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The role of social media in the 2016 election

Ever since media has existed, so has media bias; the two go hand-in-hand. Countless political cartoons and infographics have been made on the subject, warning readers of the dangers of getting their information from only a single platform or of not validating sources. But the problem that faces social media users today isn’t that they don’t realize media bias exists, it is that they don’t know that they’re falling prey to it.

The number of people on social media has recently hit record highs, with 1.13 billion daily active users on Facebook and 313 million monthly active users of Twitter as of June 2016. With these numbers growing every day, it only makes sense that the number of people who get their news from these sources is growing too. According to a study done by the Pew Research Center in January 2016, 44 percent of US adults claimed to have received information about the 2016 presidential election from social media. And while receiving information from social media isn’t necessarily problematic, the type of information popular on these sites isn’t exactly the most reliable, which is where bias can come in.

In order to appeal to social media users, companies like NowThis, Insider and Refinery29 (among others) keep their news videos short, usually 30 seconds to two minutes in length. As a result, viewers watch the video and feel informed, even if the only information contained in the video is a incendiary quote and a relatable reaction GIF. While these videos are a good way to help understand on current happenings, they are far from representative of the events from which they extract sound bites. Instead, these videos paraphrase speeches, reducing them to a catchphrase with only a few sentences of context, which makes them yes, easily digestible and appealing, but hardly a reliable source for a comprehensive understanding of present issues. Consequently, social media users who rely solely on these types of videos for their news believe their decisions to be informed before they have even been given all the information.

Another phenomenon that has resulted from increased usage of social media is that people and companies now have a platform to advertise their products or ideas for free. Why pay for an expensive television ad when a simple Facebook update could have the same effect? In the case of the 2016 presidential election, it also gives the candidates a platform to debate outside of officially sanctioned events, with simple tweets like Hillary’s infamous #DeleteYourAccount often garnering more attention than statements made in televised debates. In addition to reaching the millions of Twitter users, tweets like these— concise and controversial— also often spawn articles, so even if a person doesn’t use Twitter, they can read about it from another news outlet.

More and more social media is becoming an integral part of how news is delivered, for better or for worse. Millennials have typically had the lowest turnout in elections, with only 46 percent showing up to vote in the 2012 election. However, in the upcoming election, roughly 31 percent of voters will be Millennials, matching the Baby Boomers as the largest generation in the U.S. electorate. With Millennials also making up the plurality of social media users across various sites, candidates’ expanded use of social media has the potential to make a huge difference in the 2016 election, although millions of seemingly “informed” users could spell disaster for the country’s future. In another major political event of 2016, Brexit, Google saw a 250 percent increase in searches for "what happens if we leave the EU?" in the U.K. two hours after the polls closed, hinting that some voters didn’t understand the issue they were voting on. If social media continues to dominate the election the way it has so far, America may be in the same situation very soon: having made a decision not representative of the decisions of a fully informed electorate.

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