make us vigilant. It demands intervention.

First, social media exacerbates all of the erosion done by television to further curtail public attention to substantive political issues. That is, it further shrinks our desire and ability to consume, evaluate and respond reasonably to political and public policy information. U.S. citizens spend increasingly more time online, primarily on social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and the like. However, traditional news consumption – newspaper readership and television news viewing – has declined dramatically over just the past decade.

Yes, online news consumption has increased significantly, but as the same Pew Research report noted, this has much to do with the “social” nature of online news consumption. The difference between reading the front section of the New York Times newspaper, and reading a story from the New York Times in an online format is significant in terms of how we consume the information. Reading news in a social environment elevates the impulse for social commenting, sharing, and speed: read headline, then “like,” then share, then swipe. Reading expansive pieces of information in their entirety and for the purpose of understanding complexity becomes virtually impossible, if not unwanted altogether.

I will never forget a prominent activist who told me once that they discontinued engaging on Twitter because it was evident that not only did people not have the capacity to spend time reading the news stories linked to the argument made on the platform – they no longer could pay attention long enough to read the actual tweet! Nevertheless, people felt quite comfortable constructing whole narrative responses about a person and an issue without even bothering to read the actual statement the response is – ostensibly – responding to.

This brings me to the real reason we should be concerned about exporting our political engagement – whether by Presidents, other public officials or citizens – to social media platforms. In addition to severely limiting the amount and quality of political information that ideally spurs political debate, social media – unlike television before it – invites response. In some sense the ability to “engage” with the President and public officials is positive. But what I see happening more often is that weak arguments, low information, ad hominems, gossip, and plain falsehoods circulates most frequently and widely in social media. When public officials – like Presidents – engage in such spaces, the engagement they invite in return tends to be similar in kind. The effect is that the quality of our political discourse continues to decline, especially as the worst of it is held up as the standard by today’s Head of State


Taking a Long View of Social Media and the 2016 Presidential Election

Jenny Stromer-Galley, Director, Center for Computational and Data Sciences, Syracuse University

Back in 1996, when Republican Bob Dole ran against incumbent President Bill Clinton, the World Wide Web was just beginning to diffuse into U.S. households. Just over 20% of the public was online but commentators daydreamed about the “Information Superhighway” powerfully re-structuring our democratic systems by enabling greater voice and participation by the public.

Professor Jenny Stromer-Galley
Professor Jenny Stromer-Galley

Fast-forward to 2008. Again, pundits and watchers declared that the Internet had been effectively used by the junior senator from Illinois, Democrat Barack Obama, to energize and mobilize voters across the country to engage in unprecedented ways with the electoral process. Obama’s campaign was able to capitalize on small-donor fundraising and built social media tools to help supporters organize on behalf of his campaign, empowering millions of people to participate in the political process in new ways.

And, now here we are in 2017, looking back at the 2016 presidential election. Moderates and progressives now declare that the public and the press have been manipulated by political outsider Donald Trump — 140 Twitter characters at a time. My team’s analysis of social media use suggests that this was a truly negative political cycle, although the most negative candidate was not Trump but Clinton in terms of sheer volume of attack messages. Trump’s style, however, was more aggressive and personal than Clinton’s. And that style of attack was retweeted and shared more by the public than Clinton’s more substantive attacks.

The long view of political campaigns in the age of the Internet suggests that it has indeed been a disruptive force in electoral politics, shifting dynamics and enabling otherwise political outsiders to find themselves at the heart of power in the United States.



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