This year young voters, against most expectations, turned out in record numbers to re-elect President Obama, making up 19 percent of the electorate. Some researchers are attributing the high youth turnout to the increased use of social media for political discussion. Take James Fowler, of TechCrunch.com, who argues that “Facebook caused an extra third of a million people to vote.”
In a study released in September, University of California researchers found that social networking messages actually lead to political mobilization. Facebook’s “I Voted” button, which was featured on Election Day, generated about 60,000 additional votes in 2010, they found, meaning that Facebook quadruples the power of campaign messages through peer-to-peer sharing and communication.
As much as social media encouraged young users to participate in, and even enjoy, politics, some believe it’s more harmful than helpful.
“As human beings we surround ourselves with people like us,” says Kentuckians for the Commonwealth’s voter empowerment organizer, Dave Newton. “It gives the space to only listen to people like us.”
This lack of exposure to varying opinions creates a media echo chamber, in which users receive and reblog information they agree with—easier than crafting a rebuttal. Concise and trendy memes, animated GIFs, and hashtags circulate quickly through social networks, giving young users just enough political content to feel satisfied.
Social media is still new, however, and there were many firsts in the elections this year—including the first time the National Conventions were available to stream via mobile devices.
“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,” says Kathy Gill, a senior lecturer in the University of Washington’s Department of Communication.
The way we use social media to communicate and discuss ideas may evolve over time and create a forum for productive discourse. It may be too early to predict whether divides between people will grow through increased use of social media, but it will likely continue to play a major role in the way we broadcast and appropriate information.