Social media use in politics refers to the use of online social media platforms in political processes and activities. Social media platforms encompass websites such as Facebook, YouTube, WeChat, Instagram, Quora, QQ, QZone, Weibo, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, Baidu Tieba, LinkedIn, LINE, Snapchat, Pinterest, Viber, and VK.

Political processes and activities include all activities that pertain to the governance of a country or area. This includes political organization, global politics, political corruption, political parties, and political values.

The internet has created channels of communication that play a key role in circulating news, and social media has the power to change not just the message, but the dynamics of political corruption, values, and the dynamics of conflict in politics.[1] Through the use of social media in election processes, global conflict, and extreme politics, diplomacy around the world has become less private and susceptive to the public perception.[1]


Participatory role

Social media have been championed as allowing anyone with an Internet connection to become a content creator[2] and empowering their users.[3] The idea of “new media populism” encompasses how citizens can include disenfranchised citizens, and allow the public to have an engaged and active role in political discourse. New media, including social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, can enhance people's access to political information.[4]

Social media platforms and the internet have facilitated the dissemination of political information that counters mainstream media tactics that are often centralized and top-down, and include high barriers to entry.[5] Writer Howard Rheingold characterized the community created on social networking sites:

"The political significance of computer mediated communication lies in its capacity to challenge the existing political hierarchy’s monopoly on powerful communications media, and perhaps thus revitalize citizen-based democracy." [5]

Scholar Derrick de Kerckhove described the new technology in media:

"In a networked society, the real powershift is from the producer to the consumer, and there is a redistribution of controls and power. On the Web, Karl Marx’s dream has been realized: the tools and the means of production are in the hands of the workers."[5]

The role of social media in democratizing media participation, which proponents herald as ushering in a new era of participatory democracy, with all users able to contribute news and comments, may fall short of the ideals. International survey data suggest online media audience members are largely passive consumers, while content creation is dominated by a small number of users who post comments and write new content.[6]: 78  Others[7] argue that the effect of social media will vary from one country to another, with domestic political structures playing a greater role than social media in determining how citizens express opinions about stories of current affairs involving the state.

As a news source

See also Social media and political communication in the United States.

Adults in the United States who have access to the internet are increasingly getting political news and information from social media platforms. A 2016 Pew Research study found that 62% of adults get news on social media.

In addition, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, lead the social media platforms in which the majority of the users use the platforms to acquire news information. Of all United States adults, 67% use the platform with 44% who use the platform to get news.

According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report in 2013, the percentage of online news users who blog about news issues ranges from 1–5%. Greater percentages use social media to comment on news, with participation ranging from 8% in Germany to 38% in Brazil. But online news users are most likely to just talk about online news with friends offline or use social media to share stories without creating content.[6]: 78 

The rapid propagation of information on social media, spread by word of mouth, can impact the perception of political figures quickly with information that may or may not be true. When political information is propagated in this manner on purpose, the spread of information on social media for political means can benefit campaigns. On the other hand, the word-of-mouth propagation of negative information concerning a political figure can be damaging.[8] For example, the use of the social media platform Twitter by United States congressman Anthony Weiner to send inappropriate messages played a role in his resignation.[9]

Attention economy

Social media, especially news that is spread through social media sites, plays into the idea of the attention economy. In which content that attracts more attention will be seen, shared, and disseminated far more than news content that does gather as much traction from the public. Tim Wu from Columbia Law School coins the attention economy as “the resale of human attention.” [10]

A communication platform such as social media is persuasive, and often works to change or influence opinions when it comes to political views because of the abundance of ideas, thoughts, and opinions circulating through the social media platform. It is found that news use leads to political persuasion, therefore the more that people use social media platforms for news sources, the more their political opinions will be affected. Despite that, people are expressing less trust in their government and others due to media use- therefore social media directly affects trust in media use. It is proven that while reading newspapers there is an increase in social trust where on the contrary watching the news on television weakened trust in others and news sources.[11] Social media, or more specifically news media- plays an important role in democratic societies because they allow for participation among citizens.Therefore, when it comes to healthy democratic networks, it is crucial that that news remains true so it doesn't affect citizens’ levels of trust. A certain amount of trust is necessary for a healthy and well functioning democratic system.[12]

