While one might not see applications like Facebook, Twitter, or even Snapchat as anything more than entertainment, that perception is changing as more and more of these companies creatively combine knowledge of current events alongside the entertainment options they offer. Popular applications such as Facebook and Twitter incorporate news and current events headlines into their programs to reach the casual social media browser, user, or scroller. While Facebook uses an algorithm to suggest “trending” articles to its users, anyone can follow Politico, CNN, or even an individual politician on Twitter. Snapchat has since caught on to this trend with the new “Discover” update, providing another convenient source of news for younger generations. The growing incorporation of news into social media could represent a positive shift in increasing public exposure to current events and politics specifically.
Recent polls and data have not been kind to the American voter — many demonstrate extremely low levels of political knowledge and political interest. In a Washington Post article written by Jaime Fuller, the title says it all: “1 in 4 Americans Have No Idea Which Party Controls the Senate or the House.” Fuller combines facts from a June 2014 Pew Research Center study, concluding that “33 percent of Americans can identify the majority party in only one chamber, and 28 percent — more than one in four people (!)—have completely no idea.” Fuller paints a dismal picture of public knowledge, listing facts such as “in 2012, a Pew study showed that 55 percent of Americans could identify which party Abraham Lincoln belonged to. Only 53 percent of Democrats knew FDR was a Democrat” and a 2011 survey from the “Annenberg Public Policy Center found that 38 percent of Americans could correctly identify all three branches of government”.
While Fuller showcases public ignorance in even basic government trivia, the Pew Research Center (PRC) breaks down its data to show just which groups of respondents performed most atrociously. In 2013 PRC reported that in a “national survey of 1,052 randomly selected adults, Americans answered an average of 6.3 out of 13 questions correctly.” In a demographic breakdown of this data, the survey shows the particularly dismal performance of voters between the ages of 18-29, answering on average 4.4 questions correctly. Professor Stoker from the Political Science Department in the University of California, Berkeley, offers the explanation that the “bulk of the evidence suggests that people who acquire political information from social media are the same people who in the old days would have acquired it from traditional media;” in other words, the “65+” category of respondents. This sheds light on the older generations’ continued political engagement in stark contrast to the youth population’s lack of interest. Yet, youths are make up the demographic most active on social networking sites, offering news organizations a prime opportunity to both advertise and influence young voters by integrating their product into social media applications.
Here comes Snapchat — an application widely used by the millennial generation and ranked the third most popular, superseded only by Instagram and Facebook. Snapchat’s latest “Discover” update offers short clips from twelve different companies utilizing the app as a platform to showcase their products. While this includes entertainment companies like Cosmopolitan, People, and ESPN, another third of these advertisements center around the distribution of news, featuring companies such as CNN, Daily Mail, Vice, and Yahoo News. Though appreciated in abbreviated conversations, the average person does not actively seek a thorough education in news and politics on his or her own accord. When news conglomerates use applications like Snapchat, even if it is for the purpose of advertisement, the combination of news and social media still serves to integrate current affairs and political happenings into a person’s daily life. If news is readily available on popular and accessible platforms such as Snapchat, users are more apt to gain exposure to aspects of political life than before.
While it is accepted that the average person will not have a thorough knowledge of politics, political scientists have different views on how important it is for every voter to be completely educated on every policy. Because politics is such a massive field, it is impractical to expect every person to possess complete knowledge. People without prior understanding of ideological beliefs, the political affiliations of groups, etc., often rely on what political scientists call heuristics. This can come from following the opinions of a designated “trustee” on whom a person bases his or her own political decisions. Similarly, if an individual supports a particular organization, that group’s actions become heuristics on which the individual casts his or her vote. Thus as long as a voter is educated enough to designate a person, a party, or an interest organization as his heuristic, he should be able to make decisions that overlap with his own beliefs. With sites like Facebook, Twitter, and now Snapchat increasing exposure to relevant factors, people should be able to employ heuristics more accurately. Seeing a two-minute video on Snapchat’s Discover once a day could have a significant impact on the level of information an individual can rely on when making political decisions such as voting; with the influx of access points to such information, choosing a “trustee” or finding a reliable heuristic is easier than ever.
Professor Laura Stoker offers a more conservative conjecture on how news in social media will play out amongst the technological generation. She says that the use of news in media is “good, but it’s not transformative and it is still the case that young people today appear to be in many respects less politically engaged than young people thirty years ago.” Though social media might not automatically increase millennials’ political interest, apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat do offer a dynamic platform on which political interests can unfold. Stoker presents the optimistic idea that “political influence flows within social media and so there still is a lot of potential for political interests and political engagement to be influenced by the social media” as it provides a means by which to motivate the grassroots public. Essentially, Stoker says, “a person is more likely to participate as a function of being asked to by a friend than anything else.” News in social media may not automatically increase the level of knowledge or interest the public has in politics. However the silver lining is that social media still facilitates interaction between individuals and their friends. Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat allow people to mobilize others within their sphere of influence to achieve political goals, which promotes political engagement. Though the social media applications may not autonomously inspire political interest, they still serve as an effective means of mobilization for political issues.
With so many news outlets available on television, online magazines, and now Snapchat, will the public remain as ignorant? As social media continues to target this “technological” generation with easy access to news snippets and trending events, political scientists could be looking at a shift in the political awareness of app users. Even if applications themselves do not have the capacity to spark political engagement, the users do. By incorporating political information and current events with the mediums most used by the younger generation, these conglomerates can at the very least facilitate political dialogue and assist in mobilizing the public towards political goals. Though Snapchat’s “Discover” has only been available to the public since January 27th, this application and ones like it could begin a generational shift to higher levels of democratic competence. Though it may take longer than a “Snap” and a “Tweet,” the benefits of the effects will be worth the wait.