Running at Cyber Speed

 

“Follow me on Twitter or friend me on Facebook”—it’s almost become as ubiquitous as “good-bye.” With an estimated 500 million Twitter users and a billion Facebook friends worldwide, social media has changed the way we interact with one another, get our information and shape the world—last year’s Arab Spring was empowered by and often reported via local social media after traditional communication networks were shut down.

Closer to home, social media may not be playing a life-and-death role, but it’s still influencing policy, campaigns and elections.

Connecticut made national headlines last fall when the state legislature established dedicated Facebook and Twitter accounts so that residents could voice their opinions about the emergency response to Tropical Storm Irene. Sixty-eight comments were entered into the legislative record during a hearing. According to Senate Pro Tempore Donald Williams [D-Brooklyn], who spearheaded the effort, it was equal to seven hours of testimony.

“This was an ideal opportunity to let our constituents have input, and in a convenient manner,” says Williams, who notes that he’s seen a big change over the past 15 years in the way that voters participate in the political process. “People are now connected 24/7 through their computer or smartphone, getting their information through tweets or Facebook. They’re relying more and more on these outlets as direct sources of information.”

“You get a lot of superficial information in the social media world, or even propaganda that may not be verified, and that, to me, is troubling for people who follow various candidates on Twitter, or read blogs,” says Gary Rose, professor of government and politics at Sacred Heart University. “Social media is a drive-thru experience, and a lot of people like it that way. But are they really getting substantive information about the candidates and the issues as compared, say, to the print press?”  

If elections in Connecticut were simply to be won by social media popularity, then Linda McMahon would be a shoo-in with over 30,000 Twitter followers and more than 42,000 Facebook fans; Democratic rival Chris Murphy tops out at around 5,000 for each.  

But according to a study done by Nielsen Media earlier this year on four key 2010 midterm elections in battleground states, widespread social media campaigns ultimately didn’t appear to affect the numbers at voting booths. This was in part because the young voters who embrace it don’t necessarily flock to the polls.

“I don’t think social media has the same impact, say, as a 30-second spot TV ad, a radio commercial, campaign literature or lawn signs,” says Rose, suggesting that although it does reach more young people, it isn’t really restructuring voters’ opinions. “It’s part of the toolkit [for candidates] now, but I don’t think it’s the primary tool.”

Social media is also impacting the way campaigns are being covered. The days of voters regularly turning solely to the evening news or local paper for the latest news are gone.

“Social media has sped up the news cycle for political news exponentially—and not always for the better,” says Mandy Jenkins, digital projects editor for Digital First Media and a former social news editor for Huffington Post Politics. “Reporters are racing to get every minute detail out before their competitors, and readers have come to expect political news at nearly the instant it occurs.”

Rapidly delivering the news in 140-character bites obviously doesn’t leave room for the in-depth analysis and investigation that used to be the hallmarks of journalism. It also can lead to other issues.

“Twitter can occasionally become something of an echo chamber for national political reporters talking to one another about things that only über-insiders care about, which can be dangerous for reaching and informing a more general audience about news that matters,” suggests Jenkins.

“With social media, it’s certainly more unfiltered than in the past, which is good and bad,” says Williams, who acknowledges his own communication with voters is more interactive than it was in the past. “Overall though, anything that allows open dialogue is certainly good.”

Jenkins agrees. “Social media lets everyone have a say and build an audience around their opinions, and those people, in turn, can become great partners for us in finding sources and getting our news out to new people,” she says.

“I don’t know if that’s what a journalist should be doing,” cautions Rose, who is leery of journalists interacting directly too much with their audiences. “A journalist should be reporting, but now it’s almost as if they have to defend and analyze what they have said to their audience. I don’t see social media here as necessarily a step in improving the quality of our democratic system.”
 

Running at Cyber Speed

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