Younger generations are becoming more involved in politics due to the increase of political news posted on various types of social media. Due to the heavier use of social media among younger generations, they are exposed to politics more frequently, and in a way that is integrated into their online social lives. While informing younger generations of political news is important, there are many biases within the realms of social media. In May 2016, former Facebook Trending News curator Benjamin Fearnow revealed his job was to "massage the algorithm," but dismissed any "intentional, outright bias" by either human or automated efforts within the company.[13][14] Fearnow was fired by Facebook after being caught leaking several internal company debates about Black Lives Matter and presidential candidate Donald Trump.[15]

As a public utility

See also: Social media as a public utility

A key debate centers on whether or not social media is a public good based on the premises of non-rival and non-excludable consumption. Social media can be considered an impure public good as it can be excludable given the rights of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to remove content, disable accounts, and filter information based on algorithms and community standards.

Arguments for platforms such as Google in being treated as a public utility and public service provider include statements from Benjamin Barber in The Nation

"For new media to be potential equalizers, they must be treated as public utilities, recognizing that spectrum abundance (the excuse for privatization) does not prevent monopoly ownership of hardware and software platforms and hence cannot guarantee equal civic, educational, and cultural access to citizens."[5]

Similarly, Zeynep Tufeckig argues online services are natural monopolies that underwrite the "corporatization of social commons" and the "privatization of our publics." [5]

One argument that displays the nature of social media as an impure public good is the fact that the control over content remains in the hands of a few large media networks, Google and Facebook, for example. Google and Facebook have the power to shape the environment under personal and commercial goals that promotes profitability, as opposed to promoting citizen voice and public deliberation.[5]

Government regulation

Proponents and aims for regulation of social media are growing due to economic concerns of monopolies of the platforms, to issues of privacy, censorship, network neutrality and information storage. The discussion of regulation is complicated due to the issue how Facebook, and Google are increasingly becoming a service, information pipeline, and content provider, and thus centers on how the government would regulate both the platform as a service and information provider.[5] Thus, other proponents advocate for “algorithmic neutrality”, or the aim for search engines on social media platforms to rank data without human intervention.[16]

Opponents of regulation of social media platforms argue that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter do not resemble traditional public utilities, and regulation would harm consumer welfare as public utility regulation can hinder innovation and competition.[16] Second, as the First Amendment values are criticized on social media platforms, the media providers should retain the power to how the platform is configured.[16]

Effect on democracy

Social media has been criticized as being detrimental to democracy.[17] According to Ronald Deibert, "The world of social media is more conducive to extreme, emotionally charged, and divisive types of content than it is to calm, principled considerations of competing or complex narratives".[18]


The Arab Spring

See also: Social media and the Arab Spring

During the peak of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, the Internet and social media played a huge role in facilitating information. At that time, Hosni Mubarak was the president of Egypt and head the regime for almost 30 years. Mubarak was so threatened by the immense power that the Internet and social media gave the people that the government successfully shut down the Internet, using the Ramses Exchange, for a period of time in February 2011.[10]

Egyptians used Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube as a means to communicate and organize demonstrations and rallies to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak. Statistics show that during this time the rate of Tweets from Egypt increased from 2,300 to 230,000 per day and the top 23 protest videos had approximately 5.5 million views.[19]


Though fake news can generate some utility for consumers, in terms of confirming far-right beliefs and spreading propaganda in favor of a presidential candidate, it also imposes private and social costs.[20] For example, one social cost to consumer is the spread of disinformation which can make it harder for consumers to seek out the truth and, in the case of the 2016 Election, for consumers to choose an electoral candidate.[20] Summarized by a Congressional Research Service Study in 2017,

“Cyber tools were also used [by Russia] to create psychological effects in the American population. The likely collateral effects of these activities include compromising the fidelity of information, sowing discord and doubt in the American public about the validity of intelligence community reports, and prompting questions about the democratic process itself.” [21]

The marginal social cost of fake news is exponential, as the first article is shared it can affect a small number of people, but as the article is circulated more throughout Facebook, the negative externality multiplies. As a result, the quantity demanded of news can shift up around election season as consumers seek to find correct news, however the quantity demanded can also shift down as people have a lower trust in mainstream media. In the American public, a Gallup poll in 2016 found “Americans’ trust in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ was, at 32%, the lowest in the organization's polling history.” In addition, trust in mainstream media is lower in Republican and far-right political viewers at 14%.[22] About 72% of American adults claim that social media firms excessively control and influence the politics today, as per the June 16-22 survey conducted by Pew Research Center. Only 21% believe that the power held by these social media firms over today’s politics is of the right amount, while 6% believe it is not enough.[23]

