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UW Election Eye 2012

Campaign 2012 through the eyes of UW faculty and students

November 4, 2012 at 7:00 AM

Is social media “turning off” young voters to political discourse?

President Obama introduces himself on Reddit, where he opened up an “Ask Me Anything” forum for questions. (Screenshot by Kristine Kim / UW Election)

Young voters are more engaged with the election than ever before, thanks to social media. But are today’s conversations as deep as they were in the past?

Seattle — You’ve heard the trends. College students who didn’t even have time to tune in to any of the three presidential debates know that their friends are talking politics when the subjects of Big Bird or binder —  particularly those full of women —  come up. It’s the product of the social-media engine, where a South Korean pop star can go viral in the United States and an “Ask Me Anything” open forum by the president causes Reddit participants to chant, in the form of internet comments, “One of us! One of us!”

On the surface, the picture is heartening: by the looks of it, young people are participating in politics. They’re even enjoying it! On the question-and-answer session for the president on Reddit, a social media website driven by user-promoted content, young and old participants alike were asking personal and political questions, looking for answers.

But when you analyze what is actually being said, it becomes clear that the Internet generation may not be discussing much of anything.

Kathy Gill is a senior lecturer in the University of Washington’s Department of Communication, and she studies the overlap of technology and communication. She said that studies indicate citizens’ opinions are usually hardened by political discussion, or the semblance of discussion. This phenomenon isn’t just occurring because people aren’t willing to talk. Instead, they want to talk to those with similar ideas.

“Much, perhaps most, of the political discussion online […] takes one of two forms. It’s a whole bunch of people talking to one another who already agree with one another, or it’s people shouting at one another,” said Gill. “It’s hard to find a place where people can actually talk about differences without it getting ugly, personal and straw men being talked around.”

This fuzzy round image is a visual representation of the clusters of like-minded people around certain ideas in politics, with barely any overlap (the yellow) in between. (Graphic courtesy of Kathy Gill / UW Election Eye)

This selective exposure to certain beliefs applies to recent elections in particular as social media hubs such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr or even Pinterest gain strength in our Internet society. When I attempted to follow the conversation about the latest presidential debates via the hashtag #debates on Twitter, the stream moved too quickly for me to keep up. Those listening in on the debates latched onto buzzwords — “Big Bird” or “horses and bayonets,” for example — and raced to be the first to point them out to the social-media world. During the final debate, my fingers flew as I heard the president mentioned “battleship.”

“A game of battleship! Battleship! #debate3,” I tweeted. Eloquent, I know.

With the everyday citizen live-tweeting monumental events, including many of the sub-35 demographic of those I follow, there isn’t much room for meaningful discussion. As the Internet conditions young people to an easier path to their 15 minutes of fame — or at least a few retweets on Twitter and shares on Facebook— drawn-out conversation is not the goal. It’s making the next trending topic and cheering on our candidate of choice. It’s go, go, go.

This mentality may be helping to drive the lack of political discourse in society. It’s easier to retweet and promote something you agree with than to post a retort to something with which you don’t. A recent post by The Caucus, a blog of The New York Times, describes that those claiming Vice President Joe Biden’s “won” the vice presidential debate mostly followed a different group of people than those who believed Paul Ryan had won.

Shin Lee, a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington, has studied this pattern, which he refers to as the “echo chamber effect.” In a paper he wrote while in a master’s program, Lee said that, “New communication technologies might have the potential to bring about a segmentation of the public while undermining the notion of a larger public discourse.”

The idea of the digital echo chamber has been around for a while. But as the Internet age progresses into voting territory, online discussion, or lack thereof, will become increasingly important. According to the research done so far, there are two sides of political online participation: shouting yourself hoarse to opponents who won’t listen, or patting the backs of people who would have agreed with you anyway. Someday, political discussion, to reference President Obama, might have to move beyond a game of Battleship.

In the future, Kathy Gill can see political discourse evolving either way.

“In my heart of hearts, I feel like with good literacy skills, if we become digitally literate — in other words, we understand how to use the medium, what the medium means [and] we develop norms that facilitate civility — then I’m optimistic,” Gill said. “I can equally see a world where people are more hardened and more divided. I think some of what [it] will look like in ten years will depend on what’s going on in the world.”

Citing the hardship and disagreement that come up in times of social turmoil, Gill acknowledged that much of the negativity comes from the idea that we, as a country, don’t know what to do to fix our situation in those instances. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before the Internet generation figures out the norms and etiquette to best communicate political issues and promote discussion over short opinions conveyed in 140 characters.

Everything is new, and no one’s got it figured out. But, in the spirit of being Internet savvy and socially optimistic, it’s best to believe that maybe we can only go up from here.

Comments | More in Culture, National | Topics: discourse, Election 2012, social media


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