Role of Social Media in Political Communication

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The role of social media in political communication; its differences from traditional media political communication; and its potential advantages and disadvantages for the audience when politicians use this medium to bypass mainstream media.

Introduction

In daily live every human will never escape from the so-called communication. From children to adults, from ordinary people in the societies to politicians in the parliamentary institutions, all of them are in need of communication to express their thoughts and concerns about any issues they face in their lives. Communication has enabled humans to discuss various issues, make social construction on such issues and compromise solution to deal with them.

Communication experiences evolution from time to time following the evolution of human civilization. The way humans communicate with each other and the media they use for communication have evolved from time to time. Since ancient time to the present humans have developed methods and media of communication. In the ancient time human communication methods were limited to oral, face-to-face, and writing communications (Business Case Studies, 2017). In addition, media used to communicate with broader audience was also limited to traditional media of communication such as smoke signals and carrier pigeons that were used to deliver writing messages written on writing materials like papyrus and parchment (Samsung Galaxy, 2014, Johnston, 2017).

While in the ancient time the methods and media for communication were very limited, in this millennium era they have varied greatly thanks to the advancement of information and communication technology (ICT). The development of ICT has led to the birth of new media and methods for communication. As a result, at present human no longer rely heavily on oral and written communication, but now they also communicate online using social media communication platform. Social media have now widely been used for day-to-day communication. Indeed, it has been used for political communication by members of the public, politicians, and political parties.

One example of successful attempt to use social media for political communication was in the 2008 United States presidential election. In that election the former president of the United States Barack Obama integrated social media in his political campaign strategy; and cleverly and effectively used it to support his offline election campaign. As a result, Obama won the election and took office in 2009 (Bogost, 2017). Since then, following Obama success with social media, it can be witnessed an increase in the use of social media for political communication such as in the campaign for presidential and legislative elections in many countries around the world.     

This paper argues that social media play supporting roles in mediating political communication between members of the public, politicians and political parties. Alongside with traditional media, social media provides alternative avenue for political communications, make it more direct and interactive. Using social media, members of the public can now be easier to target public officials and politicians to convey their aspiration, idea and criticism over political issues and agendas.

Despite social media use for political communication purposes provides benefits to members of the public; however, it also provides disadvantages for them as the user of this media platform. This paper therefore will critically discuss the use of social media for political communication. Firstly, it will outline what is social media, its differences from traditional media, and its roles in political communication. Secondly, it will address the potential advantages and disadvantages for audience when politicians use this media platform to bypass traditional media. Finally, the paper will provide a conclusion on the discussion.     

What is social media, its differences from traditional media, and its roles in political communication

For most members of the public social media platforms such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, and Wikipedia, just to name a few, are not new things. They use those new media communication platforms to communicate and maintain friendships with other people (World Economic Forum, 2016). These communication and friendships are not limited to their own circle of friends but also to broader social media users in different communities, different times, and different agendas.

Despite social media has gained its popularity amongst member of the public and largely discussed in communication and political literatures, there is no single definition on social media (Effing et al., 2011, Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010). However, most communication media academics agree that social media can be defined as ‘a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of User Generated Content’ (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010, p. 61). Based on that definition, it is clear that social media is not at all a new communication platform. It is a development of the Web 2.0 and is equipped with features which allows its users to independently and easily generate, disseminate, discuss, and exchange various information with other users. This unique characteristic has made social media platform becoming so popular amongst the users of media communication; and it can be argued that social media has now challenged the existence and roles of traditional media in mediating information.

Even though both social and traditional media have similar roles for mediating information, they are actually two different media platforms. Both media platforms have different characteristics that differentiate them one to another (Gainous and Wagner, 2014, Klinger and Svensson, 2015). There are three main differences between social media and traditional media as this paper identifies.

The first difference is on the model of communication. Social media communication is a model of two-way mass communication, while traditional media communication is a model of one-way mass communication (Gainous and Wagner, 2014, p. 5). In the communication process, social media enables reciprocal communication between users in the sense that both users are active in using the medium. This is different to traditional media communication in which active communication does not exist as one of its user is active while the other is inactive (Gainous and Wagner, 2014). On traditional media political campaign, for example, message is produced by election candidate, disseminated by mass media to their constituents and electorates; and almost all times politician has been the creator of the information and audience has been the passive audience. Again, this is different to social media campaign in which both politicians and potential voters can generate, disseminate, and discuss the message. 

