11. September 2019

The influence of social media on political events

Digitalisation is shaping broad areas of our daily life and is also acquiring influence in the political sphere. In doing so, this form of communication impacts social networks above all, therefore also the resulting direct channel of communication with voters. We have been canvassing experts of both practice and theory about current developments in the field of social media. Here, we interview Marcel Juen, a communications and social media trainer, Maya Bally, Grossrätin (member of the cantonal parliament), and Claudia Martin, Stadträtin and Kantonsrätin (member of the city and of the cantonal councils).

  1. 1.  What influence do social media have on politics?
  1. Marcel Juen: The creation of political opinion increasingly includes information taken from social media. This area remains untapped in the actual political world though, and it is one that politicians should exploit as soon as possible. It offers them a great chance to convey their message directly to potential voters, and to convince and enthuse them. This is seen every day in examples from abroad – the increased use of social media over time is fundamental to superb political communication and to a successful career.
  2. Claudia Martin: The networking of users and their communications through the internet is having a considerable influence on politics. Discussion and information are disseminated through digital media, and neither the creation of opinion nor influential commentary reside exclusively in traditional journalism any more. Public political life is becoming ever more digital and social media are to a great extent assuming the function of a new public domain. Political utterances can now be communicated immediately, but the expression of hatred and misinformation are also enabled at virtually the same time.
  3. Maya Bally: Social media form an additional way to reach voters and the politically aware. The younger generation will soon probably only be within reach via social media.


2. In what ways have election campaigns changed as a result of social media?

Marcel Juen: Direct exchanges at a stand on the village square, succinct speeches delivered to lobby organisations and persuasive appearances in front of the TV cameras cannot be discounted yet. Successful political communication means telling stories with clear messages, one person to another. In my view the classical election campaign has not hugely changed – social media are new channels which complement it. Politicians should tell and pass on stories and converse with the public through these media too. Currently this is often characterised by bickering or boredom.

Claudia Martin: Social media have a considerable influence on the creation of opinions about the issues in an election. It is doubtful whether the influence of social media stretches to persuading voters to vote for a different party on the basis of statements made on social media. An election campaign could also not be conducted in the future without costly, non-virtual advertising via leaflets and posters.

Maya Bally: Social media must be deployed like any other media in an election campaign. In the coming years, these will most likely gain in importance during the campaign.


3. What are the positive and negative implications of this development?

Marcel Juen: This development is very positive in particular for politicians with fewer financial resources who can reach their target audience directly, exchange opinions, and ultimately use the media for their own purposes. The only necessity is the right know-how and a lot of time, as nothing is achieved through just posting material. Thereafter, it is a matter of reacting to positive and negative responses. One must be present on these portals as a real personality, or they are not effective.

This development is more of a negative one for the politically aware user and thereby also for the public in general. As social media are open to all, the filter offered by traditional media is missing. Journalists, opinions, arguments and proposed solutions – out there, put alongside others and open to critical scrutiny – these are all absent. Disputes on social media often swiftly result in the dominance of one side or the other. In the meantime, opinion forming based on rational discussion falls away. Algorithms display just the content which users primarily want to access. There may well be diversity on offer, but its visibility is effectively strictly limited.

Claudia Martin: One positive effect is that one is kept up to date with the latest developments in many areas by social media, and one can communicate anything of importance in politics both swiftly and around the clock. Negative factors are the insecurity of data, data misuse and also cyberbullying. Personal and authentic contact between people can likewise suffer as a result of social media.

Maya Bally: The danger does exist that people will only move around in their ‘bubbles’ on account of the algorithms, only getting a one-sided view of things. One needs to be able to break out of this. What’s more, discussion and comments get out of hand a lot more and move into areas which are no longer acceptable. On the positive side, one’s target audience can be addressed much more simply and directly, and it is easier to promote material.


4. How important do you believe the social channels to be compared to traditional means of communication?

 Marcel Juen: The data is indisputable: the share of viewers, listeners and readers is falling; conversely the share of social media is climbing rapidly. The parameters are shifting. I’d refine my forecast as follows: in a few years’ time, linear television, radio and the printed press will be integrated into the sphere of digital communications. There will be a multi-directional communications flow in which it will be critical for politicians as to how they manage publicity on their own channels, and how they attempt to contact and interact with their users.

Claudia Martin: If integrated correctly and within reason, social media channels cannot be dismissed in today’s world – in private, business or political life. In many areas traditional means of communicating remain irreplaceable, at least for now.

Maya Bally: I think traditional means of communication are still more powerful at the moment but, as mentioned, I do believe that there will be a shift in this area in the coming years. Traditional ways will, however, retain their significance for many years to come.

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With regard to personal use, the interviewees use social media for both professional as well as private purposes, if in varying degrees. In one matter they are very much of the same view: for a social network to be effective, it must be nurtured!

About the author
Martina Müri Martina is responsible for all public relations activities at the Executive School.Before joining ES-HSG, she worked as a PR consultant and communications specialist. She is a graduate of the University of St.Gallen and holds a Master's degree in International Affairs and Governance (M.A. HSG).