Humanosity says the impact of social media on politics has been liberating in the sense that it has democratised the ability to have your opinion published. Unlike traditional publishing or broadcasting, the barriers to entry are much fewer. However the lack of gatekeepers and the complex way the platforms work means that a small minority can have a disproportionate influence.
The dangers ordinary people face were made evident in work done by the Pew Research Center who released a report on political tweets. Their research, which was based on the USA, found that showed that only 10% of U.S. adult Twitter users generated an incredible 97% of tweets that mentioned national politics. Incredibly 6% of US adults who tweeted accounted for 73% of all political tweets.
The echo chamber effect means that those who tweeted about politics were also more likely to follow others that share their political views and be more disparaging about those with opposite political views.
As the U.S. becomes more politically divided, so too have social media users. Because of the ability to follow like-minded users and block those who disagree, people increasingly have the opportunity to find themselves in a social media “filter bubble.” Those bubbles can be exacerbated by companies’ algorithms, which tend to recommend joining groups and following other users who agree with you.
The added danger of the social media echo chamber is when it is infiltrated by agents, foreign or domestic, whose goal is to influence the outcome of the election. Few people in echo chambers take the time to check the information that passes through or try to identify and assess the origin of that information.
According to David Levine, an associate professor at the Elon University School of Law and the founder of the “Hearsay Culture” radio show about modern technology issues.
“It can be quite dangerous if you’re not taking a step back and saying, ‘What do I know about the sources of this information and who or what is behind it?’” he said. “It’s very easily psychologically, especially if you’re coming into it with a particular perspective, to go along with it.”
Just how dangerous this becomes crystal clear during and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. A Russian-backed group called the Internet Research Agency sowed social discord online in a largely successful attempt to influence voters.
The organization used a variety of digital disinformation tactics – including fake accounts posting about divisive issues – to attack Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and support Republican candidate Donald Trump, who eventually won the election.
Pew studied more than a million tweets posted between June 2018 and July of this year by 2,427 participants with public Twitter accounts. Among users who tweeted about politics, 725 strongly disapprove of President Trump, 25% strongly approve of him and the others had milder opinions on either side.
Pew found there is a higher percentage of U.S. adults on Twitter who strongly disapprove of the president than is reflected in the country’s population. The organization also noted that those who are strongly anti-Trump are also more likely to tweet about national politics than other groups on the site.