Social media is playing an ever-increasing role in the day-to-day lives of Americans. A 2019 study showed on average, people worldwide spent nearly two and a half hours online per day.
Some turn to social media to connect with people, while others use the platforms to escape from their daily lives or vent their frustrations.
Social media is increasingly playing a role in politics as well. Candidates, political groups, lawmakers and more are now using the platforms as a way to connect with voters and spread their message.
Using Social Media Effectively
Love him or hate him, for years former President Donald Trump has been one of the most effective politicians on social media.
“I’m not sure anybody used it to the extent Trump has done it,” said Michael Humphrey, an assistant professor at the journalism and media communication department at Colorado State University.
Humphrey has spent years analyzing every tweet Trump sent out.
Humphrey said the former president’s ability to build consistent themes on social media to invigorate his base distinguished him from others.
“The way he was using narrative throughout Twitter feed to build alliances and also to attack opponents and, basically, create a sense of purpose around his presidency, a sense of mission around his presidency,” Humphrey said.
Now, he’s noticed other politicians, and even average people, begin to mirror the language and themes to use social media to their benefit as well.
With so many politicians now using social media to communicate with their constituents, Humphrey believes this is the most engaged people have ever been in national politics.
However, on the state and local level, he doesn’t believe there is the same level of interest, which more directly impacts people’s lives.
Beyond the politicians, the rise of pseudo news sites has greatly contributed to partisanship online as well.
“I think [social media] has helped fuel the misinformation and the lies, and, I think, for some it’s hard to determine what’s reality, what’s true and what’s fact,” Sen. Rhonda Fields said.
Unlike life offline, social media also allows users to filter their content so they only see, read and interact with content from a similar viewpoint. The phenomenon is known as an echo chamber.
When Outrage Reigns
A debate many computer science professionals have been having for years is who is causing the echo chambers to be created? Are people surrounding themselves with only others who share a similar viewpoint? On the other hand, is the algorithm these tech companies are using creating the echo chambers by only suggesting certain people, pages or posts a user is likely to click on?
“It’s really hard to disentangle which one of those or how both of those are operating,” said Brian Keegan, an assistant professor department of information science at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The way people talk to one another has also changed; the anonymity social media sites created allowed for the advent of internet trolls, keyboard warriors, sleuths and more.
State Sen. Dominick Moreno has witnessed that change happen over the past several years he’s been in office.
“You can say hurtful things with little to no consequence, and I do think that social media has played a huge or has had a huge impact on our dialogue, and it hasn’t been for the better,” Moreno said.
Several times, he has been attacked online and gone to great lengths to find the identity of the person so he can have a telephone conversation with them.
Moreno said each time, the tone over the phone was very different from the one portrayed online since the veil of anonymity or dehumanization of the internet was no longer a factor.
Clickbait has also become a rising problem in the world of the internet since companies are posting whatever they can to get consumers to click on their pages.
The most salacious the story, the more views; the more views, the more eyes on advertising; the more advertising, the more revenue for the company.
“We are addicted to outrage nowadays. We like things that get us riled up, that shock us, and unfortunately, what that means is that reporters are attracted to talking about it and people are attracted to sharing it on social media, and it’s a perpetual cycle of outrage,” said Sage Naumann, the communications director for the Colorado Senate Republicans.
Along with social media sites acting as digital gathering centers for political groups to organize, the sites have also become breeding grounds for dishonesty, causing people to question what is true and false.
Free Speech and Filters
Another issue that is creating echo chambers and raising free speech concerns: the ability to block people.
With the simple tap of a button, users can get rid of posts or even people from there feed with whom they disagree.
However, when politicians started blocking their constituents online, lawsuits started stacking up in the courts.
“Once they are operating as a public official and essentially using social media as a public forum for the discussion of views about public policy, then the First Amendment limits that public official's ability to pick and choose who is going to speak and what views are going to be acceptable,” said Mark Silverstein, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Colorado.
In Colorado, the ACLU successfully sued former state Sen. Ray Scott in 2017 for blocking a constituent on Twitter.
In the settlement, the former senator agreed to no longer block people on social media and to pay roughly $25,000 in attorneys fees for the plaintiff, Anne Landman.
