First they laughed at him, then he won. When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States in 2016, people around the world were stunned. How could a reality TV star become the most powerful man in the world? Could it have something to do with his Twitter addiction? Various publications, from Forbes to the New York Times, credited the incredible power of social media with handing Trump the keys to the White House.
But is that true? Can social media really significantly influence elections? Or even win them? And is the same thing happening in Europe, for example in the recent British elections, or in the upcoming German federal elections? The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford recently presented its Digital News Report for the year 2016. The most important finding of the study was that half of all respondents now receive messages via social networks (51 percent). This is worrying for several reasons.
Some argue that social media is full of bots, filter bubbles and viral fake news. It seems less and less important to know the veracity and the source of information. Fake news from Macedonia received more clicks than genuine news during the US election campaign. Filter bubbles prevent any confrontation with other opinions. And social media bots pump out propaganda.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Ferdinand, who believes that people communicate too much using social media. What impact does this have on us as a society? And can social media influence politics (and elections)?
We put this comment to Dr. Ralf Melzer who heads a project on right-wing extremism and populism at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. What would he say?
Yes, social media can influence elections because there are more and more people who are not only informed via the Internet, but more specifically via social media. Limited information procurement is one problem. The other problem is the famous filter bubble. It demonstrates the fact that the way we get information has changed massively in recent years. The trouble is that through social media and the algorithms, people only communicate with people who share their opinions. And within peer groups, opinions can radicalise. People are being less and less confronted with other opinions or encouraged to think about other opinions. This means that a broad public platform is missing for debates […] This encapsulation of communication into individual filter bubbles is problematic and will inevitably influence elections in the future …
For another perspective, we put the same comment to Nicola Beer, Secretary General of the economically liberal German Free Democratic Party (FDP). What would she say about the impact of social media on elections?
Certainly, social media have an influence on political decisions, as well as on citizens. But there has always been propaganda and people who believe it. The number of channels for the distribution of fake news, the volume and the speed of circulation has increased. As always, it needs the mature, enlightened, critical citizen who follows the news carefully and remains skeptical. This also provides opportunities for classical media, e.g. newspapers, because it makes a difference whether news is spread on a random website or by professional journalists. To this end, however, publishers and broadcasters must invest in quality journalism and the promotion of young researchers. So sound research, clear separation of commentary and reporting, faster and more information…
We also had a comment from Milo. He thinks that fake news has always existed, but is now spreading more quickly through the Internet. So what can be done about it? We put this comment to Ralf Melzer for his reaction:
This is, of course, a big question. Firstly, it is right what Milo says: There has been fake news before, throughout the entire history of media and communication […] But social media has multiplied the potential impact. Also the inhibition threshold to express oneself in this way is lower […]
What can we do about it? This is a good question and I believe there is no magic bullet. First of all it is important that we do something about it and do not say the internet is a place where everyone can do what they want […] We have to do something. One must, I believe, do what is now being initiated by [Germany’s] Justice Minister Heiko Maas, in exerting pressure on companies like Facebook. They must ensure that hate messages are erased as quickly as possible. I believe we must develop a social awareness that this is not acceptable. In addition, I believe that fact checking and the like are important. We have to uncover fake news and make it known. This is certainly Sisyphean work, but we have to do it.
Can social media influence elections? Did this happen in the recent British and French elections? Could it happen in the upcoming German election? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!
FOTO: CC / Flickr – Anders Henrikson