Social Data and Politics

It’s undeniable that unfettered access to social media has not only given each person a voice, but that the importance of that voice has helped to change the political landscape. When candidates and lawmakers are able to interact directly with voters and constituents, how does social data currently play into the way politics are done?

Currently, 61% of American adults are using Facebook and many of them are discussing politics. However, even with all this access to new information, Katherine Haenschen of Princeton University notes that it can actually create a counterintuitive effect: the more exposed people are to divergent political beliefs, the less likely they are to talk politics, or even vote. However, the more involved they are with politically like-minded people, the more likely they are to be a part of the political process: social media should be creating a more informed citizenry, but that diversity of information is having the opposite desired effect.

Not only is the information overload problem a real one, but Sean Evins of Twitter spoke specifically about the type of information access we have, which is real-time, all the time. “You’re able to see the debates play out, you can connect with the candidate at the rally, even if you’re not at the debate or rally.” Evins noted that when C-SPAN access to the congressional floor was shut down last night, both constituents and lawmakers turned to platforms like Twitter and Periscope to see what was happening unfold in real time. Unmediated access has become the norm.

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First was the policy platform and stump speech. Soon, the 24-hour news cycle changed the way people heard politics to newly formed “sound bites”, easily digestible info-bits, rapid fire, one after another. Now, the top source of information for most people is Facebook, creating what Aaron Rodericks of the National Research Council Canada calls “reactionary-based politics. Click, then share, then comment: how can a candidate do such a thing?

Politicians are getting in on the action as well, even at the local level: Take a picture here, create a Facebook meme there, make a Snapchat story of the rally, live-Tweet this debate or throw shade at your political competition in 140 characters or less. Where petitions used to be door-to-door, 1 million signatures can now be gathered online in a matter of hours.

So what’s next? Haenschen and Rodericks both note that the standards and methodologies for gathering, analyzing, and interpreting social data must improve if the data is to be used in political arenas; with users coming and going, deleting their posts and tweets on occasion, it can be a challenge to determine if a realistic sample size has been collected. On the other hand, Evins observed that Twitter is changing the way polling data is gathered overall: no longer are parties limited to geographically-based phone banks. Instead, they can gather extremely targeted demographic data all over the nation to see what their constituents want, what makes them tick, and what will trigger them to get involved in the process. This kind of targeting will prove valuable to politicians of all stripes trying to tap into the collective consciousness of the country.

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