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Now popularly relegated to “just another communication channel”, our true understanding of the impact of social media is still in infancy. When it comes to politics, Twitter is driving offline discussions, according to recent research.
Rewind to 2007, back when Twitter was all shiny and new. ABC Lateline Correspondant Tony Jones declared:
“A battle for the hearts and minds of Australia’s young voters is being fought out in cyberspace for the first time in this federal election, taking our political leaders way out of their comfort zone into the brave new world of bloggers and virtual friendship sites.” Full Transcript
Since then, the perceived role of online social media has evolved and is no longer considered a game changer in politics. But there’s more to this story…
Examining how online activity may affect politics, a collaboration between the University of Bologna and New York University surveyed 1,500 Italian Twitter users during the 2013 Italian general election. The findings indicate strong links between political activity online and corresponding activity in the real world, suggesting the impact of social media on politics is worth revisiting.
Participants of the study were identified by searching Twitter content for key words related to politics. Those discussing politics online were disproportionately male, younger, better educated, less religious and more likely to be either employed or in education than average users. Assessment of the sample also indicated people who discussed politics on Twitter are relatively dissatisfied with the political system and relatively negative towards national authorities and institutions.
After analysis of the data, the team found that using social media to access political information is strongly and significantly correlated with relaying such information to others in face-to-face contact and online.
This increased likelihood signifies increased reach of online content often overlooked. Additionally, the more a person engaged with political content online, the greater the chances they would relay the information.
Contrasted with this, greater exposure to political information online was not significantly associated with increased offline discussion of politics highlighting the importance of an engaged audience. The chances of online content being relayed was significantly higher than if the information had come from a traditional news source and it is suggested the conversational style of online content allows for natural transmission to daily conversation. No common characteristics identified people who relayed online information to offline settings.
When we consider these insights, it becomes clear that social and online media are more than additional communication channels: they offer unseen characteristics and unique advantages we are only beginning to understand.
Online social media content penetrates the web through the screen and into the hearts and minds of its audience. When it comes to spreading the word, people engaged with politics through social media prove ardent advocates in offline social networks. Understanding the strengths of social media in politics affords opportunities for targeted calls to action offline, topic specific engagement with young voters and an indirect mechanism for influencing real-world conversation about politics. Anyone involved in politics ignores these developments at their own risk; those who adapt online will stay ahead of the game.