This year’s elections in the United States have been hugely present on social media, and in fact, most presidential campaigns are dependent on a vast social media audience. More so than ever, social media is used to reach a vast audience, and especially attempts to appeal to the younger voters. We’ve all seen our fair share of strongly-worded, heavily-opinionated tweets by Trump’s official Twitter account, and the influx of political posts flood Facebook news feeds daily. Has this kind of social media use become a global norm in the political sphere, or is the U.S. the exception and not the rule? Specifically, have the politicians in the Czech Republic been as present, or as reliant, on social media as Americans are – and how does the youth react?
Election years are the clearest cases to demonstrate the political use of social media and how it is utilized in campaigning. The most recent presidential elections in the Czech Republic were in January of 2013, and though certainly not as much as present day, the development and use of social media was still in full swing. According to a BBC News profile on media in the Czech Republic, about 36% of Czechs were using social media by 2013 (in 2015, it was closer to 50%). During the election, the two top runners were Milos Zeman and Karel Schwarzenberg, and their campaigns utilized media differently. Zeman focused on traditional media like television, newspapers, and live debates, and even criticized social media campaigns for their limitations. By contrast, many experts attribute Schwarzenberg’s initial successes to his social media outreach. One source states: “…social media proved to be an efficient instrument for mobilization especially of the younger segment of the electorate, plus the voters from cities and larger towns. Without the support of these groups, Karel Schwarzenberg would most probably not have achieved such a great and surprising result in the first round” (Patrut 242). Just like traditional media, social media is capable of targeting and capturing different audiences, as was evident in Schwarzenberg’s early popularity.
It would be too easy to assume that the candidate who utilized social media would receive the most votes and emerge victorious. He did not. At the end of January of 2013, Milo Zeman was elected president of the Czech Republic. Despite virtually ignoring social media, he wins the majority by around 55%. Though Schwarzenberg was popular and his use of social media was a relatively effective campaign, the “Facebook generation” eventually had a low voting participation, and the likes on Schwarzenberg’s posts did not transfer into votes. The audience (and age group) who gravitated towards traditional media forms were more likely to vote.
I asked an NYU Prague RA what she remembers from the 2013 elections, and she says the majority of the information she acquired was primarily from social media and the Internet. She supported Schwarzenberg and even participated in some of the public events, and she did in fact go vote. Here I revise the original question and pose it for future political events: are social-media-active millennials who actually go vote, like this RA, the exception, or the new rule? In current days, several Czech politicians (like the Czech Republic’s State Secretary for European Affairs) are present on social media – but the upcoming 2017 Czech Republic elections will illustrate more definitively how social media will impact and intertwine with their modern politics.
This year’s American elections will face this issue, and we won’t quite know the answer until our next president has been elected and the voting statistics have been analyzed. It seems that the U.S.’s Facebook Generation is highly aware and educated on the politics; but we too are at risk for the tendency towards political slacktivism. A survey on this year’s elections showed that a third of 18-29 year olds in the U.S. learn about the elections with social media (this stat surprised me – I thought it would be higher). Bernie Sanders in particular is extremely popular amongst this age group, so his youth voting participation is being watched very closely. Though much can change in three years, Schwarzenberg’s failed candidacy demonstrates the possibility of this happening to Bernie. “Feeling the Bern” or not, how many of those 18-29 year olds will close their computers, go out, and vote?