The second difference is media coverage. With regards to media coverage, social media can cover broader audience than traditional media. Social media communication takes place in an incredibly open environment, make it enables information ‘that is perceived as the most interesting or appealing to be distributed to the widest audience’ (Gainous and Wagner, 2014, p. 6). This is different to traditional media communication in which communication is limited by distance and geography conditions. Newspapers and other printed media distribution is limited to area that can be reached by new papers outlets and largely depend on manual distribution.

The third difference is on the content producers. While there is a clear division between content producers and users in traditional media; professional journalist is the producer of information, while audience is a passive user of the information (Klinger and Svensson, 2015); for social media platform, such division is blurring as there is no clear division between creators and users of information. There is no definite creator and user of information in social media, and both are playing the same roles as creator and user of the information that is transmitted through social media.

Back to social media use as a communication medium. In the present democratic era, social media use has now been extended from mere day-to-day conversation to political communication. Both members of the public and politicians use social media for different political purposes. While members of the public use social media for discussing political matters, and engaging with civil society organizations and political leaders; the vast majority of politicians use it as a campaigning medium for maintaining their public image, and as a communication medium for sustaining engagement with journalists and their potential audience (Howard et al., 2017). Therefore, it is not surprising that social media channels today are filled with political discussions in addition to daily conversations.

Considering the power of social media platform to spread huge information to broader audience and mirroring on the success of business industries marketing their product to broader customers in an efficient and effective manner; at present politicians tend to embrace social media communication as their strategy to communicate with their potential audience (Nulty et al., 2016). Alongside traditional media social media has now been main platforms for political campaign to gain support from prospective electorates, to raise funding for political parties, and other political purposes. Then, what is the roles of social media on political communication which make it become popular to politicians and political organizations?

There are several important roles of social media for political communication.  Firstly, social media increase the effectiveness and efficiency of political campaign. Political campaign using social media can be more effective and efficient in targeting potential electorates. Empirical examples have shown that social media can be used for political campaign and support the offline campaign strategy. One example of successful social media use is in the 2008 United States presidential election. During the election campaign, Barack Obama systematically used social media platforms as main means for running his campaign. At that time, there were fifteen social media platforms used by Obama alongside with his own website (Effing et al., 2011, p. 26). And as he effectively used social media for his political campaign, he eventually elected as the president of the United Stated in 2008.

Secondly, social media in political communication plays important role in bringing politicians closer to their electorates. Dissimilar with traditional media, social media allows politicians and their audience to directly communicate. This communication can take place everywhere at different time and different agendas. In Mexico, for instance, a politician Jaime Rodriguez Calderon know as ‘El Bronco’ had successfully used social media to maintain communication and proximity with his constituents. He uses social media for political campaign at gubernatorial election campaign and continues use it well beyond the election day for everyday discussion about public life with the public of state of Nuevo Leon (Howard et al., 2017).

Finally, social media also mediates political communication with broader audience. Social media use in international political context has help politicians to communicate with broader audience from different nationalities and languages. In the 2014 European parliamentary election, for instance, election candidates and their parties use social media to communicate with audience in the 28 member states of the European Union. Social media has provided ‘a unique technological means to bridge linguistic divides, as well as to extend the reach of political communications by candidates and parties to the electorates located in the multi-national political system of the European Union’ (Nulty et al., 2016, p. 2).

From discussion above, it clear that social media has been an alternative medium of communication in addition to traditional media. It builds on the concept of Web 2.0. In addition, Social media has unique characteristics which distinguish it from traditional media. And the most important is that social media plays important roles in political communication and has contributed to the improvement on the way political communication implemented.

Having discussed about social media characteristics, its differences from traditional media, and its roles in political communication, it is also worth to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of social media use for members of the public as political audience as will be presented in the following subheading.

Potential advantages and disadvantages for audience when politicians use this media platform to bypass traditional media

Without a doubt, social media has contributed positively to the development of political communications by providing a new platform facilitating a more direct and interactive political communication (Nulty et al., 2016). It has help to improve communication between members of the public and politicians. Especially, social media has help politicians to gain political advantages over the improved communication system. Using social media politicians can now conduct political campaign and other political communications in an efficient and effective manner.

