This year’s election has brought out the best and the worst in many of us as we publicly engaged one another on social media, and yet we need to be mindful that what see online is rarely accurate and complete.
I have done some research on social media use, but from just observing my own social media accounts and reading posts of my own circle of friends in the last several weeks, I saw some patterns that support and question what we know about social media so far.
Let me start with what’s good.
I think the level of engagement we have witnessed this election is unparalleled, and part of that is because social media provided a public platform for people to voice out their thoughts and opinions without passing through the gates of traditional media.
Far from fears of social media functioning as echo-chambers—or when individuals get exposed only to information consistent with their views—I saw how friends supporting different candidates engaged with one another.
Supporters aggressively sought out and confronted opinion inconsistent with theirs. Such mediated confrontation, I think, further heightened public interest in this election.
Increased interest translated into mobilization, with supporters using social media to organize their ranks. I had friends who posted on Facebook calls for campaign donations and arrangements to distribute campaign materials.
I don’t remember seeing this level of participation, at least on social media, in the previous elections.
But we also witnessed widespread problematic social media behavior.
Many supporters abandoned civility as they expressed support for a candidate who, ironically, they claimed to represent discipline.
There was a lot of name-calling, with people not just arguing but even maligning others who disagreed with them. Supporters turned into cyber-bullies, viciously threatening supporters of other candidates.
I also have very close friends who engaged in misinformation, one of them posting bogus survey results, and I was appalled how such fabricated information went viral in a matter of hours, that a survey company had to issue a statement to deny it.
Many also became very hostile with traditional media organizations, threatening reporters not just online but also when they see them in person.
Studies have long established what researchers called the hostile media effect.
Simply, it refers to the phenomenon of individuals with a strong opinion on a particular issue perceiving the media to be biased against their opinion, even if confronted by a neutral story.
An important factor explaining this effect is the perceived reach of the source.
It seems that part of the aggressiveness of many supporters in criticizing and demonizing traditional and social media sources they perceive to be biased against their own views is the fear and recognition that these sources have wide reach.
But what’s interesting is how some supporters did not just question the media they perceived as biased, but they also put up alternative social media pages, blogs, and websites that spread fabricated information and were, ironically, explicitly biased.
However, while we now live in an increasingly digitized world, we have to realize that most of what we see on social media—even what we get from opinion surveys—remains incomplete. We have witnessed this in the recent national elections in the United Kingdom and Singapore.
In the UK, the majority win of the Conservatives surprised polling companies which had predicted a much different result.
In Singapore, supporters of opposition parties dominated social media, but election results saw the administration party increasing its majority last year.
But are we really ourselves on social media?
While it is surprising to see some social media users spew out threats and nasty messages without hiding behind anonymity—vicious comments also come from users using their real names—many of them quickly step back when counter-attacked.
It’s great to see social media being maximized as a platform for free exchange of ideas during this election, but much of what we have witnessed also highlights the need for social media literacy.
This election is not only about deciding what our country will become, but it should also be about reflecting on what we have become as a people.