Social Media Interactions
2016 has been a pretty bad year so far. A number of unexpected political events occurred, which will shape the global political environment for years. The two most prominent, perhaps, are the UK referendum vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump being elected president of the USA. Both of these events somehow snuck up on everyone – nobody expected things to turn out the way the did. And for every person directly impacted by either of these events, who is pleased with their outcome, there is at least one other person who is at the very least unhappy and worried or at its worst, scared and feeling threatened in their immediate environment.
It’s interesting to dive deeper into the reasons why both of these events occurred and what the factors were that lead to these unexpected outcomes. Given that nobody wanted that to happen, it makes no sense that it did, right? Well, the thing about that is that as human beings we surround ourselves with like-minded people. Therefore, you are very unlikely to have regular contact with somebody who doesn’t share your political beliefs. And even if you do, both of you will be painfully aware how pointless it is to try and convince the other in their political beliefs. That’s unless you are the type of person who won’t shut up about their political stance and is constantly bringing it up in conversation and enforcing it on others. If you are that person – stop. Just stop. No one likes that.
The point is that you are most likely surrounded by family and friends who share the same views as you about whether the UK should leave the EU or whether Donald Trump should be the next president of the US. Instead, in your everyday life, the one place where you are most likely to come across people who hold the opposite beliefs to yours, is on social media. That is why social media platforms have the potential to become grounds for ugly arguments. On social media the person or group of people you are attacking cannot respond to defend themselves the way they’d be able to in a face-to-face clash. This definitely does not help with eliminating “internet hate”. And this is why, in my opinion, social media interactions on serious matters such as the UK referendum and the US presidency can be so quietly powerful in shaping the political landscape. Their influence is way more subtle than that of a direct face-to-face dispute with someone who doesn’t share your beliefs. Social media content can influence the way you think without you even noticing.
An increasing number of people today get their news from social media. The problem with that it creates the opportunity for untrue statements, presented as facts, to circulate freely from one reader to another. This stems from the inability to hold somebody accountable for making false statements and accusations on social media. Content can be passed around with no sanction or control, and unless the reader proactively researches whether what they are reading or seeing is true, they won’t know the difference. Clicking the “Share” button doesn’t make you accountable for spreading a lie, because it did not originate with you and you could not have known that it is a lie. And that’s fair enough, but it can have a massive impact on issues much bigger than most people imagine. False claims about presidential candidates or attacks to minority groups disguised as jokes or funny content can be truly harmful.
What’s more, usually the most popular social media posts are also those with the lowest quality. A picture of your lunch will get you 5 times the number of likes that posting a serious message about a political or social issue would. A selfie might get you 10 times the number. Try posting about climate change instead and see what happens. No one seems to care. So if you post a false fact about a politician, in the form of a joke or a caricature, you are way more likely to engage the average reader than if you post the raw boring fact.
The other factor, which contributes to this spread of false information on social media, is the lack of education and understanding of political issues among the general public. But current politicians in many countries have no motive to educate the people, since they will never be elected again if everyone understood the reasons behind their troubles. It’s a terrible vicious cycle.
Social media interactions may not be the only factor which impacts the global political landscape, but it is certainly a prominent one. If we want to grow as a society we need to control our social media interactions better when it comes down to truly important issues. Legislation in some countries today does not consider expressions of political views the day before an election day as enforcing a political opinion. The impact of these social media posts is indirect and subtle, it sneaks up on you and if you are not set in your choice it has the potential to sway your vote in one direction or another. Herein lies the danger of more unexpected turns in our political landscape for the next years to come.