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Social Media Consumption in Politics

Guy M. Massamba



The central place that social media occupy today is the result of change in the news environment and news consumption practices (Bergström and Belfrage (2018) taking place through social network sites. This observation can be applied to the context of political consumption of social media, and attention given to this fact reflects the interest in the relationship between social media and politics. Bergström and Belfrage emphasizes this notion by stating that "social engagement and a general political interest are usually good predictors of news consumption practices and their explanatory power has increased over time" (p. 585). Factored in the exponential growth of consumption practices in social media is the aspect of interactivity that facilitates communications between consumers of various backgrounds and interests instantly sharing and reacting to each other and to many others as they connect through the use of digital technologies (Manning 2014). Interactivity itself is embedded in the technological capabilities that are inherently characteristic of social network sites. This conceptualization captures and relies on a comprehensive definition of social media by Kaplan and Haenlein. They define social media as “a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0 and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content” (Kaplan and Haenlein 2010, p. 61). How does this definition applies in the political sphere as an area where social media are widely embraced for various purposes? This question constitutes the main orientation of this brief essay using few cases for illustration.


Social Media: An Ecosystem for Political Growth


Given the importance accorded to exchange and technological foundations that constitute the complex in which social media operations take place, the concept of social network sites and their significance provided by widespread and easy-to-use applications gains preeminence. Boyd and Ellison (2007) resort to a definition of social network sites that encompasses all key aspects of the functioning of social media as connecting tools. According to this definition, social network sites are "web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system" (p. 211). The ecosystem described by this authors could not be overlooked by political actors seeking to expand their networks and instill the meaning of their narratives into followers and on the general political stage.


Social network sites are seen as important venues for political campaigns. Carlisle and Patton (2013) note the prominent role played by social network sites, such as Facebook, in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. In another case, Biswas, Ingle and Roy (2014) show the importance of social media in elections in India, as they observe the effectiveness of social media as it contributed to the victory of the AamAadmi Party (AAP) or Common Man's Party won power in Delhi in December 2013, and helped galvanize volunteers and sympathizers to raise considerable amounts of funds and reach out 3.5 million people before the election. In a comparative analysis of the use of social media in political campaigns in Mexico and Chile, among others, Cárdenas, Ballesteros and Jara (2017) discuss the ways social media have been integrated by political leaders with varying degrees of success reflecting the history and the place of media in each country. The same authors study the case of Chile as it reflects the correlation of the impact of social media on politics with the increasing influence of social media venues in the political sphere. They assert that the increase in the use of social media in Chile mirrors an extensive use in political campaigns.


The penetration of social media in politics is undeniable in all parts of the globe, although with different degrees of influence and outcomes. Success in electoral achievements have been widely identified and associated to the way social media have been used. However, given the pervasiveness of social media in political settings, failure to achieve intended results can also be attributed to the way social media are used and the information shared through social media portals. In a study of the impact of social media on politics in Malaysia, Gomez (2014) reports on an analysis that attributes the loss of parliamentary majority control by the ruling party, Barisan Nasional, "to the online contents disseminated through blogs, opposition party websites and alternative news portals" (p. 96).


Social Media and Prospects for Democratization


New media have been heralded for their potential to stir change in a number of areas, including governance, democratic processes such as electoral initiatives and political and economic activities. In situations of political uncertainty the new media  have supported expressions of democratic change. Cases such as the Tunisian and Egyptian uprising provide illustration of the effects of social media where societies express democratic aspirations. The events of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa cannot be misinterpreted when their development is linked to the use of social media. The regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, known for not being inclined to relinquish power, were strongholds for the ruling oligarchies, and were established on institutional disconnect between the governing institutions and the unsteady socioeconomic situations that comprised various social actors.


Interconnectivity through new technologies and media has made visible societies and exposed the complex organization of their political and social interactions. Its effective capability to disseminate information has also allowed societies to open themselves up to ways of disentangling constraining political and social grips. The protests in Tunisia, for instance, were quickly exposed to the world through information dissemination on the Internet on YouTube and Twitter by protesters. The exposed intensification of violent repression by government forces sparked global condemnation of the regime and elicited sympathy from foreign governments. As an article published in The New York Times comments, “by many accounts, the new arsenal of social networking helped accelerate Tunisia’s revolution, driving the country’s 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, into ignominious exile and igniting a conflagration that has spread across the Arab world at breathtaking speed” (New York Times, January 30, 2011). The end of the authoritarian regime ushered in institutional change loaded with hopes for comprehensive transformation of the political system established to pursue democratic ideals.


An Instrument for Establishing a Conglomerate Political Community 


The literature leaves no doubt about the consumption of social media in most areas of human life, including politics. From being a method of political communication with the capability to facilitate interactions, and generate and feed information into political campaign, political marketing, and government decision making, social media have become increasingly instrumental in politics. This is echoed in Carderaro's analysis (2018), which points out that "addressing social media is therefore useful for understanding how political communities use the Internet to create their own channels of communication and contribute to the development of political knowledge" (p. 783). The increase in relevance of social media as communication tools for political objectives is associated with a shift in public communication, whereby content in social media is no longer exclusively produced and managed by leaders or specific actors, such as politicians (Lakkysetty, Deep and Balamurugan 2018). In addition, social media serve as ideal tools for expanded outreach during political campaigns (Corchia 2019). Their accessibility through such widespread applications as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, contributes to direct access by campaigners to any mind into which they intend to instill knowledge and the meaning of their political narrative. 


Baker (2009) identifies models of political interaction, the populist and the cyber-salon models, in which interactions are designed, in their particularity, to get everyone involved in the political process or the deliberative discourse. An important factor playing in this development is the heterogeneous character of social media environments (Barnidge et al. 2018) and that of participants in these processes of political exchange. Social media consumers are not generally homogenous, and this is also the case in the consumption of social media in the political sphere. Social media consumers engage in networks according to their political interests reflecting a search for meaning through political involvement. Larsson and Hallvard (2012) examine the use of signs in Twitter as a way the network helps consumers to specify and identify with their topics of interest by following threads of discussion that meet their perceived objectives and aspirations.




The public sphere constitutes a context in which many participants evolve with their social and political experiences, values and intents brought to bear on the nature and direction of the shared space. This open space has been filled with an array of ideas and behaviors through social media. It strives through communications, large and small, and influenced by all sorts of interests, including politics, which express shared or competing beliefs and hopes about governance. Social media have been readily resorted to for such purposes, with varied outcomes. Social media have reinforced the capabilities of social movements to drive institutional change. There is an increased density in the communications landscape, coupled with complexity and significant of more engaged participation from individuals and organizations (Engelstad 2017). Access to information is becoming widely available to greater numbers of the global population and more and more people have opportunities to create messages, voice their ideas, and engage in public, even global debates, stimulating widespread collective action.

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