In 2018, a federal court also ruled Trump was not allowed to block people from following his personal account because he was using the platform to make important policy announcements.
The decision was upheld by a federal appeals court the following year. Trump was sued again in 2020 for refusing to unblock people.
Most recently, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert is now facing a federal lawsuit for blocking former state Rep. Bri Buentello on her personal account on Twitter.
Buentello said she is one of several constituents who was blocked on the congresswoman’s Twitter account. She tweeted at Boebert about the blocked accounts and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol calling for her to resign but was herself blocked.
Buentello’s lawyer argued, like Trump, Boebert is using the personal account to make policy announcements, so blocking constituents is a violation of the First Amendment.
Silverstein said even with all of the technological changes that have happened over the past 20 years, constitutional requirements protecting speech still apply.
“So far, the First Amendment principles have stood the test of time and withstood those technological challenges, so I wouldn’t count the First Amendment out yet,” Silverstein said.
When Social Media Bites Back
After the 2016 election, social media companies started to take large steps to crack down on trolls, bots, foreign influence and misinformation campaigns plaguing their sites.
During the 2020 election, Twitter added fact-checking features to its platform to clarify certain comments being made on its platform in order to add context.
It also started asking users if they wanted to read an article before retweeting it, among other techniques.
After the Jan. 6 insurrection of the U.S. Capitol, Twitter cracked down even more on false information and users who were either perpetuating false information or encouraging violence.
“I think for social platforms they want to ignore, deny or diminish that kind of linkage for a really long time, and I think it became impossible after the events of Jan. 6,” Keegan said. “There’s a direct line back to those kinds of conversations and the organizing that was taking place on their platforms.”
Afterward, Keegan believes tech companies started to do some serious soul-searching about the role their platforms played in condoning the insurrection and took steps to deter further violence.
After Trump posted a video telling insurrectionists he loved them, but they needed to go home and repeated false claims that the election was stolen, Twitter suspended his personal account and then permanently blocked it before he was out of office.
The social media company said the move was due to the risk of further incitement of violence before the inauguration.
Numerous Trump supporters or people propelling Qanon conspiracy theories also had their accounts purged from social media sites.
Some applauded the move or said the tech company should have disabled the account sooner.
Others lambasted Twitter and accused the company of stifling free speech, pointing out that the dictators of murderous regimes were allowed to keep their accounts while Trump was not.
“That is a really crucial thing to understand is that just because you’re allowed to say anything you want, you’re not entitled to an audience of millions of people,” Keegan said.
Reigning in Social Media
With the President of the United States blocked from his preferred method of communication, questions have, once again, resurfaced about the power tech companies hold.
“The power of a private company to suppress or marginalize unpopular speech is a power with which we are to be concerned, even if right now it doesn’t actually violate the First Amendment,” Silverstein said.
Over the years, Congress has held numerous hearings about the increasing role social media plays in the daily lives of Americans and how much power these companies should be afforded.
Last July, the CEOs for Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple testified in front of the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust.
In those hearing, Republicans accused the companies of an anti-Republican bias on their platforms and accused the companies of censoring conservative voices.
The CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google were also required to testify in a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in October. During that hearing, the idea of revising Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was discussed once again. This section of the law protects a tech company from being sued for the content or language users post on their sites.
Numerous politicians, including Joe Biden before becoming president, have spoken out in support of revising the law to hold these companies more accountable for the content their users create.
In the aftermath of the 2020 election and events leading up to and after Jan. 6, Keegan believes Section 230 will, once again, become a major topic for debate this year.
Others wonder whether Congress will be able to come together to figure out how to deal with these tech giants, or whether future hearings will simply result in more nonaction.
“The tech companies have become so powerful, these platforms like Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, they are so powerful now that they really are part of the establishment,” Humphrey said. “We are going to have to start talking about this and reasonable and balanced ways to figure out what is the balance in the way that we let a democracy get onto the social media platforms.”
For now though, it’s up to social media giants to implement their own best practices in who they allow to use their platforms, what they allow to be said and how they play a role in the country’s political divide.
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