Digital disruption #2: Shifting the rules of politics in a world of social media

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Renee Van Vechten, professor of political science

Social media allow people to pick and choose what they want to pay attention to, deepening political and social divides, observes Professor Renee Van Vechten. (Photo by:Coco McKown ’04, ’10; illustration by iStock.com/Primiaou)

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n a contentious national political environment, technology is bringing people closer together—with others who are just like them. In the digital era, gaps have widened into chasms for those whose views don’t align, stretched by increasingly uncivil discourse, platforms better suited to emotion than reason, and a disregard for facts, says Renee Van Vechten, professor of political science.

“Social media channels allow people to pick and choose what they want to pay attention to, so it is really reinforcing people’s social identities, and we’re seeing the triumph of identity politics in a way we haven’t seen before,” she says.

More than 6 in 10 adults in the U.S. receive news via social media, according to the Pew Research Center in September 2016. In classes filled with “digital natives,” who cannot remember a world where information wasn’t traveling at the speed of electrons to computers, tablets, and smartphones, Van Vechten works to develop critical thinking skills, challenging her students to take a thoughtful approach to discussing politics.

“We’re here to debate ideas, to clarify positions, and distinguish between opinions and evidence,” she says. “In the classroom, we have the advantage of being able to hold each other accountable, face to face. You don’t have that when you’re in a medium that’s as abstract and asynchronous as Facebook or Twitter.”

Social media channels not only lack the in-person dynamic, their brevity precludes context, complexity, and nuance. Twitter—short, immediate, and (at least seemingly) unfiltered—is a particularly emotional forum that plays to fears and preconceived ideas, encouraging political views to become more intractable, Van Vechten says.

In the 2016 presidential election, divisiveness heated up between voters with opposing ideas as one of the most controversial national political figures in modern U.S. history proved to be a master at using social media. Putting aside President Donald Trump’s political platform, Van Vechten says, it’s hard to deny he has outdone all rivals in his use of Twitter to connect with supporters, attack his enemies, and define the larger media conversation.

She contrasts Trump with Hillary Clinton, who, in addition to far outspending her opponent on television advertising and having a superior ground game, also used Twitter. But Clinton’s tweets went largely unnoticed, while reporters obsessed daily over Trump’s outrageous tweets, says Van Vechten.

“What he did was to push the boundaries of acceptable political rhetoric,” she says. Analysts are still figuring out whether Trump will prove to be a unique case or a role model for how future candidates will use digital communication.

Regardless, social media’s function in shaping political outcomes adds urgency to the need for voters to think more critically. In her Environmental Politics class, Van Vechten introduces her students to research that reveals the motivating power of fear, and how it can supersede reasoning.

“Social media helps us visualize that fear and feel it at a gut level, in a way that just seems instinctively right,” she says. “But when you start thinking a little deeper and deconstruct the memes or aphorisms that get tossed around, you start to see the illogic that tends to be underneath.”

Next: Digital disruption #3: how student potential is unleashed in the digital classroom

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