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Are social media and politics hitting the mark for young voters?

Campaign spin doctors — from both the left and the right — hope to lure new voters to their candidates through Facebook and Twitter, but will they instead lead cautious voters to further tune out the political “news”?

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Bill Minutaglio, clinical professor in the School of Journalism, is the author of several politically themed books, including “First Son: George W. Bush and The Bush Family Dynasty” and “The President’s Counselor: The Rise to Power of Alberto Gonzales.” He also writes for the Texas Observer.

I was a bit startled recently to hear from an erudite, enlightened group of graduate students that only a few of them were addicted to getting their daily dose of substantive news through social media. Some of them said they did indeed share news through Twitter and Facebook, but not many in this particular group routinely went to those venues as their everyday source of news.

It was, like a lot of things, “situational.”

If there was something electric, some thunderclap (like the sad events that unfolded when a shooter appeared on campus) then, yes, folks did flock to social media: Rumors AND facts were moving at warp speed and social media was all-pervasive, a common medium, the digital town crier.

But then when I asked a few students if they were following the here-and-now political races (those local and statewide contests that will decide and define many important matters, including the chances of President Barack Obama advancing any of his mid-term initiatives) through the bytes emerging seemingly every minute in social media forums, they were almost uniform in agreement:

No, they told me, there was just too much “insider baseball” when it came to the nexus of social media-and-politics – and too much digital sniping, too much political disinformation being spread. Students said that they suspected the political “news” emerging on Twitter and Facebook was especially influenced (and maybe just “planted’) by spin doctors, ones out to groove their messages to younger, social media-addicted voters.

You could see the simple (simplistic?) logic, perhaps, if the suspicions of those students were true: The so-called “opposition researchers” – the people entrusted with coming up with the edgier bits of information that will discredit an opposing candidate – would merrily “plant” things on Twitter and Facebook, sit back and wait for Digital Nature to take its course. They would wait for the dirt they dug up to go viral.

It’s not scientific, of course, but it also makes sense that a prematurely cynical voting base – some young voters who have gone beyond healthy skepticism about politics and moved all the way to full-blown doubts about the entire electoral system – would view the new digital hardball politics with a jaundiced eye.

And it might also make sense that the grand plan would backfire: That the spin doctors, on the left and the right, who hoped that young voters would simply bend and sway to anything they saw popping up on their smart phones, were actually defeating themselves.

Instead of luring new voters to their candidate, perhaps they were leading cautious voters to further tune out the political “news” in the ceaseless hurly-burly of social media.

Again, it’s not scientific, but this theory is worth pondering: That there are some younger voters looking beyond the short, ad hominem attacks that Twitter and Facebook might lend themselves to.

That’s not to say, of course, that you can’t find cogency, truth, good journalism, good political reporting in social media.

Of course you can.

But spin doctors will have to be careful not to assume social media consumers and participants are gullible slaves to the paradigm: This voting season, we might learn, more than ever before, if spin doctors have appropriated social media – and maybe shot themselves in the foot in the process.

More election posts from Bill Minutaglio:

Visit the mid-term elections blog series home page for a complete lineup of faculty experts’ analyses.