The development of the internet and SNSs (social networking sites) has greatly changed how the public discuss and participate political affairs. Before the invention of SNSs, people received political information through the mass communication channels, where politicians influenced the public and spread their political ideologies at the same time. It was a nonreciprocal way of communication without instant feedbacks and interactions. The case of Fireside Chats, where the 32ndPresident Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed the public through radio during the dark period of the World War II and the Great Depression, is a great example of political communication in the era of mass media.
The 32ndPresident Franklin Delano Rooseveltand the Fireside Chats
As technologies further improved, Kennedy and Nixon had televiseddebates in 1960 for the first time in history. Gradually, TV becomes a dominant channel for the public to obtain political information. But still, TV didn’t bring about the access to sending feedbacks from the citizens to the politicians. Political discussion and participation only existed offline.
The first televised presidential debate: Kennedy versus Nixon
Similar to Kennedy, Obama redefined the presidential election with use of the new medium. Obama’s campaign has initiated a new way to organize supporters, raise funds, advertise to voters and communicate to the public by taking advantages of interactive Web 2.0 and the new media platforms like Facebook and YouTube, which are believed to bemore effective than television ads (Miller, 2008). Together with Twitter, these SNSs have refreshed the way how politicians and the public interact with and influence each other. For politicians, SNS is a powerful tool to learn about public opinions and adjust their political strategies accordingly, while for the public, it is a free access to participate the politics.
The Facebook page of Obama campaign
Political participation is summarized as citizens’ endeavors to influence the government’s actions through either direct or indirect activities, for example, by changing public policy making and implementation, or by influencing the government people who are responsible for the government decisions (Burns & Verba, 2001, Vitak et al, 2011). In the digital era, SNSs have promoted online political participation and supplemented traditional methods of political participation (Wellman, Haase, Witte & Hampton, 2001). According to a study (Smith, 2009), nearly one in five internet users posted their feedbacks or questions about the campaign on a website, blog, social networking site or other online forums in 2008. And there was a trend that young Americans (under the age of 30) engaged most deeply in the online political process, but online political involvement took place among all the age groups.
Kenski & Stroud (2006) argued that exposure to politics is one of the important factors to predict the political participation, while the internet and SNSs are the tools to increase the exposure. However, when these new media become a new and relatively open space for the public to discuss and participate in political affairs, they are also a vulnerable target space of fake news and extreme views. Allcott & Gentzkow (2017) explained why social media platforms are more conducive to the spread of fake news: 1) the cost to produce and spread content is small; 2) the format of the content on social media, short pieces of information on the small screen of mobile phone or news feed windows, makes it harder to detect fake news; 3) the highly segregated networks on social media platform make fake news readers reassured. Meanwhile, the study of Hong & Kim (2016) supported the echo chamber effect of social media with the evidence that politicians with extreme views have significantly more Twitter followers than those with moderate views.
Therefore, while people are delighted by the advantages of the online political discussion and interaction, we should also be alert to the negative impact it may impose on the political ecology.
Allcott, H., & Gentzkow, M. (2017). Social media and fake news in the 2016 election. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 31(2), 211-36.
Burns, N., Schlozman, K. L., & Verba, S. (2001). The private roots of public action. Harvard University Press.
Hong, S., & Kim, S. H. (2016). Political polarization on twitter: Implications for the use of social media in digital governments. Government Information Quarterly, 33(4), 777-782.
Kenski, K., & Stroud, N. J. (2006). Connections between Internet use and political efficacy, knowledge, and participation. Journal of broadcasting & electronic media, 50(2), 173-192.
Miller, C. C. (2008). How Obamas internet campaign changed politics. NY Times, 7, 49.
Smith, A. (2009). The Internet’s role in campaign 2008.
Vitak, J., Zube, P., Smock, A., Carr, C. T., Ellison, N., & Lampe, C. (2011). It’s complicated: Facebook users’ political participation in the 2008 election. CyberPsychology, behavior, and social networking, 14(3), 107-114.
Wellman, B., Haase, A. Q., Witte, J., & Hampton, K. (2001). Does the Internet increase, decrease, or supplement social capital? Social networks, participation, and community commitment. American behavioral scientist, 45(3), 436-455.