How social media is changing politics

There was once a time where political campaigning meant an occasional leaflet through the door, some debate on television or a rallying on a populous main-city street. Support was garnered by direct influences: the policies extolled by the figure or party, their personality and, often, their quality as an orator, and only sometimes inspired by the vague assumption that you’d disappear if you voted the other way.

There was, in a nutshell, something more frank and open about politics; peripheral influence was accepted so long as it didn’t directly contravene the democratic process, and the balance of such influences was expected.

But new media, naturally, means new strategy. Social media budgets amongst businesses have grown exponentially over the past five years. Political campaigns have been quick to manoeuvre into this same space, working their party’s figures as one would a fresh new brand. The political discourse has been shrunk to the size of a smartphone, with policies and iffy declarations delivered in bit-size tweets. And it’s not only because Millennials are such a target audience – on the contrary, the adoption rate of social media has shown it has replaced traditional media for most age groups – but because individual engagement with politics is as easy as 140 characters thrown out on a Twitter page.

In a world of political disassociation, in which the elite and non-elite are suspended in two entirely different realities, social media has become a device for humanising political figures and creating relatability. Our politicians share the same social space as our friends, our families and our favourite products. In the 2008 election, Barack Obama set the pace for campaigning via Facebook, loosening the threads of traditionally-organised politics. The consequence of this, however, was forcing political discourse onto a platform wherein the troll is king – where controversy breeds publicity, and the unconventional candidate equals the sexy candidate.  

In the blink of an eye, the democratic process has transitioned from still-framed picture portrayals of candidates, figures and campaigns within morning newspapers, to live-action events continuously framed by their current action, and their latest tweet. The social media population is naturally mercurial; headline breaking news is interesting for little more than a day. The indirect effect of this is the need for continued controversy. What Trump said a few months ago is largely irrelevant; what matters is what he’s saying today, and whether he’s reiterating whichever previous outlandish statement or racist jibe. If he’s able to keep the controversy fuelled, the world of social media will do the rest, abetted by the Google News algorithm.

For earnest politicians, social media is a necessary evil. It’s often-times rebellious population has the communal power to rise and collapse political figures. As with any mob mentality, individual opinions are dispensable, easily subsumed within communal waves of infectious hysteria. Candidates can be swept up, only to be left by the wayside once the fun is over. Relevance is a temporary, easily exhausted state, and the candle wick burns quickly if it burns at all. Chunk size information has replaced half-hour speeches, and complex topics are condensed into single sentences to sate an unthinking, instant gratification culture.

Politicians as sound, reliable and secure figures don’t have the sway they once did. It doesn’t represent fun, and it isn’t change. There’s something tantalising about a future unravelled, even for the most level headed. Many of us will do what we can to shatter the status quo – to see a seemingly dysfunctional system upturned. If a working order is to re-established, then chaos must first ensue, or so goes the lingering presumption of many a would-be digital activist.