Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Social media and the 2016 elections

by Gideon Lasco

How exactly will social media shape the upcoming elections?

It was US president Barack Obama who demonstrated the usefulness of social media in 2008, when his campaign used Facebook to penetrate young people’s social networks and encourage them to vote. Two years later when Noynoy Aquino ran for president, social media was not as big in the Philippines: in mid-2010, there were only 10 million Facebook users in the country, compared to 40 million today.

The 2013 elections did attract the attention of netizens - remember the Nancy Binay memes - but it was a mid-term election, sans the fanfare that usually accompanies the vote to determine the highest office in the land. With the presidency at stake, 2016 is promising to become the most “trending" of Philippine elections. Here are some ways social media is making its mark:

A more participative platform
Social media is a platform for candidates and voters alike to engage in the political process in a more direct way. Through their fan pages, candidates can directly share their thoughts and photos without being filtered by traditional media. As Mar Roxas learned in his “happy anniversary” faux pas (a topic I addressed in “Social media advice for Mar Roxas”; PDI 09/15/2015), social media engagement has its pitfalls - but it can also be a rewarding way to connect with voters, especially the youth.

Voters, for their part, through their posts, comments, and annotated “shares”, can influence their social networks - a hypothesis that has received support from a 2012 study published in Nature, which demonstrated that what Facebook users see in their “news feeds” can affect their voting patterns. While others have argued that it has only amplified partisanship (i.e. we only read and share the articles we agree with), it has undeniably made the public more involved and aware of what’s happening.

Aside from expressing ideas, the direct access to (and by) the public can be a tool for change - as showed by the anti-pork “Million People March” in 2013, largely organised through social media. Though the “million people” did not materialise, it nonetheless offered a glimpse of what social media can enable.

(Mis)information wars
Websites and Facebook pages can easily be set up, and made to look like respectable news outlets, while subtly espousing an political agenda. Of course, already-established websites and blogs are not immune from the influence of politics and can also contribute to misinformation.

Sometimes, the truth will be sacrificed for the sake of virality. Articles will go for the shareable, the scandalous, the dramatic. They will follow the format of articles guaranteed to attraction your attention (i.e. “Ten reasons not to vote for Binay” or “The shocking truth about Grace Poe”).

But social media can also offer a venue for people to fact check the information they’re overloaded with. In the US, websites like FactCheck.Org are fulfilling this role, and their articles are widely shared in traditional and social media.

Cyber-‘hakot’ and online vote buying
As of this writing, Binay has 230,000 Twitter followers, Roxas has 505,000; Grace Poe has 45,200. In an age when influence is measured by the number of followers you have on social media, expect this numbers game to be closely watched - and contested. Through paid-for “sponsored posts” in Facebook and Twitter - and with the help of online entrepreneurs who “sell” likes and followers - candidates can appear more influential, more famous, and yes, more vote-worthy (everybody loves a winner).

It is not just “likes” and “follows”; even comments can be manufactured or “planted”. One study showed that 1/3 of all customer reviews and comments online are fake, and it won’t be surprising if the same can be said of political comments.

These, of course, are old political tricks, the logical extensions of the “hakot” crowds and actual vote buying employed in traditional politics. But they also raise issues of legality and transparency:  can the COMELEC keep track of campaign expenditures online, and monitor cyberspace for violations?

Will Facebook ‘likes’ translate to votes?
Ultimately, it will be the actual votes, not Facebook ‘likes’ - or Twitter ‘favorites’ - that will matter (that is, of course, assuming that vote buying isn’t a factor). Though it is projected that 60% of Filipinos will have access to the Internet by 2016, it will not be representative of the population: the poor and those living in rural areas will be underrepresented. Thus social media sentiment - or online surveys, for that matter - cannot be taken to be the voice of the nation.

But social media itself can increase voter turnout  by turning the elections into a social, shareable, fashionable activity - a phenomenon that some scholars call “digital peer pressure”. In the same 2012 study I cited above, another key finding was that people were more likely to vote if they saw a message showing their Facebook friends had voted.

How else will social media affect the elections? Will an ingenious campaign jingle, “break the Internet”? Will a YouTube video or a tell-all blog post, revealing a hitherto unseen side of a candidate, go viral days before the elections and affect his or her chances? Because of its relative novelty - and the ever-changing world of Philippine politics - it is unwise to make further predictions.

All we can say at this point is that social media will definitely be a key battleground where the elections will be fought.

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