In conjunction with 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement and the presidential election are the main political topics over American social networks. Globally, the French pension strike, the anti-government protests in Iran and Thailand, and more civil right protests used social media to gain momentum. Meanwhile, Russians have been suspected of influencing other regimes through creating fake accounts and spreading exaggerated and false information.
We can see that social media use in politics can push forward the development of liberal and equal society, but it can also speed up the detrimental effect of spreading disinformation in achieving selfish political agendas. It begs the question: how will social media influence politics in 2021?
Just at the beginning of 2021, the Capitol riots sparked the ban of former President Donald Trump’s presence on major social media. Now, Twitter has decided to permanently ban Trump from joining the network, Google’s YouTube blocked all new uploads to Trump’s channel, and Facebook has its oversight board to review Trump’s eligibility to rejoin the community. The era of Trump as a political influencer might be put on pause, and the users on major social media platforms can relax a little from the overwhelming false content.
However, the extremists fueled by the rebellious act of storming into Capitol Hill have shifted to alternative social media platforms like 4Chan and Gab, continuing their missions of “protecting American nationalism” and “Make[ing] America Great Again (MAGA).” Whether they can sustain their momentum in the emerging social media groups remains to be seen.
Take a global look. Russian liberals have recently been using TikTok as a platform to support the opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, who was arrested on arrival and now is jailed for his conviction of violating parole conditions in 2014. Viral content with hashtags "Free Navalny" and "23 Jan" call for other TikTok users, the young generation, to protest against the Putin administration across the country the weekend of January 23, 2021.
Myanmar protesters vowed to resist the military coup d'etat after the detainment of the popularly-voted President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Thousands of protesters pose the three-finger salute, which is adopted from the “The Hunger Games” series, in social media posts, alongside with hashtags “SaveMyanmar,” “RespectOurVotes,” and “CivilDisobedience.” Even local celebrities and politicians show their support on social media.
Given these situations, the Russian and Myanmar governments requested social media platforms to take down sensitive content. There is no action or response from the platforms yet.
Since the Arab Spring in 2010, social media has been undeniably a great platform to mobilize people for civil rights movements. The flip side is, however, the growing disinformation from people who exploit their freedom of speech and spread false information. Following the consequences of political disinformation over the platform, Facebook recently announced its plan to alter the algorithm and downplay political content. It is seen as a legitimate measure to adjust the phenomenon of “worn out by political posts and content” explained by a 2020 study by Pew Research Center - 55 percent of American social media users were suffocated by political content, with 66 percent of Republican respondents reporting this negative feeling, along with 49 percent of Democrats.
Will this measure diminish the power of social media in politics? I believe it will pose a moderating effect, and other major social media leaders might follow the practice. Despite the unknown change in the weight of political content with respect to other genres, I believe there will be fewer political posts shown on the news feed, but the viral political content will keep its rank and give high engagement. Posts by fake or unverified accounts usually show lower engagement, and these will result in lower ranks. On top of the measures of controlling false information, posts that promote democratization and tell the truth will still be effective. Alt-right groups and the extremists have turned to platforms without content limitation. Their future political involvement will be determined by their ability to expand their influence as a minority, which should not be underestimated.
Social media has already spanned waves of political movement in the first two months of 2021. What is next and the dynamic of its power in politics in the following months are all interesting for social media and politics experts continue to observe.