By Kayla Santos | December 4, 2018
Media has always played a crucial role in American politics, and as of late, modern media has been particularly influential regarding voter learning. It has increased Americans’ sense of civic responsibility, but it has also given people of all points of view a platform to voice their opinions. Social media has made it so easy to chime in on the latest political events, but now that there are so many voices crowded around so many issues, is anyone really heard?
While looking at the role of Twitter in politics and in the world, André Nusselder theorizes that
[t]he use of Twitter…may well facilitate tendencies toward homogeneity of thought and tendencies toward homogenous rather than heterogeneous groupings. In order to avoid cognitive dissonance, it is easier no longer to follow someone’s tweets ‘than to try to work through any messy bargaining and conflictual disagreements’ (Norris, 2004, p.33).2
Twitter provides a platform to participate or facilitate discussions on politics, but it also makes it relatively easy to just unfollow or block someone who has dissimilar opinions to your own. Additionally, the short word limit “does not allow much space for a thorough discussion.”3 One cannot make a concrete argument for anything in a tweet despite the fact that Twitter recently increased its character count to 280 characters from the original 140. This means that Trump is able to use Twitter to get his short, straightforward, every day political thoughts out into the world without much solid backlash; and if he does receive backlash, he is able to unfollow or block (which he has done several times) those who disagree with or challenge him.
Because Twitter is such a convenient way to reach a larger audience, many celebrities have used the social media network to voice their own opinions about American politics. Due to the influx of political information I have seen on my personal Twitter timeline since Trump’s election, I have decided to analyze the tweets of six politically-inclined celebrities (three liberal, three conservative) in an attempt to measure how many of their tweets are actually impacting Twitter users. I chose these celebrities because they are 1) active on twitter, 2) political but not politicians or professional political commentators, and 3) whether or not they support Donald Trump.
The three liberals I analyzed are model/author Chrissy Teigen, actor Mark Ruffalo, and actor/singer/composer/producer Lin-Manuel Miranda. All of these celebrities have spoken out against Trump.
The conservatives I analyzed are journalist Piers Morgan, actress Stacey Dash, and actress Roseanne Barr. All of these celebrities have spoken in favor of Trump.
As of 2017, there are 330 million active users on Twitter in the world with 69 million of those users residing in the United States, about 21% of the active Twitter population.4 This means that there is the potential for all non-private Twitter users to have 330 million people see their tweets. Although I am conducting this research based on celebrities’ public influence in United States’ politics, celebrities have the potential to influence public opinion outside of the United States, so I have measured the number of each celebrity’s followers, retweets, likes, and replies against the number of Twitter users worldwide.
The tweets in Figure 2 were chosen based on seven prominent events in Trump’s first year as president: Trump’s inauguration, the Women’s March, the banning of Syrian refugees, Trump’s address on Charlottesville, Trump’s reaction to NFL players kneeling, the Las Vegas shooting, and aid for Puerto Rico. I searched through each of these six celebrities’ tweets within one week of each of these events using keywords that pertained to each events (such as “inauguration” for the inauguration and “women’s march” for the first annual Women’s March). Many of these celebrities had more than one tweet dedicated to each of these events, so I used Twitter’s “Advanced Search” tool to sift through the tweets based on the keywords and chose each celebrity’s tweet based on the tweet’s highest number of retweets in each of the events I chose. Only two of these celebrities, Mark Ruffalo (Fig. 2.2) and Piers Morgan (Fig. 2.4), tweeted about all seven of these events; the rest did not tweet about one or more of the events I chose.
For reference, the most retweeted tweet of all time has 3,416,827 retweets, 2,400,367 likes, and around 223,000 replies as of 2017.5 The tweet, tweeted by Ellen Degeneres is the now-famous “Oscar selfie” consisting of a number of celebrities in one selfie when Ellen hosted the Oscars in 2014. There was no political connotation or undertone to the tweet; it was simply for fun. I calculated each celebrity’s percent of retweets along with Ellen’s tweet out of 330 million active twitter users based on the highest retweeted tweet of the ones I chose. The following graph (Fig. 3) compares these percentages.
It is clear that even each of these celebrity’s most retweeted political tweet has had minimal impact on the Twitterverse in comparison to Ellen’s Oscar selfie. None of the tweets come close to the 0.3% mark while Ellen’s tweet soars past it; even Piers Morgan’s 106, 336 retweets (Fig. 2.4), the highest retweeted tweet out of each celebrity, has only 3.1% of the retweets that the Oscar selfie has. And Roseanne Barr’s least tweeted tweet (Fig. 2.6), at a mere 14 retweets, is .00041% of Ellen’s tweet.
Based solely on the data I gathered, these political tweets have little to no quantifiable impact on the world. If they aren’t impacting the world as much as perceived, what is social media’s role, particularly Twitter’s role, in the world of politics?
Social media’s recent debate has shown that it, in fact, does have an impact on the political world; it’s even had its own House hearing about it. The reason that Twitter and other social media platforms have become such a hot topic is because, as opposed to TV and radio that were more passive/controlling, social media is more inclusive and “favour[s] the expression of multiple points of view.”6 Social media is news that people are actually able to interact with instead of having it solely said to them by a newscaster or a journalist in a newspaper. The idea of a ‘participatory web’ in which “collaboration by [social media] users themselves…is fueling civil involvement in the political process”7 has attracted those who have wanted to become active in politics but didn’t feel like their opinions were heard. People can become “‘citizen journalists’…who report on newsworthy situations that happen to be occurring in their proximity.”8 Ordinary citizens use social media to claim their own voices, and garner support from those who feel similarly; it has opened the average person up to a much larger forum to express their opinions.
While having a voice and being heard is important, an even more important factor of ‘participatory web’ is the idea that people are able to filter what they want and do not want to see. People are able to “actively determine what information is personally relevant” to themselves; people are able to ignore clashing arguments by unfollowing or even blocking people who don’t agree and therefore block out the other side of the conversation. So while social media has “increase opportunities of direct communication, and thus of public participating,”9 it has “simultaneously decrease[d] the symbolic space that is necessary for political discussion.”10 Social media has made it so easy to ignore a whole other side of an argument. People can scroll past an article that offends them or block a family member who posted something they don’t agree with, halting any further discussion about the topic. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook have become invaluable tools to connect with the rest of the world right at the tips of your fingers, but it seems like people aren’t connecting so much as spurting their own opinions without any consideration for anyone else’s. Social media has narrowed private discussions of topics regarding politics or social issues by making willfully ignorant people. Though there are many benefits to social media, it has hindered actual human connection, something that we need especially in these times of turmoil. Political statements on social media can be a source of validation, but political conversations should be held outside of the internet, face-to-face, if anyone is ever going to learn anything.
1Drake. “Back to Back.” Cash Money, Young Money, 29 July 2015. Genius, https://genius.com/Drake-back-to-back-lyrics
2Nusselder, André. “Twitter and the Personalization of Politics.” Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society, vol. 18, no. 1, 2013, pp. 91–100., doi:10.1057/pcs.2012.45, 93
4“Social Media Fact Sheet.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center , 5 Feb. 2018, http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/social-media/.
5Degeneres, Ellen. Twitter Post. March 2, 2014, 8:06 PM. https://twitter.com/theellenshow/status/440322224407314432?lang=en.
7Zappavigna, Michele. Discourse of Twitter and Social Media: Bloomsbury Academic an Imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2015, 170