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What the Midterm Elections Tell Us About Social Media Today

Happy Midterm Elections Day! For anyone in the United States, we hope you are able to get out and vote today. This morning as I listened to my favorite news podcast with the TV in the background, all while refreshing my Twitter feed, I started thinking about just how connected technology, and social media specifically, has enabled me to be. This is true of my life in general: I work and primarily communicate with coworkers, friends and family through some combination of my smartphone, email, Slack and social channels. But on the day of a major election, I’m that much more aware of the way in which social media is fully integrated into the way I understand politics and current news.

This, in many ways, is a good thing. Greater access to information in real-time from a variety of sources is inherently useful. But the speed at which social media posts, comments and even accounts are created make it difficult to validate and decipher the real from the fraudulent. With functionality innately designed to share the personal and opinionated, and in a midterm elections cycle divided and emotionally-charged, it is critical that we understand the role that social media plays in important days like today.

“What’s on your mind?” and the culture of sharing

Social media, by design, puts sharing at its forefront. From the first message of “What’s on your mind?” upon logging in to comment feeds and reaction GIFs and notifications directing you to posts and comments that “might be interesting” to you, social media platforms enable, and also encourage, the sharing of opinions and information. How many social media posts start with phrases like, “Can I just say…” or “Anyone else feel…” or simply “I”?

Personal posts can quickly turn political and before long you’re calling your distant relative to apologize for a comment you made in the heat of the moment. Because despite the impersonal nature of typing a comment vs a face-to-face discussion, there is real emotion behind social media posts. With emotions at an all-time high in this midterm elections cycle, we may be more likely to say something, or share something, without fully vetting it first. This is particularly true of memes and videos designed for virality and easily shared hundreds, if not millions, of times. This has, unfortunately, led to an era of misinformation spread across social media platforms, leaving posters reminiscing the days of using social to share cute family photos or plan surprise parties.

While these platforms make it increasingly easy to share our half-developed thoughts or repost videos that cross our feeds, it’s more important than ever that we as users do our due-diligence in validating that the information we share, repost, like or comment on is accurate and developed by a legitimate source. Be wary of clickbait titles and reaction-prone images with limited real information attached to them. If you see information shared on your feeds or anywhere online that you believe is fake, make sure to report that information to the network.

Opinion vs Fact

Social media and digital platforms allow information, of all types, to be shared instantly on a global scale. This includes personal anecdotes, breaking news, global issues, political debates, comedic bits, and more. The internet doesn’t discriminate when it comes to content, and this is what draws us to it. On a single platform I can find the score from Sunday’s Ravens game, connect directly with celebrities and politicians, and see pictures of my cousin’s new baby.

The eclectic nature of these channels makes it difficult to decipher opinion from fact. I’m sure you have seen a celebrity or politician’s social media bio list “Opinions my own” or “reposts do not equal endorsements.” The very fact that these phrases need to be included in social media bios speaks to the volume of the issue at hand: it is nearly impossible to decipher opinion from fact online. Unlike news sites with clearly labeled OpEds, social media doesn’t warrant us that privilege. Users are responsible for deciphering opinion from fact all on their own.

This point is especially timely considering the sharing of political information on social media. In fact, social media was the second highest source of 2016 election information according to one survey, right after cable news. With tons of Americans turning to social media platforms for critical information that informs their votes, it is imperative that the information they are basing their votes on is accurate. Again: it’s crucial to investigate your sources.

From real-time to live

Access to information in real-time is central to the nature of the internet as a whole (need proof? this very concept has been used to criticize whole generations of younger people labeled ‘impatient’ because of it). But in the last two years we’ve seen a shift beyond real-time information to live updates. The incorporation of live streaming on major social media platforms has created the expectation that information is immediately accessible. But as information comes in live, there is no opportunity for vetting or accuracy checks, creating an opportunity for inaccurate or fraudulent information to be spread quickly through these tools.

While we all want information as soon as it is possibly available, take the few moments to review the source of the information and do a bit of background research on the material before you make a judgement call.

Bringing it all together

On this midterm elections day and every day after, it’s critical that we understand that, in the age that we now live in, social media and other digital platforms shape the way that we understand the world around us. While these channels are great for connecting with people, promoting businesses, and learning new information and ideas, make sure that the accounts, posts and pages you are engaging with are vetted and accurate. Get informed and get out and vote in your local midterm elections!