Why Facebook Might Keep Millennials Home on Election Day

By Paul Moya

“James Taylor has checked into Standing Rock Indian Reservation”. This past week, my newsfeed overflowed with friends checking in to Standing Rock Indian Reservation, in support of the Standing Rock Sioux, their opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, and an unsubstantiated possibility that the police were using Facebook geotagging to corner protestors at the site. The news spread like wildfire across the platform, and users were encouraged to check in, in solidarity, and to confuse police (who if they wanted to monitor activists would likely be able to do so by IP address rather than social media geotagging, but no matter). Regardless, 1.4 million users checked in at the reservation. This act, in and of itself, debunks the myth that millennials are politically unaware, and that they do not care about current events. The fact that the DAPL campaign occurred despite the mainstream media’s rather muted coverage of the conflict for the last several months (until celebrities got involved, that is), is indicative of the fact that millennials are getting their news. They are just not getting it from cracking open the pages of the Wall Street Journal at the kitchen table before work each morning.

I’ll Take One Newspaper with a Side of Reinforcement – Hold the Conflicting Views

Social media has fundamentally changed the way that Americans consume media. Many Americans, especially millennials, obtain their news almost exclusively on social media platforms. They are reading the New York Times and the Economist, but almost solely through links on Facebook and Twitter. The challenge with this is that these links are highly curated through Facebook’s algorithms, and then again by human editors, creating a highly curated version of the news. This highlights only what the user wants to see, not necessarily what the user needs to see. It is the broadsheet equivalent of someone 30 years ago receiving a newspaper with the pages and articles that present opposing views snipped out by the mail carrier prior to delivery. Combine this with the fact that users typically tend to form friendships with those who share similar worldview and political perspectives, and now their already curated news environment is supplemented by news-related posts from their self-selecting social groups. These news articles provide even more narrowly curated news material, creating a situation in which the user surrounds themselves with content that serves to reinforce their existing belief systems. With the exception of debates with that crazy uncle who is a doomsday prepper, political dialogue is not often reflective of the true amount of division present within our nation.

I Want To Help, But Only If I Can Do It From My iPhone.

Social media has also served to create a movement of “slacktivists”, the keyboard warriors who hashtag all the slogans, sign all the MoveOn.org petitions, and battle out the issues via the comments section of their friend’s posts. However, their activism does not extend beyond the low-commitment strokes on a keyboard. The Dakota Access Pipeline campaign is a perfect example of this. Yes, posting articles about the conflict and checking in on Facebook raise awareness, but how many of the people who clicked the post button actually donated money to support the cause? How many people actively advocate offline? Social media has created a false reality where Slacktivists walk away from those online interactions content, thinking they have done their part and taken their stand.

The Dangers of Torn Out Pages.

These phenomena are particularly dangerous as we reach Election Day and millennials will need to do more than post a fancy hashtag on a status update. When I look at my newsfeed splashed across with articles about how absurd Donald Trump is, how no one believes his lies, how Hillary has a 90% chance of winning and voters aren’t swayed by the most recent Wikileaks, the realities of the election are skewed. Based on my newsfeed, the New York Times and many of my friends predict that Hillary will surely win this election, and she’ll win comfortably. I don’t know where all these Trump supporters are coming from because I don’t see enough of them to put him a margin of error away from victory. But there are Trump supporters. Millions of Trump supporters. 13.3 million in the primary alone. They are real, they genuinely believe Trump will make their lives better, and they will be out at the polls to cast their votes. They just happen to be on those torn out newspaper pages that my social media channel doesn’t often  reflect.

Our newsfeeds simply do not mirror political truth. In fact, Facebook has been accused by a former employee of censoring conservative news sources from their trending newsfeeds. These “trends” reflect a carefully crafted reality we have knowingly or unknowingly created, which allow us to shelter ourselves from opposing views, and by doing so, the full political landscape. The race is far closer and far less secure than we are led to believe by social media—regardless of which side you are on.

Hashtags Don’t Count.

The lines at the voting booths can be long and our time off is short. But this election matters. Your vote matters. Even if you live in an uncontested state, your vote matters. Do not stay home because your early voting Facebook friends have assured you that your candidate has it in the bag. The millennial vote could be the make or break vote in the election. So make sure you take real action and get to your voting booth and cast your vote. Because in the real world, hashtags like #ImWithHer and #MakeAmericaGreatAgain don’t count.

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