Recently, Alabama’s Republican secretary of state, John Merrill, got into a Twitter spat with Mallory Hagan, a Democrat running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, over whether Merrill is suppressing the vote in the state.
To have candidates for political office, one of them an incumbent office holder, debate such a contentious issue on Twitter demonstrates how much social media has become a part of the conversations surrounding elections, including the upcoming midterms.
And that’s hardly the only way social media touches politics these days. Candidates use Facebook pages. Voters share videos and news links to help or hurt a given party or candidate. Sitting office-holders regularly comment on current events. Social media users locally also share their experiences with how the voting process works in the state.
How big a part of the political conversation is social media, and how much influence does it wield in decisions being made? With social media now a common way for people to access and share information, what role will Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other platforms play in the upcoming midterm elections locally?
While the exact impact is only a guess, it is clear that local voters and local candidates are relying on social media to participate in the next round of voting – even in the face of evidence that outside forces have used it to manipulate the electorate.
The New York Times reported in October 2017 that Facebook acknowledged to Congress that the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company linked to the Kremlin, posted “roughly 80,000 pieces of divisive content that was shown to about 29 million people between January 2015 and August 2017. Those posts were then liked, shared and followed by others, spreading the messages to tens of millions more people. Facebook also said it had found and deleted more than 170 accounts on its photo-sharing app, Instagram; those accounts had posted about 120,000 pieces of Russia-linked content.”
According to the Times, through purchased advertisements, Russian operatives were heavily influencing “126 million” American voters to swing toward the conservative side of the election.
Facebook was only part of the story. Twitter told Congress that it also counted approximately 2,700 accounts related to the Internet Research Agency, according to the Times.
Many voters, made aware of the situation by social media news sharing, expressed outrage at being manipulated in such a way on a site that many felt to be a safe space. But even after that, influence campaigns apparently continue; on Oct. 11, the Times reported that Facebook publicly identified “559 pages and 251 accounts run by Americans, many of which amplified false and misleading content in a coordinated fashion.”
Despite such revelations, which have been widely publicized and discussed across the media spectrum, people still take to social media to participate in politics.
Neil Rafferty of Birmingham did not always want to be in politics, but he jumped in after a friend posed the idea to him via text message this past February.
“My friend asked me if it was something I’d be interested in doing, and I think I sent him back something like, ‘LOL, are you serious?’ Rafferty recalled. Rafferty ran in the 2018 Democratic primary for the House District election for District 54 and garnered 48 percent of 5,880 votes in his race, according to Ballotpedia; he’s on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
Rafferty describes himself as a member of the “Facebook generation” but admits he isn’t very tech savvy when it comes to other forms of social media. Because of this, he did not fully rely on online outreach for his campaign. “Instagram, Twitter, (they) aren’t really my gigs,” he said “So while it was a major component and it was something I couldn’t avoid and had to do, there was still a big part of it that depends largely on retail politics as far as going to people and asking for the vote in person, you know, like knocking on doors. I think (Birmingham Mayor) Randall Woodfin had a lot to do with that kind of new expectation here in the city, too.”
“Nobody wants to vote for a stranger,” Rafferty reiterated. “They don’t want to vote for some random person they’ve never met or don’t know. It’s easier to trust somebody when they’re sitting there in front of you telling you what they think they’re going to be able to do as opposed to a post on Facebook. Because Facebook is really more of a follow up, in my opinion.”
Despite that opinion, Rafferty and his team made regular Facebook posts to address issues he identified as plaguing his district.
“We would always try to start organically, doing it where I would have a team of people when I posted something,” he said. “I would just send out a message to all of them and then they like and share it as much as they can. That really helped my organic reach, but the problem was making sure … the ads get to the right place.”
Rafferty said that the power of social media puts a responsibility on users to be sure of their messaging. “Before I post something I usually get several other people to read it because, while I get it and I understand what I’m trying to say, I don’t want to be misunderstood. So, I need other eyes on it to see if there are other ways this could be interpreted. And that’s saved me several times.”
Lucky Solis Ernst believes in doing research to make sure social media posts are legitimate. Strictly a Facebook and Instagram user, she tends to avoid Snapchat and Twitter. Ernst said she doesn’t see a problem with using social media as an informative tool when it comes to voting smart.
“I mean, it has its place. It’s a source: use it. Why not use it?” she said.
Ernst, who identifies as politically liberal, said the way Russia used Facebook was embarrassing.
“When you start breaking down the stuff that happened with Russia – I think it is legitimate that we should feel like idiots. Truly,” she said. “I mean we got duped hard. … And I think Facebook has a huge responsibility in that. They’re a multibillion-dollar corporation … they should have been aware of that.”
With a personal Facebook wall filled with various posts on politics, Ernst said she believes there is a certain risk to wearing your ideology on your social media sleeve. “I think there’s also the potential to alienate certain people by being vocal,” she said. “I think that it creates schisms in their personal lives when people see who you support and why.”
As far as political figures using social media, diplomacy is a must, she said, criticizing the president as “so vocal and so distasteful.”
Merika Coleman, the assistant minority leader for the Alabama House of Representatives, and a political science professor, has studied the effects of social media on voters and has witnessed firsthand how the technology can be a useful tool to some, and a problem for others. The biggest issue, she said, is that most individuals do not do the required research to develop an informed opinion.
“I have a broadcasting degree, so for those of us who have actually studied the field, gone to school, gotten a degree, and did the work … it’s a little bit disheartening when people are getting their news from people who have not done that,” she said. “We’re taught to be objective when we’re reporting, we’re taught to research a particular story from all angles, but you have these people who I call ‘fly by night reporters’ who, as long as they have a computer, can call themselves journalists and they can use social media as a means to interact with the public. It’s really scary to me that they don’t do their due diligence in researching a particular issue before putting their opinions out into the atmosphere or the Twitter-verse or Facebook or any of those other outlets,” Coleman said.
Coleman added that she believes that social media, if used with proper research, can be an excellent resource but understands how the public’s trust could be broken.
“The whole 2016 election with Russia actually hacking into Facebook and creating these pages that were divisive and ultimately had Americans fighting each other … that’s the scary portion (of social media),” she said “We just have to get a better handle on what is actually being put out there, who is controlling the message and making sure that the U.S. is actually making our own decisions.”
A veteran of several political campaigns, Coleman emphasized that nothing beats old fashioned personal connections with voters. “A person is more likely to go vote if something has personally impacted them or if something has personally happened to them … and that’s why, in addition to the social media aspect, you as a candidate cannot forget to do old fashioned door-to-door hand shaking and meeting with voters to discuss personally the issues that impact them. It really makes a difference,” she said.