A new Rocky Mount mayor was installed last week and some members of the Rocky Mount City Council changed after a heated election where positions often were debated on local social media sites.
Social media is affecting the way elections are run now more than ever, said Jason W. Buel, assistant professor and program coordinator of communication at N.C. Wesleyan College.
“Social media is affecting the way we choose leaders in a major way,” Buel said in a recent email interview. “That influence is growing at a startling rate that makes it impossible for public policy to keep up — and quite frankly, difficult even for scholars to keep up.”
Buel is well-qualified to speak on the issue of social media and its political influence. He has authored papers on the topic in peer-reviewed academic publications, including Public Culture. Earlier in November, he gave two talks on the politics of social media at the annual convention of the National Communication Association, the top professional organization in his field.
His dissertation research also focused on online videos and social media in the context of contemporary political movements. He successfully defended this research as he earned his doctorate in communication, rhetoric and digital media from N.C. State University.
During the recent mayoral election, the use of social media came to a peak when Sandy Roberson, who won the mayoral contest, posted a video on his Facebook page that questioned the legitimacy of candidate Bronson Williams’ residency in Edgecombe County. Williams, in turn, responded with his own video on his Facebook page in which he defended his position.
These videos, and many other pictures, comments, jibes and barbs, were shared on pages such as the Rocky Mount Concerned Citizens Facebook page, Fighting Crime and many other personal pages as local residents engaged in lively — and often bitter — debates about the positions and characters of local candidates.
Buel shared his opinion of the way social media influenced the last local election.
“It seemed to serve two main purposes: elevating the voices of those who posted inflammatory content and working to inject other scales of politics into a local election,” Buel said. “Facebook groups, in particular, seemed to fuel and help spread inflammatory content. This should be no surprise. The more aggressive, emotionally charged or poorly reasoned a post or a comment is, the more others feel a need to respond.”
People need to understand that such responses feed the way social media sites like Facebook make money, Buel said.
“Responding even to ‘correct the record’ or provide a strong counterargument is still ‘engagement’ from Facebook’s point of view, though, and maximizing engagement is how it stays in business,” Buel said. “It serves their interests even though it often functions to derail political debate and make people feel increasingly polarized.”
Buel said these platforms also tend to inject larger national debates into local issues.
“Our social media feeds likely include hyper-local content from our friends, schools, workplaces, etc. and local content from newspapers and television stations, but such content tends to get indiscriminately mixed up with national or international news stories,” Buel said. “It can become hard, then, for us to treat local political issues in their actual context.
“In the recent elections, for example, I’ve seen many instances of local issues being framed in terms of Trump’s policies. Whether the points being made about Trump were right or wrong, they were rarely, if ever, pertinent to the local issues at hand,” Buel said. “Social media makes it easier than ever for people to be immersed in frames and even party talking points that have been developed around politics at the national scale. It should be no surprise, then, when such frames are invoked — often irrelevantly — on the local level. Nevertheless, this often serves to further polarize people and derail any actual discussions or debates around policy.”
Social media does offer some potential advantages during election cycles, Buel said.
“Social media holds great promise in its capacity to give voices to people who might not have other means of getting their ideas out to the public,” Buel said. “Social media can help groups of people organize themselves and push for political demands and likewise help people identify others who might have the same interests and/or be sympathetic to their cause. And social media can help voter outreach.”
However, Buel warns that social media often does not live up to its promise and often is more likely to produce negative results.
“On balance, I’d say it’s generally negative,” Buel said. “There are lots of positive political uses for social media, but most of the positives exist in potential more often than in actuality. The negatives, though, often exist in actuality. And they are often less readily visible because they don’t have marketing teams making us more aware of them.”
Buel said that social media sites primarily are designed to make money. His main concern in terms of using social media to frame political debate, he said, is the micro-targeting of advertisements, algorithmically filtered content that is optimized to gain and keep people’s attention, and the kind of social interactions these sites tend to promote to further that engagement.
“An outlandish claim is more likely to get reactions than a well-reasoned claim and whether they’re ‘likes’ or ‘angries’ makes no difference to the social media platform,” Buel said.
These subtle embedded strategies tend to affect political discourse, Buel said.
“It means baseless allegations are actually great — for the platforms themselves,” he said. “And after all, it is the platforms themselves that are giving structure to all of our interactions. They determine what we see, what we get push notifications or other nudges about, etc. While these platforms don’t force us to give up rational deliberation in favor of divisive, emotion-laden name-calling, they have lots of tools for making it much more likely that we will engage in emotionally charged interactions and move toward increasingly extreme views.
“It’s good for business. That it is not so good for democracy is none of their concern,” he said.