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American Political Engagement in the Facebook Age

Written by Nicholas Lind on September 8, 2012.

 

by Nicholas M. Lind

There are sixty days left until we cast our ballots, but whose really counting anyway?  Besides, it’s not as though we’re not  accustomed to the rolling charade of television ads, newspaper analyses, poll updates, and the like, right?  Of course in this cycle the whole performance is a bit different.  For the first time, the modern political campaign has fully embraced social media outlets as a method to foster support and, perhaps more often, as a platform to spread propaganda.

Now to be sure, neither the candidates nor their parties are the most active participants in the worst of the “political memes” spreading through Facebook.  While both candidates do have public Facebook profiles which are carefully managed by campaign strategists (and Obama was praised for implementing social media tactics in the ’08 campaign), most of the real leg work is completed through partisan groups that aren’t affiliated with either party.  These groups are a dime a dozen and range ideologically across the spectrum in all directions.

Plenty can be said regarding the effect these messengers have had on the 2012 election.  For one, it brings a totally new type of information into the political arena.  The meme’s are essentially digital (and viral) campaign posters with various messages.  The simple, straightforward nature of these “advertisements” is often done (as television commercials are) with absolutely no documentation to verify whatever claims may be made, which has arguably opened the door for “fact-checking” journalists to critique or affirm the ideas that are quickly spreading across News Feeds from sea to shining sea.  Furthermore, anyone who uses Facebook easily recognizes them instantly, and their reactions to the tornado of political discourse prove to be an especially striking  finding about American politics.

Facebook has brought political campaigns into living room computers, college dorm desks, browsers on workers breaks, and cell phones everywhere.  The increased exposure (when presented honestly) would ideally serve to inform voters of the issues at hand.  But although these memes have certainly generated significant discussion and debate about the facts, perceptions, and policies surrounding the upcoming election (a healthy outcome for a functioning democracy), they have also been met more recently with indifference, annoyance, and indignation.

In fact, critics have created a program that systematically hides and posts referring to political issues by allowing users to block posts if they include specific words such as, “Obama,” “Romney,” “Republican,” or “Democrat.”  The most popular browser add-on is perhaps the Social Fixer, a free downloadable service that adds custom features to Facebook.

But what are we really advocating for when we dismiss political discussion as a waste of our time or as an inconvenience not quite fit for our everyday digital lives?  A number of friends and followers have recently criticized posts I’ve personally made (not necessarily the substance, but merely the act of posting them) and I have to wonder what the effect of that act is (intended and unintended).

Now look, I understand that not everyone is as politically inclined as readers and writers of this forum, but where do we stand, as a culture, when we begin to criticize someone for simply contemplating the organizations responsible for formally organizing the world around us?  Who are we, as a people, when we turn away from those organizations, losing hope, without proposing an alternative?

It’s bad enough to ignore efforts dealing with public discourse in the twenty-first interconnected global system given the many shortcomings of socioeconomic development around the world.  It’s another matter entirely to criticize those working to find solutions.

Nicholas Lind can be reached at nicholasmlind@gmail.com 

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