homestories Inquiry

Democracy by Smartphone

New technologies have expanded the number of channels for reaching voters and the capacity to evaluate the effectiveness of those messages.

By Annie Athon Heck

WHEN HE WAS 16, Dan Faltesek would sit at home in an unfinished basement chatting with a friend through AOL Instant Messenger on the family’s Acer computer. It was 1999, before Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. The conversation, he recalls, was about “nerdy stuff,” Clinton administration politics of interest to him and his partner in a high-school debate class.

Little did Faltesek, now an assistant professor in New Media Communications at Oregon State University, realize that his youthful foray into social media would launch his career.

Today’s online landscape has changed drastically. Faltesek immerses himself in the study of social media across all platforms. When he was a teenager, this field didn’t even exist, and now it occupies an increasing share of the focus for him and other communications researchers. That’s a strong testament to the rapidly expanding role that social media play in a global society.

“Social networks are the next evolution of TV networks,” Faltesek says. “People like ‘flow media’ and streams of news stories, personal stories, ads and a wide variety of content.”

Daniel Faltesek (Photo: Erin Sneller)
Daniel Faltesek (Photo: Erin Sneller)

From daily news feeds to personal updates and crisis communications, social media are changing the way people around the world create, share and engage with stories and information. Faltesek refers to this space as the “public sphere.” Through his work, he has gained insights on how social media affect election campaigns and are changing the way Americans process news and opinions about candidates — all through engagement in the public sphere.

During this election cycle, for example, Twitter has become a dominant place for people to talk about candidates, debates, primary elections and conventions. “In some respects, this is a new Golden Age for political communications,” he says. “People can have political conversations through social media without having to have a screaming match with a drunk uncle at a family gathering.

“As media events unfold, such as the debates during the primaries this year, Twitter can become just like network TV 20 years ago. All the politicos were on Twitter commenting on the candidates and the debates.”

Nearly a year before Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton garnered enough delegates to move on to the general election, Faltesek’s analysis of hashtags — those “#” symbols used to compile Twitter posts by topic — led him to predict that Trump and Clinton would become their respective party’s “presumptive nominees.” In the summer of 2015, Faltesek began collecting and studying large numbers of campaign tweets from all the candidates. At that time, the Republican field was crowded with more than 15 candidates, and Bernie Sanders was beginning his slow rise as a viable candidate for Democrats.

Illustration by Oliver Day
Illustration by Oliver Day

“Trump was getting 12 times the numbers of other candidates in terms of retweets and engagement on Twitter,” Faltesek says. “It became clear to me that the candidates’ social media activity, or lack of it, was tracking to campaign success. It was just obvious at that point that Trump was winning the nomination.”

Damien Pfister, an associate professor of communication at the University of Maryland, has known Faltesek and followed his emerging work. He believes that social media has given populism a stronger foothold in the electoral process.

“Republicans and Democrats are in different universes,” he says. “This is amplified by social media as well as traditional media. The media ecosystem is really complicated right now, and that’s why we need different takes on it and why Dan’s research is so interesting. Looking at how discourse evolves over time, through data analysis of hashtags, for example, can help us understand these different patterns of communication.”

This progressive approach to communication research is just beginning to emerge, and Faltesek is on the leading edge. He is convinced that the prevalence of social media, which he believes will only grow and evolve, will continue to change the way Americans navigate the country’s increasingly complex political and electoral landscapes.

“New technologies have expanded both the number of channels for reaching voters as well as the capacity to evaluate the effectiveness of those messages,” Faltesek says. “Instead of buying national time for a single ad, candidates can focus on very narrow advertisements for different constituents.”

In addition to more targeted and personal advertising, which will occur online rather than on television, Faltesek envisions that political work will become more interesting as mobilization efforts and policy communications increase through social media.

“Candidates will be reaching out on social media about the policies they’re pursuing instead of running attack ads,” he says. “An attack ad is not democracy. People talking to each other on social media, that’s democracy.”

And we can participate wherever we happen to be, whether in a convention hall in the heat of a campaign or at home in an unfinished basement.