In the 1970’s, people were involved in politics in direct and overt ways. They wrote letters to political representatives and marched on streets. Now, almost 50 years later, interest and involvement in politics looks a little different. Instead of letter-writing, people are equipped with a different set of political tools – their mobile phones and hashtags.

It is no doubt that social media, amongst many things, has completely transformed the way people interact with and participate in politics. It has disbanded previously rigid social, political, and cultural landscapes and contributed to the demise of the time and space equilibrium. This has caused a change in how information is being delivered and received and therefore, a change in how people interact with and participate in politics and decision making. These observations have in fact, infiltrated academic circles, and become the focus of literature that aims to contribute to an understanding of exactly how, and why, social media has become such an influential instrument in politics, and political participation. There seem to be two key reasons.

The first is that social media has contributed greatly to the demise of traditional gatekeepers of information and has made information easily accessible in ways that were inconceivable in the past. Diana Owen, a professor at Georgetown University, noted how social media “relay information directly to individuals without the intervention of editorial or institutional gatekeepers”. In other words, there is no real ‘middleman’ anymore transmitting information between people and sources. This has also meant that communication avenues have expanded beyond traditional one-way flows. In regard to how this has impacted politics, through networks like Facebook and Twitter, people now have direct access to politicians, leaders, and companies, whom they can either probe for information, or inversely, receive information from. 

This was especially evident in former U.S President Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign. Described by many as the “internet candidate”, Obama’s win was largely attributed to his divisive use of social media to reach current and prospective voters. As Bruce Bimber, from the University of California stated, Obama’s utilisation of social platforms “provided immediacy and excitement” within the public, allowing them to connect with him and therefore, increase attraction for his political views and policies.
A more timely example is current U.S President Donald Trump’s adoption of Twitter as an outlet for him to directly express his thoughts to his followers, whether they may be about Meryl Streep, global warming or China. 

These cases demonstrate the impact of social media in directly connecting people with politics, or in this case political leaders. It is this function that opens up more avenues of dialogue about political affairs – the more people who see an outrageous tweet from Trump increases the likelihood of conversations between people who agree and disagree with him. Either way, it automatically ignites interest and participation in politics. 

These conceptualisations of social media and politics seem to parallel Yochai Benkler’s work on networks and media. Benkler, author of “The wealth of networks” coined the term “networked public sphere” in 2006, to describe the phenomena of online spaces becoming sites for public discourse and debate on social and political issues. It is an exemplar of how social media has been able to navigate barriers, like traditional news media, and reach audiences directly. So, without the presence of a middleman relaying information back and forth, social media has become a prime location for people to participate in political discourse. For citizens, politics becomes more interesting when they can tweet to their leader. For leaders, tweeting about their prospective foreign policy plans connects them to their followers (which, as Obama has proven, seems to be a handy tool for election season). 

Another reason why social media has become an important tool in politics and political participation, is because it has blurred traditional lines between ‘producers’ and ‘receivers’. Ever since the emergence of Web 2.0, citizens now have the capacity to create and spread their own content, including their views and opinions on certain political debates and more specifically, political movements. This idea has its footings in the conceptualisation of participatory media culture, which scholar Henry Jenkins described as “spaces for people to express their views, and participate in effective social change”. Here, the impact of social media on politics stems from the intrinsic function of social media to connect people with each other which in turn, facilitates the mobilisation of their thoughts into actions. These take place in the form of social and political movements, which serve to unite people from all fronts as part of a combined effort to bring about change, and influence decision making. 

This political function of social media has been deployed countless times, from the Arab Spring in 2010, to the Black Lives Matter movement three years later. Both these political movements showcase how quickly social media was able to mobilise large groups of people and facilitate conversations and discussions about certain issues that people were facing and what needed to be done about it. 

While the catalysts for these movements were the deep-rooted inequalities and oppression faced by large groups of people, it is no doubt that the reason they amassed into the large political movements they were eventually known for, was because of social media. Sites like Facebook and Twitter gave people a platform to disseminate photos, videos, and even messages about their experiences with political unrest and hostility.
Take the Arab Spring. If the act of Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire on December 17, 2010 in Tunisia wasn’t videoed and uploaded onto Facebook, how quickly would the Arab Spring movement have grown? If Tunisian citizens, bloggers, web activists and rappers weren’t criticising the rule of the country’s then-president Ben Ali, would he ever have resigned?
These are tough questions, but they serve to highlight the impact of social media on politics and political participation. 

With the current advancements in technology and communications, it is only normal to wonder how far social media will go as an instrument of politics. Some might even view it as integral to future political decision-making and advocacy. As Ms. Owen put it, “social media has low barriers to entry and offer expanded opportunities for mass political engagement”. These will only grow. 

Social media has broken down a fourth wall in an unprecedented way. We have seen it in the way it has broken down previously rigid social and political boundaries, connecting people directly with people in power, and also in the way it has mobilised large political movements that transcend physical boundaries. Whatever the impact is of social media in politics, one thing seems clear: it knows no bounds and invites people from all backgrounds to participate in political discourse – whether you’re a Tunisian rapper, or the President of the United States. 

Simran Borges is a member of the Asia & Oceania SRC. She has a strong interest in the world politics. Her research areas are politics and international development.