From one of her Facebook friends, Kylie Mussay saw statuses practically every day with interesting articles or facts about Mitt Romney. But after President Obama was re-elected Tuesday night, that friend’s statuses quickly turned to complaints.
“I feel like if somebody’s very informed about something, that’s their platform to share their opinion,” the University of Illinois junior said. “But it can get excessive.”
Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter were places of political debate and conversation throughout this election season. Reactions to the debates circulated around #DNC2012 and #RNC2012 hashtags, Big Bird took to Twitter to react to Romney’s assertion that he would cut funding for PBS if elected and Romney’s comment about “binders full of women” took on a life of its own just minutes after he made it.
“It really is a truly remarkable thing,” said Daniel Kreiss, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina who studies political communication. “Those conversations that we used to have in town squares and barbershops, around the water cooler are now increasingly taking place digitally as well.”
Twitter reported that throughout the day on Tuesday, users sent more than 31 million election-related tweets. As results were being announced, 327,452 tweets were being sent per minute. The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 22% of registered voters let others know how they voted via social media sites.
“What’s positive about it is that more people can engage in democratic debate, democratic dialogue, and it lowers the cost of doing things like getting involved in an election,” Kreiss said. “It’s easier to have political conversations with your friends and your family, it’s easier to give money, it’s easier to plan events, and I think all of that really just fosters civic engagement and dialogue.”
People are receiving political messages faster than ever before, said Glenn Sparks, a professor and associate head in the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University. That gives candidates and people who want their messages spread power, but not without adding some risk.
As in the case of “binders full of women,” voters may latch on to comments made by politicians and frame the way they are perceived before the candidates have any opportunity to elaborate or explain.
“You can’t be caught off guard today with what’s happening in the electronic village,” he said. “You’ve got to be monitoring that, you’ve got to be on top of it and you have to be able to respond quickly.”
People are increasingly using social media to urge their friends to vote, and there is some evidence that it works, said Kjerstin Thorson, an assistant professor in the University of South California Annenberg’s School of Journalism who researches the effects of social media on political engagement, activism and persuasion. Pew found that 30% of registered voters in this election were encouraged to vote via posts on social media sites, and 20% encouraged others to vote in the same way.
But Thorson said the distinction must be made between people who love politics and are interested in discussing it and those who are more alienated from the process. Their experiences on social media sites will be very different.
“Not only are these people not interested, but they also have networks of friends who are not interested,” Thorson said. “It’s really important to remember when we get all excited about social media and politics that some people don’t have that sort of richness of political content on their social platforms.”
In fact, many people avoid political content on Facebook, Thorson said. In a March 2012 Pew study, it was found that some 18% of social media users have blocked, unfriended or hidden someone because of political posts they made on social media sites.
University of Illinois sophomore Daniel Stankus said he often commented on his friends’ political statuses or made his own during the election season. He said he wouldn’t know where else to express his ideas.
“It just makes your own ideas more concrete,” he said.
Because the flow of information is so great, Sparks said fewer people in the future will identify with a single political position or party than they did in the pre-electronic age of doing politics.
“Today, the number of different communities that we can connect to for information is just increasing exponentially,” he said. “I think that causes people to have to consider more different kinds of information than we had access to before, and I think that leads to a kind of voter volatility.”
Technology will become part and parcel of the way campaigns are run in the future, Sparks said. He believes electronic technology will be used to actually cast ballots.
“I think the days of standing in four-hour lines are probably going to be behind us in the not too distant future,” he said.
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