Targeting young voters through social media, political marketing sends mixed messages that leave individuals to determine the facts, which can be tricky in today’s political landscape.
In the 2021 Arkansas Public Opinion Poll, 60% of self-proclaimed likely voters responded that they had not read a daily newspaper at all during the week surveyed, an increase of 11% in two years . The jump coincides with the growth of social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and Twitter as outlets for political advertisers to reach wider and younger audiences.
“It scares someone like me, but I also try to remember that the platforms are all pretty fuzzy,” said Janine Parry, a professor of political science at UA and director of the Arkansas Poll. . “The younger generations in particular get most of their political news from social media, so it’s kind of hypocritical, because I do that all the time when I click on a Washington Post article from my Facebook feed.”
With the wide array of private messages and diaries that came with the 2022 midterms, Parry said social media is often saturated with hard-to-find information. With that comes a tendency to take a few bullet points at a time, rather than reading deeper into a post.
In a study entitled “I share, therefore I know? of the Journal of Consumer Psychology, only 51% of people who claim to read a story online actually read the entire article, while 22% only look at the title or several lines.
Because social media is the developing language for young voters, Josh Marvine, UA Political Science Honor Society treasurer and senior, said politicians are eager to use the popular channel of communication. However, there can be a fine line between engaging and exploiting user emotions.
People tend to engage more online when they’re angry, said Marvine, who noticed this in her work as communications director for the University of Kansas Young Democrats in the 2020 election.
“They were upset, not with our content but with a lot of things in American politics,” Marvine said. “When you see something that makes you angry, you don’t see anything countering that information and it can be pushed by anyone with absolutely no barrier to entry.”
Marvine is a proponent of finding multiple sources before jumping to a conclusion, and said that if he spends enough time online, certain posts tend to set off his alarm bells.
UA College Republicans President Seth Roundtree, a senior, said the club uses both social media and on-campus presentations to inform students of club announcements and party issues. With in-person campaigns, such as setting up a table in front of the union, Roundtree said there was often a more direct and focused response from others.
Although they get a heckling from time to time, Roundtree said people respect differing opinions in person much more than they do on social media.
“A lot of times we’re trapped in our own bubble on social media so we don’t see too many differing opinions,” Roundtree said. “But if used correctly, it can be a really good resource that has the recency that you don’t get with news articles.”
While there are plenty of legitimate sites posting online, images and language that are clearly intended to elicit strong feelings are also strong indicators that the source is invalid, Parry said. Finding information in neutral and unbiased language is key to finding accurate information, rather than being a passive consumer of social media algorithms.
“Anything that generates really strong feelings is a bad sign,” Parry said. “It’s like a flashing red light that someone is trying to manipulate you rather than inform you.”
Nationalism is a major trend resulting from the development of easily accessible and assimilable information. Most ads feature national figures and burning issues rather than state-specific policies, which potentially affected the outcome of Arkansas’ midterm elections, Parry said.
“When we ask what the Arkansans care about most in politics, more and more we’ve seen things like immigration or taxation, so whatever’s hot on the national agenda has started to color the way the Arkansans talk about politics.” Pary said. “Young people are going to live with all its consequences much longer.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 30% of US taxpayers’ money is spent by state and local governments. When the number of young voters is as low as it has been – census data showed that only 32% of Arkansans aged 18 to 24 voted in the 2020 election – Parry said representation is skewed in favor of older generations, who essentially decide who spends that money.
Although the college population is more present on social media, Marvine said that in no way makes him and other students immune to algorithms and messages.
“People tend to put themselves in echo chambers and surround themselves online with people who just confirm their worst impulses,” Marvine said. “We can encourage each other to become more and more radicalized and the algorithms of social media companies are designed to create that and make money from the clicks.”