Kelly Yu / Gavel Media

Is Social Media Bad for Democracy?

Experts are saying that voter turnout in this fall's midterm elections was the second-highest it has been in thirty years. For Democrats and Republicans, abortion and the economy were two of the most important, but many states also had constitutional amendments and referendums surrounding recreational marijuana, voter rights, and security. Both parties fought to gain or keep a majority in the House and the Senate, and local government elections were more crucial than ever after the Supreme Court ruling kicked abortion laws back to the states. 

Both parties have turned to social media in an attempt to target one key demographic: young voters. Democrats typically reach out to users on apps like TikTok and Instagram, though there are Republicans on these platforms as well. Because of the overall “socially-liberal” attitude of Gen Z, which dominates the TikTok user base, Republicans generally gather on Facebook and smaller communities like Parler and MeWe. 

As the midterms approached, some politicians turned to targeting social media users harder than ever. President Biden hosted a small group of TikTok creators at the White House to remind their collective audience of about 67 million followers to vote. They included creators in a variety of content types, from Kat Wellington in the lifestyle and fashion space to comedian Mattie Westbrouck. 

Individual candidates have also taken to TikTok to get the attention of young voters. John Fetterman, who won the senate race in Pennsylvania against Mehmet Oz (better known as Dr. Oz), posted TikTok videos making fun of his opponent throughout his campaign. His account connected largely with young users due to his use of popular sounds, effects, and trends on the app.

Social media has also proven to be a breeding ground for radical conspiracy groups on both sides, including well-known groups like the Proud Boys and some violent members of Antifa, by drawing vulnerable people into a sense of community. These hate groups further drive the parties away from each other by contributing to misinformation and political violence, like the January 6th capitol riots. This polarizes the parties, making them lean more radically toward their side of the political spectrum.

The radicalization of both Democrats and Republicans allows candidates with extreme views, such as “election deniers,” those who deny that Joe Biden fairly won the 2020 presidential election, to compete. Candidates without political experience but relatively radical views, such as Hershel Walker or Mehmet Oz, have also become more common. Social media allows these unlikely candidates to gain fame through nontraditional methods. 

Social media sites also contribute to political misinformation. Some of the most obvious examples concerned the pandemic (false facts about vaccines, effectiveness of masks, etc.) and recently have included misinformation about candidates’ history, immigration, and public health. 

False advertisement comes with severe consequences; in the case of COVID-19, experts believe that internet misinformation directly contributed to high death rates and lowered vaccination numbers, especially early in the pandemic. It also sways the public reputation of candidates, giving it the potential to hugely affect election outcomes. 

A study done by Global Witness and the Cybersecurity for Democracy team at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering submitted false ads to sites and compared how accurately each platform found the false information and removed the ad. They found that while some sites, like YouTube, caught nearly every false ad, many of them, including TikTok, caught only 10-20% of the ads submitted. 

Young voters turned out in the polls this midterm cycle in almost historically high numbers. Many young voters actually cited social media as one of the biggest factors in their decision to vote, saying that it raises their awareness of controversial issues and familiarizes them with their candidates. 

Weighing the damage of misinformation spread on social media against the benefits of allowing parties to reach an entire critical demographic of voters is difficult. No matter your opinion on whether social media is bad for democracy, however, one thing is undeniable: social media is here to stay, and campaigning is more online than ever.

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