Social media isn’t always the ideal place to stage a healthy and diverse debate on political beliefs, as U.S. presidential candidate Chris Christie learned this month on Twitter.
Announcing his run for the White House, Christie took the stage at his New Jersey high school, but his campaign slogan, “Telling it like it is,” unveiled on Twitter with a corresponding hashtag. The tag soon went viral, but not as Christie probably would have preferred.
Social media analytics firm Topsy indicated that in the approximately 3,000 tweets sent in the first few hours after Christie’s announcement, #TellingItLikeItIs had a sentiment score of just 17 out of 100, meaning that the wording used in tweets bearing the hashtag were overwhelmingly negative.
Among the tagged tweets that didn’t include profanity was one from peeved New Jersey teacher Dayna Orlak, who attacked Christie’s weight in addition to his policies.
“I work hard for my pension AND pay for it,” Orlak tweeted. “Teachers are ‘gluttons’? Look in the mirror. Liar.#TellingItLikeItIs”
Fellow Republican hopeful Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal endured similar backlash in the wake of his #AskBobby hashtag in June. One user tweeted that if Jindal was foolish enough to think #AskBobby was a good idea, "how can you consider yourself a competent 21st Century president?"
University of Delaware political communication researcher and associate professor Lindsay Hoffman said the backlash of #TellingItLikeItIs or #AskBobby are examples of how social media might be changing the way Americans express their political views — and not always in a good way.
Hoffman said using social media as a debate platform is part of a trend of increasing polarized political views, and that leads to more personal attacks and less-constructive debate.
“We are creating these ideological enclaves on social media where people are more motivated by people who share their point of view,” Hoffman said. “The analogy I like to use is that there’s two sides to a coin, and social media can increase the attention and interest in one side of the coin.”
Allegheny College assistant political science professor Andy Bloeser said the Internet and social media make it easier for people to filter out ideas they disagree with.
“There’s always been a human tendency to gravitate toward people and opinions we agree with,” Bloeser said. “Social media can reinforce that tendency and it comes at theexpense of not hearing critiques of our ideas that we might need to hear.”
There’s some evidence that social media can encourage users to surround themselves with like-minded people and opinions. A 2014 Pew Research Center study examining political polarization and social media use found self-identified conservatives were, when on social sites like Facebook, more likely than people in other ideological groups to hear public opinions like their own, and were much more likely to say their close friends share their political views.
The same study found that self-identified liberals were more likely to tailor their Facebook and social feeds around political issues rather than individual candidates and were more likely than people in other ideological groups to “unfriend” or block someone because of a political disagreement.
But Hoffman and Bloeser say the tendency to tailor social media feeds to reflect or reinforce a person's views is an urge that is older than Facebook or Twitter. They say intense political polarization seen on social media is directly tied to a dramatic shift in the news industry.
“Cable news started this. Now that we have so many more choices, news orgs are finding their niche to keep people coming back,” Hoffman said of selective exposure. “If I watch more of one channel because I see things I agree with, I become more polarized and aggressive against the opposing viewpoint.”
Political scientists call this selective exposure — the idea that the plethora of niche content and content filtering tools on social media allow people to tailor the content they see to the extent that they’re exposed to fewer points of view on any given issue.
“When you read a newspaper in the past, there was a sense of serendipity where you’d find something you weren’t looking for,” Irina Raicu of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University said. “If everything we read is so personalized online, we lose that serendipity and the likelihood of stumbling across something that makes us look at an issue in another way.”
When people are able to select their news coverage based on worldview rather than objectivity, Bloeser said people can also become less objective about the issues.
“Think of how differently Fox News might treat a Supreme Court decision vs. CNN. Cable news outlets and sites like The Huffington Post allow people to seek out information in a way that conforms to their beliefs and values,” Bloeser said. “To the extent that we want to find common ground, or find creative solutions to the issues that are important to us, we’re encountering an information environment where that’s more difficult.”
Selective exposure can make discussions about political issues — from who should be president to what should be done about the economy — much more volatile, Hoffman said.
“Once we become entrenched in this way of talking, people are downright brutal toward the other side,” Hoffman said. “When we get into pattern of behavior, it will impact you when you meet someone on the other side.”
More talk, less action?
While social media may lead to more people talking about political issues online, Hoffman said there’s little evidence that it leads to action in real life.
“People may be talking more about political issues, but they’re not necessarily doing more about it,” Hoffman said. “If you look at the last couple of presidential elections, where social media was a definite factor, voting numbers hardly shifted at all.”
Especially in the 2012 election between President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney, social media became an untested catalyst for political campaigns. The Obama and Romney camps dedicated time, money and staffers to capturing undecided, new and young voters via social media as the power of political TV spots waned.
“It is all part of the continuing battle to appear more human and relatable. Historically, politicians did that by eating at local diners and shopping at Wal-Mart,” The New York Times reported in a social media comparison of the campaigns. “Now, they also share playlists of their favorite tunes (on Spotify).”
As Hoffman pointed out, voting numbers for the last three presidential elections (from 2004 to 2012), rose little with the rise in voting-age population. The 2008 election saw a swell with 132,618,580 voters turning out compared to 122,294,978 in 2004. But that number slipped in 2012 back to 129,235,731 voters.
“It’s great for ringing an alarm bell. When our interests are threatened, there’s now a cadre of people sharing information with other like-minded people very quickly, as we saw with the Ferguson protests,” Bloeser said. “But if people are clicking ‘like’ in place of other forms of action, that doesn’t have the same impact.”
Hoffman is optimistic about the future of social media as a political organizing tool rather than simply a political sounding board, citing the recent backlash against public displays of the Confederate flag on Twitter as a big reason it was removed from the South Carolina statehouse.
“Social media can bring us together online and offline by sending important messages to policymakers,” Hoffman said. “We just need to figure out what the rules of the game are.”