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When most people think about social media, they typically think of businesses, brands and companies deploying a wide range of social media platforms to sell more products and services. But have you ever considered how important social media is to government and modern political discourse? Here are just some of the ways that political leaders and government agencies have embraced social media…
#1: Political campaigns
It’s impossible to ignore the impact that social media has on political campaigns. Until just a few years ago, entrenched political incumbents had a huge advantage on upstart challengers because they could raise more money and control the airwaves. Now, however, all it takes is an active, passionate social media campaign and there’s a lot of ground that a challenger can make up on an incumbent. It’s no longer just about saturating the airwaves with really expensive TV and radio ads – it’s about saturating social media with (free) Facebook, Twitter and Instagram updates.
The best example of social media at work in a modern political campaign, of course, is the 2016 U.S. presidential election. You could make the argument that social media was one of the tools that President Donald Trump used to win the election from Hillary Clinton. In a base case scenario, he used social media to fire up the base on a daily basis and get people to turn out by the tens of thousands for every single campaign stop or rally.
Both Trump and Clinton also used demographic and psychographic data from Facebook and other social media platforms to fine-tune their campaign messages. (And, depending on how much of a conspiracy theorist you are, you could also argue that Trump worked side-by-side with Russian bots to circulate fake news about Hillary and create clever memes personally approved by Vladimir Putin to brainwash the electorate into voting for him on Election Day.)
#2: Political causes and community
And social media is about more than just activating people ahead of a crucial vote – it’s also about generating community support around the very act of governance. In the old days, politicians might have held town hall events to get a sense of what the people were thinking. Now, they can just head over to Facebook and see what people are talking about. It’s all about having meaningful interactions with constituents, and hearing what they have to say in real-time. Governing is about listening to the people, and the place where that happens is social media.
#3: Crisis communications
And not all governance is about pushing through popular new legislation or showing up for the opening of a new park in the local community – it’s also about responding to crises. This is especially true in the case of devastating natural disasters – wildfires, hurricanes and now (yikes!) volcanoes. Real-time tweets can keep people updated with what’s happening, where to seek shelter, how to evacuate, and where to pick up relief supplies. People might not watch a televised TV news conference, but they are certainly going to check their phones for breaking news and alerts. A time of crisis is when government agencies can really leverage the power of social media.
Of course, for as many opportunities as there are on social media, there are also some challenges, as we’ve seen with the Facebook Cambridge Analytica case. Yes, it’s very nice that politicians and government leaders have access to so much data about us – but at what point does “listening to the people” become “surveillance of the people”? Just how much do we really want our politicians to know about what we’re thinking and feeling?
But for now, at least, social media is showing its remarkable ability to help with campaigns, causes and community outreach. That can be extremely empowering for citizens to know. It’s somehow comforting to know that your elected leaders and representatives are just a click away on Facebook.