In my book Social Media and Everyday Politics, I examine how social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr are used for both playing with and participating in political activity,for engaging with politics. Drawing upon research that I conducted over the last few years, this work extends beyond considerations of the political as just politicians, governments, and elections: politics includes issues of race,gender, sexual identity, class, and more.
Politics forms part of peoples’ everyday lives, and is reflected in (and influences) their every day activity on social media. My consideration of social media also goes past popular platforms to other digital technologies and online platforms used and implicated within political discussions and experiences. There is more going on than just what is happening on Twitter, for instance, and the platforms, users,practices, and experiences in question will also differ vastly across countries and contexts.
One of the most exciting things about studying social and digital media is how everything evolves: practices, platforms, communities, cultures, users, content… The evolution of social media practices and platforms, and of political issues, means that there is an ever-growing list of examples in which social media and politics are intertwined. As I was writing in late 2014 and early 2015, for instance, movements like Black Lives Matter were (and are) important demonstrations of the intersection of the digital and the political through their campaigning and activism for civil rights. While not being social media-only movements, they make use of digital media as tools for visibility, support, awareness, and protest. Similarly, the responses to the Charlie Hebdo attack, in Paris in early 2015, saw visual social media and the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag as particularly prominent ways of commenting and reacting, across multiple platforms.
These examples also form part of ongoing trends and practices further linking social media and politics, responding to new events and actors as well as current issues. The#JeSuis solidarity style hashtag has been adopted in response to attacks in Paris, Bruxelles, Lahore, and more, as well as displays of support in other contexts (and its presence, meaning, and motivations have also been debated).Sentiments and movements get distilled into hashtag forms that can be concisely integrated into messages: #LetThemStay in Australia, campaigning to process asylum seekers in Australia instead of in detention on Nauru; #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgainfrom the comedian John Oliver, playing on Donald Trump’s campaign slogan to oppose and mock him; #PutOutYourOnions, the public schadenfreude accompanying Tony Abbott being replaced as Australian Prime Minister in a party leadership vote.
Social and digital media are also used to respond to events and issues in immediate and new ways:tweeting breaking news, sharing content on Facebook, posting visual commentary and reactions on Instagram, and spreading information and opinion across platforms and networks. Such content comes from established media and political actors as well as from user-generated and -created means. Engaging effectively with social media and its users is important, and news media have been adapting their coverage to embrace new forms. Footage is posted using Vine, press conferences streamed with Periscope, moments and infographics looped using animated GIFs, and apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat tested out for further content delivery. Similarly, in addition to maintaining Twitter and Facebook presences, political parties, politicians,and candidates may engage (successfully or otherwise) with social media cultures through creating and sharing memetic content or using emoji in their commentary and campaigns.
Of course, social media are not without their own issues, and the politics of platforms is interlinked with the politics happening on these spaces. How platforms like Twitter and Facebook deal with abuse directed at users, hate speech, racist and sexist content, and user privacy is both ongoing and inconsistent. This affect show users decide which platforms to use: for activists, for example, security and surveillance are considered alongside the visibility and reach of popular social media. The announcement in April 2016 that WhatsApp had turned on encryption has particular relevance here, setting it apart from other popular messaging apps (although WhatsApp is also owned by Facebook, which may raise further questions for users). The impact of algorithms on user experiences,content provision, and the work of platforms is also a major part of current debate. For example, in March 2016 Microsoft’s Tay bot attracted widespread attention for how the responsive bot was (very quickly) taught to share offensive and bigoted messages.
What this means is that social media and politics are connected in more ways than just sharing links about Bernie or Hillary, posting a status about an election, or live-tweeting a debate. In Social Media and Everyday Politics, I offer an exploration of the diverse ways in which the political and the digital overlap, through experiences and examples which may be mundane, tangential, or irreverent, as well as the extraordinary. The flexibility of content and practices means that everyday activity on social media can be applied to the political as necessary, directed by users and not just by established political actors or by platforms. This is not to say, of course, that social media alone will change views, make protests and revolutions succeed, or determine elections, nor that there is a singular‘social media user base’ or way of using these platforms. However, as social media are popular means for engaging with political issues and events, what happens on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and more cannot be automatically discounted as purely frivolous, narcissistic, or uninformed.
Tim Highfield is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Sessional Academic at Queensland University of Technology