However, despite social media use for political communication provides benefits for politicians, it also presents several disadvantages that should be of concern to politicians. One possible disadvantage of social media use for politician is that social media operation needs sufficient skills and resources. Since not all politicians are internet literate and sufficient communication skills, it thus can be very difficult for them to keep pace with social media applications (Howard et al., 2017). In addition, operating social media is also time consuming. The nature of social media platform that allows two-way communication will force politician to allocate much time to response to abundant audiences’ comments and posts. Again, it poses difficulties to politicians to respond to all audience contents. To deal with this problem politicians then tend to appoint a person to provide responds to their audience which creates another burden to human resources and management (Howard et al., 2017).

Another disadvantage is that using social media as a medium for political communication in online public sphere will make politicians to have ‘less control over the information available about them in cyberspace’ (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010, p. 60). It is increasingly difficult for politicians to maintain their positive image over potential constituents as users of social media can possibly generate and disseminate as much misleading information on politicians to social media channels.

The 2017 Jakarta Gubernatorial Election in Indonesia can serve as an empirical example on the disadvantages of social media use for candidate political campaign. During this election process can be witnessed massive negative use of social media for black campaign over one election’s candidate Basuki Cahaya Purnama known as Ahok. Social media has inspired users to practise hate speech which fertilize sectarian and racist sentiment (Lim, 2017), while putting aside politicians as helpless observers who cannot alter publicly posted negative comments. This was particularly true when Ahok and his team failed to recover his public image despite massive counter message had been posted to the public through social media.

However, despite those advantages and disadvantages of using social media for politicians, a relatively limited number of literature address the possible advantages and disadvantages for the audience when politicians use this media platform to bypass traditional media. This paper has identified several advantages of social media usage by politicians for members of the public.

Firstly, social media platform will enable direct engagement between members of the public and politician in political activities. Different from access to traditional media use which is difficult to gain due to increasing competitiveness with other political audience; characteristic of social media which provide open and free access to its users (Klinger and Svensson, 2015) make it easier for members of the public to communicate and transfer their message directly to politicians. Therefore, social media use will increase the likeliness of members of the public to directly engage with politicians and political parties.

Secondly, social media use for political communication will increase political participation of members of the public (Speakman, 2015). Unlike political communication using traditional media which produce one-way communication, social media communication enables two-ways communication. This reciprocal communication will encourage the public to be a more active participant. Social media use will encourage the emergence of ‘new voices in the political debates’ (Scaramuzzino and Scaramuzzino, 2017, p .46) as individual becoming more active participant.

Thirdly, social media provides alternative access to communication with politicians. If the last decades political communication has largely conducted through traditional media channels, currently this communication can also be done through social media. As both members of the public and political actors today have widely used social media as a means for political communication (Nulty et al., 2016); currently communication between both parties no longer depend on traditional media mediation. Both members of the public and politician no longer need to compete for a space in traditional media for political discussion. With the existence of social media both parties can use it to create their own domain to discuss political issues.

Finally, social media use increases political literacy of members of the public. Social media use for political communication allows members of the public to gain more information on politics and increases their opportunity to learn about it. This argument relevant to Howard’s idea that ‘social media, like other Internet-based communications, …supplement our intake of information about politics, elections, and public policy, and allow people to be more omnivorous in their information diets’ (Howard et al., 2017, p. 58). Therefore, it is worth for politicians and political parties, alongside with traditional media, using social media for political education either for their constituents and broader political audience.

Despite those above advantages of social media use for audience, social media use also has several disadvantages. Firstly, social media usage in political communication may limit public participation in political activities. One factor that contributes to this limitation is government censorships against social media. This is due censorship regulations applied by government. The application of media censorship by several countries such as in Zimbabwe, Indonesia, China and Turkey has posed challenges to social media use for political communication especially for members of the public. In such countries where censorship is tightly applied to all media platform, undertaking political communication through social media will be difficult. It would be difficult for member of the public to fully engage in political communication with politicians especially the ones perceived as opposition to government. There will be many risks faced by the member of the public to generate, communicate, and discuss sensitive issues especially ones aimed at criticizing their government. In China and Turkey both central government exert excessive control over public use of social media (Miller et al., 2016, p. 148). As a result of this control, public in China use social media for entertainment instead of political communication, while in southeast Turkey using social media to criticizes government will expose users to government sanction (Miller et al., 2016, p. 148).

