August 22, 2014

The Internet and the Fate of America: The Presidential Election

2012 has been slated as the year in which the Internet will demonstrate its true potential as an influential force on political elections.  As Americans make their way from their TV couches to their laptops, the internet awaits an event reminiscent of the Kennedy v. Nixon first televised debate; a tipping point at which the nature of a massive technology changed the way the American people voted. In the case of television, it became the single most decisive factor in presidential races. Will the internet develop into a political tool comparable to television?”

Social media has been the center of attention regarding online political discussions. Nearly one out of every five minutes spent on the internet is on social networking sites, approximately 3/4 of which is spent on Facebook. The polarizing effect of social networks and even search engines has been documented by the likes of Cass Sunstein and in Eli Pariser’s semi-annual, “The Filter Bubble”. Sunstein uses the term “echo chambers” to denote the tendency for internet users to surround themselves with like-minded peers within digital social networks.  Pariser popularized the fact that search engines such as Google and Yahoo draw on a users search history to customize its search results for users, effectively filtering out differing political opinions.

Other channels of the internet have political implications as well. As an Obama supporter, I have been bombarded with donation request e-mails from the campaign team. Even Beyonce hit up my inbox. Virtualizing private donations has increased the ease with which candidates can tap their constituency. It wasn’t too long ago when a donation to a presidential campaign had to be written out on a check and put in the mail. Now, I get one-click donation e-mails two or three times a day. Though this may not be a decisive factor, one can stipulate it has raised funding by  small individual contributors.

The internet has given the presidential candidates direct access to the voting population. President Obama and Governor Romney can tap into pre-existing “echo chambers” of like-minded individuals and make their case. Whether or not this makes a substantive difference in the campaign is debatable. In a country with polarizing discourse on Capitol Hill, liberal and conservative television news programs, and a social network that weeds out dissenting opinions, it is getting harder to have an effect on undecided voters. This Presidential race is unique – it is on track to be one of the most expensive in history, and the percentage of undecided voters is only around 6%. One analyst, Paul Begala, believes that the election will be decided by just 4% of the voters. He puts that in perspective – that’s “fewer than half the number of people who paid to get into a Houston Astros home game last year.”

As young Americans, we use the internet more than anyone else. That makes us more adept at using it to research the candidates’ economic policies and civil rights stances, but also leaves us vulnerable to the self-reinforcing nature of the internet. Today is election day. Has your vote been influenced by social media or another channel of the internet? We face an historical decision today, and the rest of the world is watching… from their television sets.

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