Social Media and Democracy

Over the past several years, we’ve seen more disruption in American politics than we have historically. At the center of this chaos is social media. And it’s powerful.

We saw the 2016 elections elevate social media from a burgeoning political tool to a principal player. Again, during the 2018 midterm elections, social media was used to influence and engage American voters.

In fact, we’ve seen candidates turn to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms as their primary vehicles for communication rather than rely on media outlets and advertising avenues.

During his initial run for the presidency, Donald Trump drew attention—praise from his ardent supporters, outrage from many others—with his barrage of tweets to tens of millions of followers.

Facebook became the breeding ground for misinformation as Russian and other foreign troll factories flooded the platform with posts and memes aimed at confusing voters and wreaking havoc in the 2016 elections. Every platform saw vicious battles between the left and right and an onslaught of memes and videos intended to destroy politicians, parties and movements.

For the first time ever, voters were influenced by tailored advertising messages and fake news to muddy the waters and discredit other candidates in an effort to drown out legitimate conversations happening on the social sphere.

By these indicators alone, social media has bruised and battered American democracy. Yet in the midst of this assault, social media’s popularity somehow continued to surge. Pew Research Center reports that Facebook, despite recent issues, remains one of the most widely used social media sites among U.S. adults, rivaling YouTube and followed closely by Instagram and Snapchat among young adults.

As social media continues to ingrain itself in our political culture, the need to incorporate this vital topic into our curricula is clear. Three years ago, late dean Lorraine Branham of the Newhouse School and retired dean Liz Liddy from the School of Information Studies (iSchool) gathered faculty and charged us with identifying potential synergies in the research and academic programming that revolve around social media.

One of the primary outcomes of this joint meeting was the Social Media and Democracy colloquium, underwritten by a Syracuse University CUSE grant, that brought a series of speakers to campus to discuss activism, fake news and social media’s influence on the 2018 primary elections.

As part of the second year of the grant, students in Newhouse and the iSchool planned a data-driven, interactive art exhibition titled “Democracy in the Digital Age: Does It Exist?” (See facing page.)

We are now working with iSchool associate professor Lu Xiao on a book titled “American Democracy: Influence, Activism, and Misinformation in the Social Era,” to be published in 2021 by Routledge. The book includes research studies and theoretical essays from established and well-known researchers covering social media’s impact on American politics. Chapters cover a wide range of topics, including activism in the digital age through outreach and empowerment, online influence, the spread of misinformation and disinformation, fake news, Infowars, the crusade to preserve the First Amendment and ultimately the societal impacts that continue to be created by combining social media and politics.

In the past year, a Pew Research report surveyed technology experts about digital media’s impact on democracy in the coming decade. The report stressed how social media platforms continue to be key distributors of misinformation that erodes public trust, along with the fact that social media companies often value profits over the interests of individuals or the public good.

Regardless of the challenges, we are optimistic. Social media can be used for social good. We see that in movements such as Black Lives Matter, March for our Lives and the Women’s March. The epitome of two-way, open communication, social media presents the opportunity for each of us to engage in ways never before possible. Ideas, thoughts, actions can all happen because we are connected to others on the social sphere.

Jon Glass is a professor of practice in magazine, news and digital journalism, and Regina Luttrell is an assistant professor of public relations at the Newhouse School.