Are the social networks going to influence your vote?

An article in British daily The Guardian headlined “A third of young people think social media will influence their vote” discusses the implications of an Ipsos Mori poll showing that 34 percent of 18-to-24 year olds believe how they vote will be influenced by the social networks, which are now the second-most important electoral medium after televised debates, which are now usually watched while using social media to comment in real time on what is being said in them. The poll also shows that the social networks are helping to bring people with little or no political awareness into debates, although their involvement is superficial and contributes little.

The results of the poll are not particularly surprising: as more and more media increase their presence on the social networks, which are focused on content consumption, it seems logical to imagine that their influence over our voting intentions will grow. The bi-directional nature of the social networks encourages people to share their opinions, and that this influences others, who feel their immediacy. Our opinions are influenced by people we have chosen to follow, figures who we think have something to say about a particular subject, which lends them greater weight. Retweeting, likes, or other metrics can create a collective sense of affirmation that can also play a big role, particularly among younger people.

Traditional one-way communication doesn’t work on the social networks. Political parties that attempt to use them crudely or through strategies based on trying to create relevance when none is there tend to fail spectacularly. The days when parties could line up activists in the front row of a rally with smartphones and laptops who would then fabricate trending topics are gone. But in their place, similar approaches seem to be emerging: instructions dictated from party headquarters directing the faithful to do this or that, along the lines of Hugo Chávez, who used hundreds of people to “raise the entry and participation barriers to participation,” publicly insulting and injuring anybody who dared to challenge the official version.

The level of debate on the social networks can often leave much to be desired: in many cases, we’re talking about sound bites, sarcastic comments or gross simplicities rather than a real exchange of opinions. Even when the social networks are used to distribute a longer piece of writing, it usually ends up being used as an offensive weapon, and probably without being read properly, although other content, such as video or graphic do sometimes reach a wide audience. It is possible that this consumption in “bite-sized chunks”, along with its asynchrony that makes it so useful, one of the elements that is making the social networks so powerfully influential when it comes to deciding on who to vote for: sticking to your guns when everybody else on your social network is saying something else is not easy.

Negative arguments seem to win out more often on the social networks than positive messages, except when the latter are an appeal to common sense or are made dispassionately: proselytizing, or overtly propagandistic content usually provokes rejection or boredom.

In short, the social networks are not a latter-day advertising hoarding, and are best put to other uses. But between what they are today and what they could or should be in the future, I fear that we have a long way to go, and that the journey could be an uncomfortable one.

(En español, aquí)