Ah, social media, unintended battleground of many a political argument, strewn with the wreckage of relationships. We all know people who have unfriended others or maybe even alienated family members in real life over political comments on social media. Maybe you’ve been on the giving or receiving end. The 2016 election took political rage on social media to a whole new level and brought out the worst in everyone.
People don’t realize that official content on social media, such as that put out by political parties and any of their affiliated social channels (state level parties, other party organizations), has one purpose: To influence your vote. Every click, share, and comment is tracked back to metrics that digital directors review to see how they can optimize their social media “outreach” (political speak for marketing). Those producing and posting this official content don’t care how angry it makes you or how many personal relationships get torpedoed due to political fighting on Facebook. They will happily step over the bodies to lead you by the hand to the ballot box for their candidate. Of course, they don’t want to see relationships destroyed, but they also are not going to change practices to make the social media political environment less conducive to digital bomb-throwing. After all, they have metrics to meet, and why would they de-escalate the social media arms race when their opponents won’t?
This of course doesn’t apply to user-created content. That Dank Meme Stash page, as long as it’s not created by someone who is getting paid to be the admin, is genuine. Of course, it can just as genuinely spark a relationship-ending fight, creating the same problem, but all I’m saying is that when you get into it with someone on social media over a post or meme that came from an official political channel, you are being used. The people using you in this way don’t care that much about what happens as long as they meet their metrics, which is what they’re paid to do. The goal is gin up enough energy in the base to get them to the polls next election. Sometimes that involves sustaining a particular energy level, something that is especially hard to do between a presidential election and a midterm election, like the one coming up this year. But political operators know they need to maintain engagement among the base to meet projected goals for votes, and social media outreach is one part of the portfolio by which they achieve this.
For me it gets a little fuzzy with content put out by super PACs. A super PAC is just an organization that is by law unaffiliated with the political campaign it is trying to help win. In fact, super PACs and said campaign are not allowed to communicate with each other. There is no doubt that they find ways around this, but that wall is pretty high and definitely prevents the lion’s share of coordination that would otherwise be possible. So, if you unfriended someone because they shared something that came from a Super PAC, you are being used by the Super PAC and by extension by the people funding it, although I wouldn’t say you are being used by a political party. Still, fighting with people on social media about politics is something I advise against because it really can cause relationship harm “IRL.”
It’s true that some social media content posted by the parties and their affiliates is intended for fundraising. However, social media is notoriously not good for fundraising, and other channels are better. And besides, donating money is usually an emotional decision, so the parties still have to create emotion in you to get you to donate, or at least they expect they need to. So, their content, even if it’s more for fundraising than for reinforcing your path to the ballot box for their candidate, will be designed in a way that manipulates your emotions.
I would say all of this also applies to content put out by politicians themselves, since their primary goal is to get re-elected. So question that too.
In conclusion, the next time you are tempted to get ugly with someone on social media over politics, stop and think. Further, if it’s something put out by someone who is getting paid to put it out, recognize that you are being totally used for your outrage. They have big plans for how they want you to vote. Don’t be a cog in their outrage machine.