It used to be said that in order to avoid conflict, don’t discuss politics, religion, or sex. Jump forward to 2018 and that seems to be all anyone can talk about, sans taboo. The simple touch of a ‘follow’ button can open the door to social media platforms of any public figure with an account. With that follows a global political conversation and the encouragement of sharing political views on the internet. This easy and direct access has had a slew of negative and positive effects on the political climate and views of young people.
Since Donald Trump took office in 2016, his social presence has been an inescapable force, his Twitter account being his most notable outlet for political rants and rambling updates. After Barack Obama, Trump has the largest audience on Twitter. He is perhaps the most outspoken president we’ve seen in the United States, and many of his posts have sparked political controversy, others have sparked viral memes. One of his most upsetting decisions to the LGBTQ community was the announcement of the transgender military ban, which he revealed via his Twitter, while his communications team and Defense Department were not prepared to respond, along with unbelievably child-like insults in the direction of Kim Jong-Un, calling the North Korean leader a ‘little rocket man.’ The direct access to the seemingly unfiltered views of the president, whether taken seriously or not, have been followed by a downpour of opinions. Trump’s tweets are retweeted and shared creating a chain reaction across all age groups, political groups, and social groups. The juxtaposition to Obama’s curated Twitter page during his presidency highlights the shift in politics on social media since 2016. Although this creates conflict, it also opens a conversation.
The most recent topic of conversation, the 2018 Midterm Elections, has been a live exhibit of the effects of social media on political history. The voter turnout reached a new high and as reported by CBS News was the first midterm to exceed 100 million voters with 113 million participants. The influence of high profile celebrities urging the younger generation to vote, namely Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, have been circulating for the last few months, encouraging Americans to register and have their voices heard. An Instagram story entirely dedicated to videos of people at the polls popped up on every users home page, as well as on Snapchat. Filters created by both apps were also featured. Of course there’s still debate on the extent of social media’s influence given the the fact that so much of our content is tailor made to us, yet somehow the Midterms seeped onto everyone’s devices. The turnout was a huge reflection of the positive effect social media had on influencing people to vote.
An integral part of human nature is the desire to be part of something and involved in a group of people with like minds. Social media facilities this. An example is the Me Too movement. The movement was created by Tarana Burke in 2007 and erupted in 2017 when the #MeToo hashtag was created. The movement generated an instant community of people who found the courage to speak out against sexual harassment and assault. The popularity of the hashtag then lead to studies on sexual assault in the United States. A GFK survey conducted in 2018 revealed that 81% of American women nationwide had experienced sexual abuse in some capacity in their lifetime. Furthermore high profile celebrities began speaking out against their abusers, most notoriously enabling the social takedown of Harvey Weinstein. An article by USA today lists his 87 accusers who came forward in October 2017. The Me Too movement was a digital protest that ultimately brought light to a silent majority that was previously considered taboo.
Social media has also created physical revolution and protest. The 2010 Arab Spring exhibited the real effects digital conversations have on changing governments. Most significantly in Egypt protests were organized through groups on Facebook and Twitter. Social media ultimately allowed people from all over the country to organize, and according to the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs created ‘the largest political change across the middle east since decolonization.’
There is an constant thread of shared opinions, alignments, and arguments across digital platforms. Through the direct contact with political figures, the continuous merging of celebrity and politician, and the real effects online coalitions have created, social media has had undeniable effects on current political affairs. As the world becomes more digital, social media has to be taken seriously as a platform that expedites real political shifts.
Written by Delfina Forstmann