Another factor that contributes to the limited public participation in political communication caused by social media use is the existing digital divide. The fact that digital divide is still exist within communities in every country is also contribute to the limit of public participation in political activities. Digital divide itself can be defined as a condition in which some proportion of a society who are underprivilege do not access to the Internet, while some other proportion who are wealthy, middle-class, and young living in the urban areas have the access to the Internet (Norris, 2001).  Existing digital divide has made social media use for political communication ineffective as not all of members of society can access the media platform. Social media use therefore will exclude them from participating in political activities and increase democratic deficit.

Secondly, social media usage in political communication will increase marginalization over certain members of the public. The fact that not all members of society have access to the Internet will make social media use increase marginalization and polarization of political audience, leaving the marginalised group limited access to online political participation. This condition will reduce their opportunities to interact and communicate with politicians to convey their aspiration, thought and critics.

Thirdly, social media usage is resource and skills demanding (Scaramuzzino and Scaramuzzino, 2017, p. 46). To operation social media users need devices such mobile phones and computers. Also, there should be Internet infrastructure. And the most important is that users should be internet literate. Those preconditions have made social media use is not easy. Even though digital divide in certain communities decreases that is marked by improving on the development of and the even distribution of the Internet infrastructure, operating social media apps still poses challenges to members of the public due to literacy problem. Recent data from UNESCO shows around 750 million of adult population in the world are still illiterate and most them are women (UNESCO Institute of Statistics, 2017).

Another factor that might limit social media use is that the fact that this media platform is not entirely free media. To operate social media apps such as Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and Blackberry Messenger, for instance, users of those social media platforms should have an internet connection; and to have such connection is not always free. In Uganda, for example, despite users of social media can access free internet connection at some public places like public libraries and airport; not all of them can make use internet connection in every place. Uneven development of internet infrastructure has been the main reason for the limitation on social media usage in the country. The majority of internet infrastructure in Uganda is currently available in urban areas compare to rural ones (Kiranda et al., 2016). This, condition then will hamper communication process between members of the public and politicians. Not just limitation in internet connection has been the problem for running social media, the expensive cost for setting up internet connection has also been the reason for the limitation on social media use.

Finally, social media usage increase polarization among members of the public. Social media use for political communication encourages the establishment of groups within society based on political ideology and preferences. This is due to social media users tend to establish friendship and communication with user who share the same political preferences and ideology. Research findings reveal that ‘social media use causes people to turn their social networks into “filter bubbles” that diminish the chance of exposure to new or challenging ideas’ (Howard et al., 2017, p. 57). This in turn will encourage the creation of homophilous networks. In the United States, for instance, social media use like Twitter and Facebook has divided electorates into Republicans and Democrats.

It is clear from the aforementioned discussion that using social media as a platform for political communication has both advantages and disadvantages for the public. It is therefore worth to consider how to deal with the disadvantages in order to improve the benefits of using social media for political members of the public. Politicians should consider combining both traditional and social media as the media for communication. Combination of both media will likely increase the efficiency and effectiveness of political communication.

Conclusion

To sum up, every human needs to communicate. Communication has enable human to keep interact with each other to express their concerns and thought about any issues and difficulties they face in their daily lives. To better communicate, human develops communication method and media. As a result, communication method and media are always changing. They will change following the development of human civilization.

In this millennium era, communication media has varied greatly thanks to the development of information and communication technology (ICT). The development of ICT has encouraged the birth of new media communication. New media communication like the Web 2.0 has an alternative of communication media. Indeed, the latest development of Web 2.0 that is social media has increased the efficiency and effectiveness of public communication. If in the last decades, the roles of mediation and dissemination of information mainly monopolised by traditional media like print media, TV, and radio, just to name a few. Currently, some of that roles, if not all, have been transfer to social media.

Social media use today is not limited to day-to-day conversation, but has been extended to political communication. The interactive and flexible nature of social media has made it now widely used by either member of the public, politicians, and political parties in political communication. Social media has now been a main means for political campaign and communication.

However, politician should be wised in using social media for political communication as this medium communication use presents several advantages and disadvantages, especially for the audience. Combining traditional and social media for communication may be the best solution to maintain engagement and communication with the audience. 

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