These days, you can open your phone and see it all, and information about the upcoming US vote is no exception. While the November 2020 Presidential Election is by no means the first to take place in a technological world, it is nonetheless a hugely pivotal point for the country as a whole, but also in particular for the level of responsibility, checks and guidelines which the technological giants employ to convey information to its billions of users. Maybe more than social media capturing events on the front row of history, for this election it could coherently be argued that social media itself is the front row of history.
Social media can serve many purposes, but the power mostly lies in its ability to reach so many people across the world in a matter of seconds. In 2019, 72% of American adults were recorded as using social media, a product of a continual annual increase in the US since 2006. Facebook, the most popular platform worldwide, has 190 million registered American users in 2020, which means that when any detail regarding the election is posted within the platform, it has the potential to reach half the population of the United States, and 2.7 billion people internationally. Facebook is not the only platform with large international engagement, as 1 billion users are on Instagram, and 330 million on Twitter.
These numbers, while alarming when it comes to the spread of false information, can also be beneficial if their power is harnessed and channeled. Recently, platforms have adapted to the growing network of opinions shared on a mass scale, and have made efforts to control and utilize them. Mark Zuckerberg was first to speak about decreasing political advertisements on Facebook, especially in the weeks leading up to the election in November, and none at all the week prior.
Other announcements regarding changes made on September 3rd include banning the spread of “misinformation” regarding COVID-19 risks with voting, and adding links to objective resources on the election. Instagram has come out with a highlighted story on registering to vote, where anyone can add to it with relevant information. It only shows the posts from people the user has chosen to follow, so it can be curated to the viewer’s political preferences. Twitter has added a “get the facts” link below certain tweets that may share false information regarding COVID-19, and mail-in ballots. The page will direct the user to certified-correct information, serving as a fact check to claims made on the platform.
CEO Jack Dorsey seldom gets political, but referred some of President Donald Trump’s tweets about voter registration as misleading, and to dismantle rumors would add the factual link below them. These are only some of the many examples social media has implemented to encourage democracy in this year’s election, and it is a breakthrough for the companies which previously held little journalistic value. Because they have discovered an ethical backbone or – as is more likely – they fear being broken up, the bottom line is that Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and other platform leads seem to be taking more social responsibility as to what role their companies play in the spread of false information.
While the pros and cons of the digital age can be debated at length, the simple facts are that people use social media to talk about political issues a lot. To see that many platforms have chosen to alleviate potential damage with added features speaks to the shared understanding that these forums can impact election outcomes. Voting in the upcoming election has been particularly illuminated due to the staggering results from the last election showing how little of the younger demographic voted. Both voter registrations and surveys have suggested more enthusiasm around voting in youth, but whether this is a product of social media is hard to say. These added features regardless encourage more conversations, and can influence young voters to practice their democracy.
Only time will tell if this addiction to social media will persist after the COVID-19 pandemic, but as data showed an increasing annual usage it is safe to assume the infatuation will continue to perpetuate. All eyes are now on these platforms with the upcoming election, forums on which everything that happens will be amped up to ten. Perhaps the fact that they too are in the spotlight is not just an adjunct to proceedings, but a realization of their amazing power, and – of course – responsibility.
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