The political and journalistic landscapes are changing in the United States. It seems as though online media has provided a means for the two areas to become increasingly intertwined throughout this era of change in the digital age. Journalistically, social media has provided a means for news to travel in smaller, more digestible forms. Politically, social media has become increasingly important in keeping constituents tuned in to political news and happenings and providing a means of cheap, efficient public relations for politicians. The development of online social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter is altering the ways in which the public consumes information and news about politics and elections. Social media is transforming the journalistic and political fields by changing the way political news is being consumed and increasing the speed that information is gathered in released. With the 2012 presidential elections in the nation’s rearview mirror, journalists and politicians are eager to see how social media will continue to transform the democratic process.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference between present day presidential elections and those of years past is the use of social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, by both candidates and constituents to communicate and consume political news. Although the United States witnessed the role social media can play in the elections in 2008, the 2012 elections served as a true test of the medium’s power to influence voters. Some even argue that the result of the election was predicted first on social media, with President Obama clearly ahead on social media websites. In previous interviews, Ryan Adams, CEO of PME 360, a company specializing in local Internet marketing, explains that social media sites, Facebook specifically, are underused by political candidates: “While further studies are needed, it appears that social media analytics may be an underutilized resource for predicting presidential election results. It can be argued that social media engagement signifies an informal vote for a candidate.” Essentially, he argues that when an individual “likes” a candidate on Facebook, that “like” signifies that person’s vote, thus making Facebook an integral part of future election predictions.
Facebook has gained more than 96 million users in the United States since 2009; that means that over 96 million more people will have access to the Facebook pages of politicians and news outlets, and the ability to share, “like”, and post links to these pages on their own personal pages for all of their friends to see and interact with. Twitter has also grown rapidly since the last presidential election. The compound annual growth rate of Twitter from 2006 to 2010 was 478 percent, and in 2008 Twitter grew at an astounding rate of 752 percent with an increase of one million additional users in December alone. With the immense growth in the number of United States citizens using social media and the increasing participation of both large and small news outlets on Facebook and Twitter, social media is becoming a far more powerful player in the political game than it was previously, even in the 2008 election.
Although social media is a relatively new part of politics, this kind of transformation of the democratic process brought on by a new form of media has been seen before. On September 26, 1960 the democratic process in the United States fundamentally altered when John F. Kennedy, a senator from Massachusetts, went head to head with Vice President Richard Nixon in a 60-minute televised debate. Until then, politics had not been televised in a meaningful way. This televised debate transformed “political campaigns, television media, and America’s political history” from that point on. What was it about that debate that so deeply affected the democratic process and the way political new is covered by journalists? Essentially, “after the debate, how you presented yourself, what you looked like, how you sounded and whether you connected directly with audiences mattered.” Furthermore, 88 percent of American households had televisions at that time – a 77 percent increase from just a decade before. According to Nielsen television ratings of the day, approximately 74 million viewers were tuned in when calm, confident Kennedy beat the nervous, sickly looking Nixon in the September debate. The debates drastically transformed the way presidential candidates approach the election process by increasing the importance of the roles of personal appearances, charm, and public relations. In the same way that television did in 1960, social media had similarly experienced a short period of rapid growth immediately prior to the 2012 presidential election.
Yet, one of the weightiest concerns about the incorporation of social media into the political process is the emphasis on speed and instant gratification that is embedded into the culture of the Internet. Journalistically, social media has provided a means for news to travel in smaller, more digestible forms. For instance, Twitter limits users’ posts to 150 characters or less. Essentially, this allows Twitter to act as a headline service for users. If a user is intrigued by the 150-character snippet, then they’ll often click on the link to the related story and read the full article. Twitter also allows for a considerable amount of citizen journalism to take place. Due to the nature of site, users are able to instantly Tweet to millions of followers in just a fraction of a second. Because of this, websites like Twitter have forced journalists and news outlets to gather and release news faster than they ever have before. When journalists are kept on such tight deadlines, it can be difficult to go through the proper fact checking processes that are expected to occur when newspapers or television stations publish or air a piece of news. By overlooking this integral step in the journalistic process, journalists and news outlets expose themselves to a plethora of factual errors that may not have occurred if they had taken the proper amount of time to fact check their information and sources. Unfortunately, modern day journalists are pressured to compete with citizen journalists who may have witnessed a piece of news first hand and then Tweeted about it only seconds later.
