Milwaukee Professors Discuss Influence Of More Screen Time On Campaigning And Activism

Sep 16, 2020

COVID-19 has changed political campaigning. Large rallies meant to drum up support aren’t happening, and the Democratic and Republican National Conventions were mostly virtual events. This means the already cavernous echo chamber of social media has the potential to become even more influential.

A project called Elecurator is tracking the major issues engaging both candidates and voters in the 2020 election. It will look at how Americans are talking about politics online as well as whether the issues dominating social media are actually important to the typical voter.

“Are there ways that we should be designing our algorithms so that I’m not just getting fed a steady diet of things that already sit with my predispositions but might actually increase my exposure to different points of view,” says Amber Wichowsky, one of the project's coordinators. She's an associate professor of political science at Marquette University and the director of the Marquette democracy lab.

Another of the project's coordinators is Purushottam Papatla, professor of marketing at UWM and co-director of UWM's Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute. With many people still working from home or having less organic interactions in the workplace, he says they aren’t confronting different viewpoints and opinions — even when on social media. Social media is built in a way that caters to each person and allows for targeted advertising. He says working from home means we often interact with the things we enjoy which usually reflect the views we already hold.

“I think it’s going to have enormous impact on the rifts in our society. And it’s going to ripple through politics, culture and a lot of other things,” Papatla says. “So I think it’s not something that is a one-time thing that’s happening to us. I think it’s going to have very long-term consequences.”

Politicians aren’t the only ones flooding social media and flocking to the internet to garner support. Activists have also been utilizing these same tools to draw attention to their cause. Papatla says social media is especially useful for activists because it democratizes who can be heard, making it easier for people to convey their message.

“Regardless of whether the idea has merit or not, what its implications for society are; good and bad ideas both can build up momentum. It’s a double-edged sword, but the sword is here,” Papatla says.

Wichowsky agrees that social media is an effective tool for spreading a message, but she hesitates to label all online activism as effective. She points to the Occupy Wall Street movement that spread fast online but was largely ineffective at presenting demands or organizing enough to push for measurable change.

“I think it gives us pause. Because while campaigns can really get going and go viral, kind of sustaining them in a way that these movements can actually influence politics and kind of work through and have a long-lasting change, you still need the organizational infrastructure. It can’t just be organizing without organization," she says.

Wichowsky says the Black Lives Matter movement is a great example because it's a hybrid between utilizing social media as well as chapters and groups that are organizing around local issues and pushing for specified changes.