Social Media & Politics: A good mix?


April 5th, 2016

Jeremy Lipschultz is an Isaacson Professor at UNO's Social Media Lab for Research Engagement. He said social media and mobile devices are the fundamentally changing the way people live and work. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

Jeremy Lipschultz is an Isaacson Professor at UNO’s Social Media Lab for Research Engagement. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

Facebook played a vital role in the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. During the 2016 presidential cycle, social media are once again at the forefront. Dr. Jeremy Lipschultz, Isaacson Professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha’s Social Media Lab, sat down with KVNO’s Ryan Robertson to discuss recent statistics from the Pew Research Center concerning Americans’ growing use of social media as their political news source.

RR: We’re sitting down here with Professor Lipschultz. Professor we have been talking about some of the numbers from the Pew Research Center, and some those numbers I want to kind of delve into. 39 percent of U.S. adults have engaged in some form of political activity on social media. Is that a good thing in your mind or a bad thing in your mind?

JL: I think we’re still beginning to understand what it means. We know that there is steady and continuous growth of the use of social media over the last five, six years. And certainly political communication is an important part of that. I think that it has played important roles in specific campaigns. I think the rise of Donald Trump, the rise of Bernie Sanders– in particular those two candidates have got a lot of success based upon their utilization of Twitter and other social media platforms.

RR: Bernie Sanders has been called the “King of Facebook” and Donald Trump takes to Twitter directly himself and engages with with some of his critics and some of his followers. In what way does that give the American populous more direct access than in previous presidential cycles?

JL: We’re in this interesting time in which we’re still grappling with the decline of media gatekeepers. You know, a generation ago it was all about, you know, getting on television, and it’s still about that to a degree. But, you know, as someone else pointed out a few weeks ago, Donald Trump has 7 million followers on Twitter. It means that at any given moment, if he wants to go directly to an audience larger than the cable news channels, he can do that and he does it. And so he has developed this following of loyal supporters who stay with him through thick and thin.

So I think the challenge is to sort out facts from opinions, because the problem with this environment is that opinions often win out among many people right now and so I’m really looking to find more of a fact based approach to all of this.

RR: You said it. Donald Trump can go to a 7 million people audience, it’s bigger than cable news, and there are no fact checkers to say, ‘well Donald, that’s incorrect.’ We know that Twitter is substantially more liberal leaning, but does it create sort of an echo chamber when people–Donald Trump says “this” or Bernie Sanders says “that”– and some of their followers or the people they follow are all saying the same thing— does it tend to lead to people just reconfirming their own beliefs.

JL: Reinforcement is often been the strongest effect from all forms of media and social media are no different in that regard. The selectivity available through the user choices that they make on social media platforms is important, because yeah, you’re going to tend to look for confirmation of what you already believe. So it’s harder to break through that noise and change people’s view of what they think they already know.

So this is a problem because–it’s an opportunity too though– because it does give our mainstream media the opportunity to be the fact checkers, to be the gatekeepers again, and to do this by exposing errors; exposing what’s not correct in this media stream. I think the problem early in the campaign, for example, was that too often the coverage was just about what did Donald say on Twitter? Or, you know, what’s happening in terms of a particular Facebook post for Sanders? And it’s got to be more of a critical examination.

I think President Obama hit on it in his speech if you had a chance to see that in which he really challenged journalists to re-imagine what their professional role is, to come back to the role of being the watchdog, to challenge political figures, political officials, and to really ask them the tough questions.

I don’t know if it’s a change in tone, but just this week we’re starting to see some tougher questioning of Donald Trump and he didn’t do very well, you know, faced with questions from Anderson Cooper and faced with questions from Chris Matthews. So it is important because we need to be able to see how people react. This is a job interview, running for president, and it’s got to be a tough job interview with the toughest questions because we want to have someone in charge who knows what they’re doing.

RR: Professor Lipschultz, thank you so much for joining us. He’s an Isaacson Professor at the UNO School of Communication. And also congratulations on your educator of the Year Award from the Omaha Press Club.

JL: Thank you. 

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