Although this form of amateur journalism has become integral to the development of journalism in the online world, it poses a serious threat to the integrity of professional journalists. Citizen journalists usually do not have experience or education in the field of journalism, therefore they are not held to the same code of ethics that professional journalists are held to. This can cause a great deal of problems for professional journalists because the public has unlimited access to the information these sources put out, which is highly susceptible to errors and heavy bias. If the public is fed false or heavily biased information from these amateur journalists, then it makes it more difficult for professional journalists to convince readers that the information they are presenting is verified. Even so, political philosopher John Stuart Mills asserts that the truth will inevitably arise, even out of false information, in his theory of the marketplace of ideas. As a new media landscape evolves, journalists, those who consume the news, and those who are in the news can only hope that Mills’ theory possesses some veracity.
However, the truth may be especially difficult to come by when it comes to political news obtained from biased news sources. Social media has become increasingly important in keeping constituents tuned in to political news and happenings both in everyday life and during election seasons. Social media websites provide a means of cheap, efficient public relations for politicians. Unfortunately, these websites have also made it easier for readers and viewers to be manipulated by exposure to an inundation of biased information from politicians themselves, political pundits, opinionated constituents and citizens, and even a growing number of unprofessional journalists who lack the ethics that professional journalists are trained to have. Furthermore, social media websites like Facebook and Twitter are extremely easy to update and can actually be even more effective in reaching mass audiences than other forms of modern media, such as television or newspaper advertisements. This element of social media makes it an especially promising platform for public relations because politicians and public relations professionals are able to instantly interact with millions of people with just the click of a mouse. Conversely, broadcast, print, and other traditional news sources are then forced to keep up with consumers in order to stay relevant. This phenomenon ties back to the idea of instant gratification. By speeding up this process of news gathering and publishing in order to instantly gratify those who want to hear news as it happens, traditional news outlets’ publications become increasingly prone to error and the inclusion of unconfirmed facts simply because they want to be the first to release a story.
Although getting the story out first is an important element in the social media landscape, this idea is certainly not new to the field of journalism. Being the first publication or news source to get “the scoop” on a newsworthy story has been engrained into the foundation of journalism for decades. One notable example of this is the scoop that Bob Schieffer obtained when he was a fledgling police reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Texas. Schieffer is known for getting Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother to Dallas after Oswald was accused of assassinating President John F. Kennedy. When Oswald’s mother called the Fort Worth Star-Telegram asking for a ride to Dallas, Schieffer initially reacted with condescension saying, “Well lady, you know, we don’t run a taxi service besides the president has been shot.” Once the woman explained her relationship to Oswald, Schieffer was able to find a ride into Dallas for her. When Oswald’s mother arrived in Dallas, where floods of reporters were prowling around looking for any tidbit of news about Kennedy’s murderer to report, Schieffer pretended to be a police detective in order to interview the woman first at the scene. The incident helped shape Shieffer’s career.
Now imagine an event like the Kennedy assassination happening today. Would the news coverage look different on a social media platform? Probably. Inevitably, there would be a small number of political extremists touting his assassination as a step forward for the nation. Although these kinds of minority political extremists undoubtedly existed 1963, it is likely that their opinions would not have reached the eyes and ears of even a fraction of the amount of people they would have today on a social media website. Good news travels fast, but bad news travels faster. If someone were to Tweet something inflammatory about an assassination, it’s possible that the Tweet could go viral and reach millions of people by means of Retweets, Facebook shares, et cetera. Essentially, the speed at which people are able to obtain and share information on the web may have drastically changed how the assassination was covered in the news and how the public perceived the event.
With social media growing in popularity and allowing people more opportunities to customize which news outlets to subscribe to for news, there may never be a news event that promotes the kind of cohesiveness that the nation experienced when Kennedy was assassinated. According to Nielsen statistics, a point was reached during the funeral on Monday afternoon when 41,553,000 television sets were in use, believed to be an all-time high for the era. With Americans obtaining their news from so many different niches, it would be difficult to garner the same amount of public attention to one medium at the same time. Because of this, it is possible that television is the best medium for reaching millions of people simultaneously, and consequently uniting them by allowing them to watch the same coverage concurrently all over the nation. Conversely, social media appears to be dividing the American population further by promoting the use of niche marketing and targeted news strategies to find a specific audience rather than a broad audience. This tactic is also referred to as narrowcasting, the reverse of broadcasting. It is possible that the narrowcasting tactics social media websites use could create additional conflict between people of opposing views and opinions and prevent Americans from behaving and thinking cohesively. If this occurs, then the boundaries between journalism and politics may become increasingly blurred and distorted, thus fundamentally changing both fields, possibly even forever.