See also: Microtargeting and Geo-fence

Political advertisements—for example, encouraging people to vote for a particular candidate, or to take a position on a particular issue—have often been placed on social media. On 22 November 2019, Twitter said it would no longer facilitate political advertising anywhere in the world.[24]

Election interference

The 2016 United States Presidential Election was an example in which social media was used by the state actor Russia to influence public opinion. Tactics such as propaganda, trolling, and bots were used to leak fake news stories that included an "FBI agent had been killed after leaking Clinton’s emails" and "Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump.” [25] Studies have found that pro-Trump news was as many as four-time more than pro-Clinton fake news, and a third of the pro-Trump tweets were generated by bots.[25]

Role in conflict

There are four ways social media plays a significant role in conflict:.[26]

  1. Social media platforms allow information to be framed in mainstream platforms which limits communication.
  2. Social media enables news stories to quickly go viral and later can lead to misinterpretations that can cause conflict.
  3. Strategies and the adaption of social media has caused a change in focus amongst leaders from administrative dynamics to new media technology.
  4. Technological advancements in communication can increase the power of persuasion leading to corruption, scandals, and violence on social media platforms.[27]
Map of 2011 Arab Spring Protests

The role of technological communication and social media in the world can lead to political, economic, and social conflict due to its unmonitored system, cheap interface, and accessibility.

Non-state actors and militant groups

See also: Use of social media by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

As the world is becoming increasingly connected via the power of the Internet, political movements, including militant groups, have begun to see social media as a major organizing and recruiting tool.[28] The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIL, ISIS, and Daesh, has used social media to promote its cause. ISIS produces an online magazine named the Islamic State Report to recruit more fighters.[29] ISIS produces online materials in a number of languages and uses recruiters to contact potential recruitees over the Internet.

ISIS in Iraq and Syria

In Canada, two girls from Montreal left their country to join ISIS in Syria after exploring ISIS on social media and eventually being recruited.[30] On Twitter, there is an app called the Dawn of Glad Tidings that users can download and keep up to date on news about ISIS.[31] Hundreds of users around the world have signed up for the app, which once downloaded will post tweets and hash-tags from accounts that are in support of ISIS. As ISIS marched on the northern region of Iraq, tweets in support of their efforts reached a high of 40,000 a day.[31] Support of ISIS online is a factor in the radicalization of youth. Mass media has yet to adopt the view that social media plays a vital link in the radicalization of people. When tweets supportive of ISIS make their way onto Twitter, they result in 72 re-tweets to the original, which further spreads the message of ISIS.[31] These tweets have made their way to the account known as active hashtags, which further helps broadcast ISIS's message as the account sends out to its followers the most popular hashtags of the day. Other militant groups such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban are increasingly using social media to raise funds, recruit and radicalize persons, and it has become increasingly effective.

Weaponization by state actors

Social media platforms have been weaponized by state-sponsored cyber groups to attack governments in the United States, the European Union, and the Middle East. Although phishing attacks via email are the most commonly used tactic to breach government networks, phishing attacks on social media rose 500% in 2016.[32] As with email-based phishing attacks, the majority of phishing attacks on social media are financially motivated cyber crimes that install malware.[33] However, cyber groups associated with Russia, Iran, and China have used social media to conduct cyberattacks and undermine democratic processes in the West. During the 2017 French presidential election, for example, Facebook detected and removed fake accounts linked to the Russian cyber group Fancy Bear, who were posing as "friends of friends" of Emmanuel Macron associates to steal information from them.[34] Cyber groups associated with Iran, China, and Russia have used LinkedIn to steal trade secrets, gain access to critical infrastructure, or recruit spies.[35][36][37] These social engineering attacks can be multi-platform, with threat actors initiating contact on one platform but continuing communication on more private channel. The Iranian-backed cyber group COBALT GYPSY created a fake persona across multiple social media platforms and initiated contact on LinkedIn before moving to Facebook and email.[38]

In December 2019, a chat and video calling application developed by the United Arab Emirates, called ToTok was identified as a spying tool by the US intelligence. Suspicion over the Emirati app emerged because it banned the use of VoIP on applications like WhatsApp, FaceTime and Skype.[39]

See also


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