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Social media is causing unprecedented shifts in political campaigning and civil engagement

In the 1920s, the advent of radio forced politicians to adjust their rhetoric, since their messages were entering the homes of voters as opposed to being bellowed out in public spaces. Then came along television, which emphasised the importance of a good image and intriguing sound bites. In the modern day, social media and the internet is encouraging new shifts in the political arena across the world.

There a few ways in which this shift is taking place. To begin with, social media is quickly becoming the main way people consume the news, relying on social platforms to keep them up-to-date with what is happening locally, nationally and across the world. Secondly, it provides a platform for the electorate and politicians to spark conversation and debate, and also allows candidates to more effectively mobilise voters. Additionally, social media has become an increasingly lucrative source of donations for political campaigns.

In 2008, much of the success of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was due to an effective online presence. The so-called “Facebook election” saw Mr Obama’s campaign entice voters through email, videos and social media posts. It was also able to generate plenty of funds through lots of small donations by digital means. All of this also played a vital role in Mr Obama’s re-election in 2012 as well. In this year’s presidential race, and other political events across the globe, social media will also be pivotal to the success of political candidates. It has now become too big to ignore.

Newsfeed’s Over Newspapers

The internet has now become one of the most used resources for reading the news. Gradually, more and more voters are finding their news items on social media platforms and even Google. Findings from the Pew Research Centre show that 62% of US adults read the news from social media sites, of which 18% do so often.

One of the more popular sites is Facebook, which is perhaps the most, if not one of the most, popular social platforms on the web. The social media giant is responsible for fully two-thirds of US Facebook users’ news consumption, which is more than the 47% it had just three years ago. In the US, 30% of internet users spend their time on Facebook’s platforms, which include Instagram and WhatsApp.

Some are sceptical, though, about the likes of Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms having such dominance on the internet. Last month, in fact, some reports suggested that Facebook had been suppressing conservative news from its site. The particular issue raised was concerned with a feature known as “trending topics”, which displays news items to users with the help of curators selecting the content. However, this feature is not a part of the “newsfeed”, which is the most personalised section of Facebook that users spend the most time on and where the content shown is chosen through algorithms.

There is little evidence, if any, to suggest that Facebook does engage in such political interference. But it does demonstrate the subtle tensions between left-leaning Silicon Valley and conservatives in America. Facebook’s business model involves getting its users to spend as much time on their site as possible. This means showing them content they are most likely to be interested in or that is more relevant to their interests and preferences. Thus, the more time people spend on Facebook, the more ads the company can sell.

But Facebook, as well as other sites such as Google, can have a fairly significant impact on civil engagement and political activity as a whole. A study by Nature in 2012 found that approximately 340,000 turned out to vote in the mid-term elections in 2010 due to a message on Facebook encouraging them to do so. A similar effect has taken place recently, too, in the run-up to Britain’s EU referendum. Government data showed a surge in voter registration after a Facebook message was deployed reminding voters of the deadline. There was a notable rise from under 35’s. All the numbers show that social media has enhanced its role in the political process, and it is likely to do so in the future.

Harnessing Hashtags

During the primaries in the US, a number of candidates committed to establishing an effective online presence to aid their campaigns. Ted Cruz did live streams on Periscope, Marco Rubio was active on Snapchat, and Jeb Bush and Hilary Clinton talked with their followers on Twitter. Donald Trump, however, victorious in the primaries, seems to be the master when it comes to inciting fierce debate with hashtags and emojis. Mr Trump’s outlandish and inflammable tweets attract vast amounts of engagement and also gives reporters plenty to talk about. His recent tweets on the fatal shootings in Orlando are a typical example. In them, he accused Obama of colluding with IS and suggested that Muslims in America have knowledge of attacks before they take place but refuse to give any prior warning of it.

These peevish theories and fiery statements Mr Trump produces, which is not only evident online but is also exerted in his public speeches, rallies and even TV interviews, reflects those commonly featured among internet trolls. They incite fierce debate by making incredulous and purposefully offensive comments on social media platforms, which are meant to cause a sharp reaction from those who see it (more here). For Mr Trump, this is a good way to drive lots of attention his way, and attract those who may share the same controversial views as himself. He understands that to sustain a presence online, you must constantly put yourself in the spotlight. Hence, he has earned himself over 9 million followers on Twitter as a result, more than Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.

Mr Trump’s online dominance, and the consequential popularity and success of his campaign thus far, shows just how much social media is changing political races. On the internet, bitterness is favoured over candidness, and emotionalism prevails over pragmatism. The Republican nominee’s success seems to suggest all of this.

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Obama’s online success in both presidential campaigns came with the help of digital strategy and technology firm Blue State Digital. It also helped the Labour Party during the UK general elections in 2015, and has operated all over the world, including in Brazil, France and Mexico. The company helps political campaigns utilise the power of sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

The company says there are three keys to success for political campaigns when being active on social media and the internet as a whole. The first key is to do with how campaigns get their message across to voters via these social platforms. Sending emails, uploading videos, and making regular posts and updates help to convey the campaign’s main message more potently by pushing it through all the channels available online. This ensures that more people become more aware of it as it appears in their feeds and inboxes frequently.

The second important key is money. Mr Obama was able to raise $600 million during the 2012 presidential campaign just from lots of small donations through the internet. That was out of around the $1 billion he was able to raise in total. Taking advantage of what social media has to offer can prove very lucrative.

The third important key, the company believes, is mobilisation. Getting people from their computer screens to knocking on doors is also critical. Having voters retweet or share posts related to the campaign also helps to spread the message, generating more funds and support.

The advent of crowdfunding online, though, has become an increasingly significant source of money for political campaigns in recent years. This is particularly the case in the UK. The Labour Party during the 2015 elections were able to generate small yet valuable donations through digital means. The share of funds coming from their typical donors, such as trade unions and big corporations, had fallen.

The same trend can be found in America too, though on a bigger scale. Research by Pew showed that an increasing amount of people made donations solely online as opposed to offline (see Figure above). Sam Jeffers, managing director at Blue State Digital, agrees that these figures show how social media is causing shifts in the way political campaigns are being conducted. “Its built a whole new architecture for campaigning,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg.

Unlimited Power?

The power and significance of social media in the political sphere exists without any laws or regulations monitoring it directly. There are some who may say that regulation is necessary. The prospect that Facebook could suppress certain content to favour the company’s own political preferences of its choosing (Mr Zuckerberg has in the past made known his stance on a few political issues) does not just frighten conservatives. Many may feel that such internet juggernauts should be monitored carefully to ensure they do not provide services which may be political bias to ensure that voters will not be unfairly swayed. Equally, the rising fruitfulness of social media in terms of donations may also encourage new monetary regulations. But since this is all unprecedented, such rules are not yet in place. It should not be too long before they are.