For months, political pundits have predicted that there could be a “red wave” in the upcoming midterm elections. High inflation, high gasoline prices, and shaky consumer confidence played in the Republican Party’s favor, but the Democrats, led by President Joe Biden, had an especially good August. That in turn, has resulted in some now forecasting more of a “red ripple” than a wave, and some GOP leaders have even suggested the Democrats could retain control of the Senate.
Current polls show now voters leaning towards the Democrats, but social media could tell another story, where many users are still maintaining that there will be a red wave. At the same time, as many users on the social platforms – perhaps even more – have suggested for months that a blue wave is actually coming.
How can both be right?
During recent election cycles, social media has become another gauge that can help predict who will be cheering and who might be jeering on election night. But it largely depends on who you listen to, as both sides are especially amped up. This can result in a misreading of the proverbial tea leaves.
In other words, social media remains especially biased – but not necessarily to one side.
“In his book Ten Reasons for Deleting Your Social Media Account Right Now, author Jaron Lanier discounts arguments about social media being biased to the left or right. Instead, the correct directional bias description seems to be down, as in that’s where we’re all being dragged,” warned Craig Barkacs, professor of business law and ethics in the Master’s in Executive Leadership and MBA Programs at the Knauss School of Business at the University of San Diego.
“Social media thrives on clicks, which means in the political realm it has little or no interest in accuracy or objectivity,” Barkacs explained. “Bias and conflict attract attention and it’s that attention that brings in revenue. So it follows that there’s nothing like an intense red-versus-blue-equals-green contest during the political season to whip people into a frenzy and drive up the dollars.”
In fact, social media platforms often organize our content feeds based on what it thinks users want to see.
“If we have told the platform—directly or indirectly—that we are progressive or conservative, Democrats or Republicans, then social media platforms will show us content that leans in our political direction,” said Julianna Kirschner, Ph.D, lecturer for the Master of Communication Management program at the University of Southern California.
That has created echo chambers that only reinforce what one already thinks or what the platforms assume the users are thinking. Often, any biases can seem magnified, meaning that it is easy to overestimate one’s own beliefs as more representative of the larger population than they actually are.
“Social media is inherently biased in its current form because the proprietary nature of their algorithms organize the content we see to reinforce our biases,” explained Kirschner. “If enough time is spent in these virtual spaces, voters and some public figures may think there will be a blue wave or a red wave during this year’s midterms, simply because what they are seeing on social media platforms reinforce these beliefs.”
Platforms of Discourse Not Discussion
Social media has become a platform for discourse, not discussion – but it is also an echo chamber where like-minded individuals share their opinions. Thus it is easy to see how both sides can make bold predictions about the upcoming election. It would be unwise to predict an outcome based on those heated discussions.
Even those who take the time to do more than just tear down the other side, often fail to truly make a good argument, but should we really shouldn’t expect more?
“The writers/posters are mainly amateurs that have never uttered a journalistic creed of impartiality. Almost the whole of social media is an op-ed page; only the writers are more vitriolic and the language duller,” said James Bailey, professor of leadership at the George Washington University School of Business. “Using Social Media as a temperature gauge is making a grave mistake for several reasons.”
What is often said on social media isn’t vetted, so its veracity is in serious question, noted Bailey, who added, “It does not represent the population as a whole. Rather, it is written by those who have the time and inclination. If you reach into an urn with 19 red balls and one blue ball, chances are you’ll draw a red ball. Anyone—from politicians to businesspeople—that bases decisions of consequence on social media is playing with fire. A fire that is more than likely here today and gone tomorrow.”