Social media and political communication: a short literature review

This is a small part of my literature review for my PhD thesis.

There are two trajectories that have been taken by researchers on the role of the Internet in civic and political life: the manner in which it is used as a communications tool by campaigns, candidates, causes and understanding and explaining its effects on civic and political behaviour (Carlisle and Patton, 2008).

Social media and technology have changed the communication landscape in different fields including politics. For example, the Internet has become a platform for debates and mobile phones have become a tool for political mobilisations (Castells, 2007). Bennett (2012, p.37) argues that social media has allowed for a rise in personalised politics and personalized forms of political participation where “individuals are mobilized around personal lifestyle values to engage with multiple causes.” In addition, Gil de Zuñiga et al.’s (2012) research shows that social networking sites (SNS) exerted positive impact on individuals’ political action through a.) information distribution; b.) discussion of this information with an individual’s social network, allowing an individual to make more sense of the information; and c.) its high interactivity component allowing information exchange, helping build trust and increasing social capital. Social media encourages political expression and participation (Gil de Zuñiga et al., 2014).

Social media also has its fair share of criticisms. The terms “slacktivism” and “clicktivism”, for example, were born from criticising young people who merely participate in politics online (Penney, 2017) which Morozov (2009) calls “lazy” “feel good online activism that has zero political and social impact”. However, Penney (2017) argues that although social media actions seem superficial and shallow, these low cost actions can be the first step for citizens to do something more meaningful. Penney (2017, p.7) further argues that networked peer-to-peer influence is the core of persuasive communication in the digital age and that social media activities may help invigorate democracy “by casually injecting the political into everyday spaces and places for popular culture.”

Social media is a blend of interpersonal communication and mass media, facilitating both interpersonal messages and mass media messages (Neubaum and Kramer, 2017). The simplicity of political participation in social media (e.g. liking, sharing, retweeting) transforms interpersonal interaction to a wide dissemination of the message (Fogg, 2008), makes it ideal for opinion leaders as a platform in information dissemination (Neubaum and Kramer, 2017). Penney (2017) borrows the idea of a curatorial agency to describe how selecting what kind of information to pass on social media pushes the flow of media messages in the direction of people’s own interests.

Social media allows for reaching a large-scale audience defined by its publicness (size and composition of the audience) and persistence of communications (Fogg, 2008; Boyd, 2010). Neubaum and Kramer (2016) argue that due to the wide reach of social media, people can be silenced from voicing their opinions on a controversial issue, in fear of other people negatively judging them for what they say. On the other hand, Rojas (2010) asserts that when people perceive mass media coverage as biased, social media users correct wrong media reports or representations and counterbalance biased mass media messages.

In the age of digital media, the public’s participation in agenda setting is on the rise (Penney, 2017). Meraz and Papacharissi (2013, p. 96) coin the term “networked gatekeeping” which they defined as “the process through which crowd-sourced practices permit non-elite and elite actors to co-create and co-curate flows of information.” This practice allows for what Tweksbury and Rittenberg (2009, p.197) call “information democratization” where it is no longer elite media that has monopoly over gatekeeping but rather allows citizens to decide what stories are important, influencing what information is exposed in the news.

However, Tweksbury and Rittenberg (2009) have also addressed that information democratization can lead to polarization and decreased social cohesion; that citizens who are exposed to polarized news and partisan issues shared by like-minded peers are not prepared to debate and act on important issues. Gainous and Wagner (2013) warn of this one sided information flow supporting a single ideological viewpoint, which politicians can use to send out information for the benefit of their agenda and which can easily be done in a polarized network. Without traditional fact-checking of journalists, strategic misinformation can proliferate and do damage to an informed public.

There has been an increase in the use of social media for political campaigning. For example, the United States presidential campaigns of Obama and Trump used social media to influence their own network (Stromer-Galley, 2019). Political communication via social media has helped populist leaders by enabling direct connection to supporters, networking, spreading messages to sympathisers, and organising rallies even for candidates with limited resources (Norris and Inglehart, 2019). In 2018, it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica helped Donald Trump win the US presidential elections by using illegally obtained data from Google, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube by targeting US voters with tailored and personalised messages (Lewis and Hilder, 2018). 

Southeast Asia has experienced the same phenomena in using social media for political campaigning. Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines rank among the top users of social media and where many consider Facebook as the Internet (Ong, 2020). Innovations in the use of social media in Southeast Asia include the use of micro-influencers for political campaigns. Micro-influencers are online celebrities with smaller following, making them harder to identify (Ong, 2020).

Research on social media as a tool for political communication has shown how social media has both its advantages and disadvantages. It allows for direct communication to the audience, gives a platform for those with less resources, and bypasses traditional gatekeeping by the media creating more space for information democratisation. However, these can be abused and social media can become a platform for disinformation, polarisation, and an echo-chamber for the public.