U Professor Studies Relationship Between Social Media and Politics

By Cara MacDonald

As social media plays an increasingly important role in American politics, University of Utah communication professor Shannon McGregor is working to research the relationship between the two.

McGregor specializes in research on political communication, social media, gender and public opinion. She seeks to understand political events within the realm of digital spaces.

“I’m quite fascinated by the way social media platforms play host to groups of people that aren’t normally in the same space,” McGregor said. “For example, politicians, journalists and the public can all have social media accounts and, at least potentially, interact with one another.”

This topic is one she has been interested in since she began pursuing her Ph.D.

“The rise of social media has changed a lot about our lives, and I’m interested in how they shape the interactions between various institutions, such as the government, the press and the public,” McGregor said. “For my dissertation, I looked at how campaigns and journalists used social media posts from the public to understand and represent public opinion, all in the case of the 2016 [United States] presidential election.”

How Social Media Interacts with Politics

Social media has created a casual, more intimate method of communication between public figures, the press and people. In an election, social media can become a useful tool. It allows connections to be made and politicians to develop empathy among their constituents in ways that were not possible prior to the advent of the internet.

Communication on social media has become so common that former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said at a press briefing that President Donald Trump’s tweets are considered official White House statements. This is surprising to many people due to Trump’s overtly casual and sometimes controversial tweets. His entire campaign platform and presidency have seemed to revolve around creating a close connection with his supporters, making him relatable and a man of the people.

“Social media played a part in how we all experienced the election, whether it was people seeing political posts on Facebook or journalists covering tweets from politicians like press releases,” McGregor said. “Social media certainly played some role in the outcome of the election, but too often it is used as a scapegoat for an election outcome that was unexpected to many people. Academic studies show that ads like the kind we see on social media do very little to change people’s mind about for whom they will vote. But social media is playing a huge role in the narrative being constructed about the election — the story that journalists and politicians tell us about the 2016 election.”

The Pew Research Center reported in 2016 that 62 percent of Americans get news on social media. Websites present a convenient aggregate of information and rapid way of accessing a variety of articles and videos. Any organization, whether news media or not, can pay to move its content higher up in users’ feeds. Together with algorithms that cater content to users’ interests, this can create problems of bias and allow misinformation to spread. McGregor urged social media users to read carefully and look at the sources before repeating what they see on social media as fact.

Facebook, in particular, has been widely criticized for its role in the spread of fake news during the election. In the article “Did Social Media Ruin Election 2016?” Sam Sanders of NPR discussed Facebook’s “echo chamber,” as it connects users to what they already like and avoids what they don’t. The Wall Street Journal made simulated Facebook feeds demonstrating how the “echo chamber” works. The red feed contained political news that Facebook categorized as “very conservative,” and the blue feed contained news Facebook categorized as “very liberal.”  Depending on their political alignment, users had different news feeds. In the case of news about Trump, a “red” user would see articles like “Trump: The Throwback American Leader” and “President Trump Just Silenced Everyone After Seeing a Trampled and Muddy American Flag on the Ground.” Meanwhile, a “blue” user would see articles like “Trumpocracy: Tracking the Creeping Authoritarianism of the 45th President.”

“One thing is clear,” McGregor said. “We need much more regulation around the role of technology firms in politics. One good place to start would be regulation around political digital advertising. Political ads on TV are heavily regulated and we need something similar when it comes to digital political ads.”

Where Students Stand

While U students agree social media has affected American politics, they disagree on whether the effect has been positive or negative.

“Social media facilitates the rapid spread of articles with little or no sourcing that were shared under the guise of being factual,” said John Mister, a junior in accounting. He believes social media played an integral role during the 2016 presidential election. “These false narratives swayed voters one way or another. I think social media has a muddying effect on politics.”

Some U students believe social media can be used for good, as it has the potential to promote real democracy by creating an open discussion between diverse sectors of society.

“Social media has become a new platform for campaigning as it reaches to the modern voter,” said Mateuzs Gdanski, who studies parks, recreation and tourism. “Throughout the years, campaigning using yard signs was a thing for our parents’ generations because home ownership was an important aspect of their society. This generation spends a lot of time on social media platforms: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc., so social media appeal is for the … current voter, which makes up a majority of the population.”

Computer science student Trevor Von Hake agreed that social media allows for conversations surrounding election issues that were not possible in the past.

“I think social media had a positive impact on the election because it increased the spread of information to the younger generation of voters,” Von Hake said. “Social media is now the place where a majority of people receive their news, and because of the open nature of conversation on social media platforms, voters can partake in nationwide political conversations now more than ever.”

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