By Nikola Kedhi.
Tweets, likes and followers have penetrated the world of politics. In almost every free country politicians have found that they can reach even more voters by having social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. It is becoming increasingly common for prime ministers, presidents and members of parliament to comment on social media or do Q&A’s and live chats with their followers. In a time when social media is a very important part of our lives, one cannot help but wonder as to the extent of influence it has on our preferences and choices.
Last week, several former Facebook employees told Gizmodo, a technology website, that Facebook suppresses conservative political news when compiling the social network’s trending news section. According to these sources, Facebook had prevented stories on the Conservative Political Action Conference, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul and many other conservative topics from appearing in the trending topics box on Facebook, although they were actually trending among Facebook users. The people working on Facebook Trending team said to Gizmodo that they were instructed to artificially inject selected stories even though they were not popular among the users at all.
This team is composed of journalists coming mostly from Ivy League universities called curators. The whole system works in a way that gives curators the power to shape the news or suppress and censor it. It should be noted that there is still no proof that the top management of Facebook has ordered this unethical behavior so it is to be assumed that the curators were doing it on their own.
The Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus reacted on his Facebook page stating that this is an issue that needs to be addressed. A few days after these allegations were made public, US Senator John Thune wrote a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg asking him to come to a Senate hearing to explain the matter. Facebook’s vice president Tom Stocky said that the company has found no evidence that these claims are true, even though he admitted that the US Presidential elections were the most talked about topic in 2015. Mr. Zuckerberg has until May 24th to respond to the Senator’s request. Until now, the stock market has not reacted to the accusations, which if true would certainly be a huge scandal for the biggest social network.
This is a case pointing at a much larger issue. Should we be worried that social media can be used to promote a certain ideology or politician? This election cycle has seen an unprecedented use of the social media networks by candidates from both parties in the United States. Of course, the main target are the young millennial voters. Barack Obama did the same thing in the last two elections, albeit to a lesser extent.
Facebook in particular has been heavily involved in Presidential elections, continuously encouraging its users to vote. The Telegraph cites a research report, which showed that Facebook had increased voter turnout by more than 340.000 people in the 2010 Congressional election by showing political ads.
However, this is not something new. Media has always had a huge impact on elections. In the 1920s the radio became a new and effective way to connect with voters. In the 1960s, John Kennedy’s victory was largely attributed to his performances on television. Now it is the turn of the social media.
Nowadays social media networks are becoming very effective at spreading the news. They have caught up with the traditional media and perhaps will soon make them unnecessary and redundant. They remain the most important online platform for free expression and it is to be expected that politicians from every side will try to capitalize on it. The question is how much and how effectively they will use this to their advantage and who will be the one to gain the most.