Kathleen Hall Jamieson and panelists discuss social media’s democracy pitfalls

Ellen Glover • March 1, 2018

Social media has turned both journalism and politics upside down. While it’s provided unprecedented connectivity, it has also created a more divided and polarizing environment.

The new world created by social media and its implications were the topic of a panel discussion Monday by political scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Media School assistant professor Gerry Lanosga and senior journalism student Erica Gibson. Media School assistant professor Jason Peifer moderated the discussion in the Ken and Audrey Beckley Studio in Franklin Hall.

An audience watches as journalism senior Erica Gibson (left to right), assistant professor Jason Peifer, political scholar and Patten lecturer Kathleen Hall Jamieson and assistant professor Gerry Lanosga discuss social media’s influence on politics in a live streamed panel discussion from the Ken and Audrey Beckley Studio. (Audrie Osterman | The Media School)

Jamieson visited IU this week as a William T. Patten lecturer. The panel discussion was one of three public talks she gave.

Social media allows politicians to selectively reach particular voters without the possibility of being detected by others, including journalists. Jamieson, who is also a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania, called this technique “dark advertising” and said it is potentially harmful, especially because this prevents journalists from being able to hold politicians accountable for their promises.

By gathering demographic and ideological information on internet users through analytics collected by social media platforms, politicians are able to micro-target who sees which political ads on their feeds, without the possibility of anyone else seeing that ad if they don’t want them to.

“This has fundamentally transformed journalism’s ability to put accountability checks on this stuff,” Jamieson said.

Micro-targeting isn’t new to American politics. For years, radio’s model of selective channels for specific kinds of content provided an opportunity for politicians to customize their messages to fit the particular demographics of a given radio station. This method has been used by candidates for decades, including by Barack Obama in conjunction with his use of basic social media targeting. After his win, Obama was long regarded as the candidate who best harnessed social media’s power.

“I guess it’s been disturbed by Trump, who is now the Twitter man, but Obama had an incredible following on Twitter, unprecedented, that Mitt Romney had only a fraction of,” said Gibson, who wrote about the subject in 2008 when she was still in high school. She also interned in Washington, D.C. during the 2016 presidential race. “Barack Obama had a Tumblr, a Twitter, an Instagram — he had all of these different modes, which were targeted to the audience.”

“But we’ve not, before this year, had the capacity to send dark advertising that was undetectable through those channels,” Jamieson said. “That’s our challenge.”

Social media didn’t start off like this, the panelists said. Like most other new forms of media in their beginnings, social media was seen as an advancement that would revolutionize democracy. People believed it would allow everyone to have their voice disseminated to as many people as they wanted, Lanosga said.

In a way, he said, this promise has been fulfilled. Especially during the Trump presidency.

“I think it’s fascinating that we can now @realDonaldTrump and directly communicate with our president,” Lanosga said. “Whether he reads it or not is another question, because he gets a lot of those. But there is a chance that in the stream of things that go by the president’s view, that might be one of them.”

The discussion of political communication and accountability shifted to truth.

“Both sides are telling you not to trust the media. Both sides are telling you that the institutions that you’ve grown up with are wrong, that you need to reject them, that you need to start from scratch,” Gibson said. “That goes across the party line. There’s just a general dissent over who you can trust. And so many people don’t want to trust the traditional gatekeepers because their stories have been ignored for too long.”

This message of distrust and the overwhelming information that the public has at its fingertips has led to what Lanosga describes as “ambivalence” and “reality apathy” among the general public.

“There are so many competing claims on the truth that the people out there consuming just sort of throw their hands in the air in resignation about ever finding the truth about a particular story, or about anything,” Lanosga said.

Jamieson said the solution starts with a more transparent press. Journalists have to explain how they know what they know — that way people will understand why they should accept it. People would no longer be basing their opinions on the authority of an organization, but rather, a set of facts provided by that organization.

Lanosga added that, while it is important that the media work to be more transparent about how their reporting is done and why the audience should trust them, some responsibility still lies on the consumer to remain media literate. That literacy comes with maintaining a diverse media diet.

“They should purposely seek out competing voices and descriptions of what’s going on, and they should try to get behind what’s being reported and see what the basis is for what’s being reported,” Lanosga said. “That’s a lot to ask of people, but I do think, in this sort of environment, it is what’s required.” 

Although they have concerns with the way social media is influencing both journalism and politics, the panelists said they see benefits of a more tech-centered world. Gibson says there is hope in Generation X — youth who are just now coming into politics and have been exposed to the internet and social media all their lives.

“They know how to meme. One of the ways that the Never Again tag has worked really well is that these kids are really good at making memes, and that, weirdly enough, is helping their political agenda,” Gibson said, referring to the recent online gun control campaign spearheaded by students at Stoneman Douglas High School, the most recent site of a mass school shooting.

Jamieson said she sees a lot of parallels between what is happening with movements such as Never Again, Me Too and Black Lives Matter and what she saw when she entered politics during the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.

“There’s a commonality in how humans communicate powerfully to each other. It does not change, at its core. We narrativize. We are narrative creatures. When a narrative expresses, with deep conviction, an experience, we empathize and identify with it,” Jamieson said. “Part of what we are seeing now is a whole movement capturing the capacity to share through contagion, viral contagion, digestive narratives of lived experience.”

This contagion, Jamieson said, is what has made all of the great U.S. movements so powerful. With social media, they can become even more powerful.

“We know emotional contagion exists. We know an authentic experience that communicates has the capacity to mobilize in ways that traditional argument does not,” Jamieson said. “I am excited about the prospect that times of change will be driven out of this kind of use of technology by a generation that is just entering politics.”