OPINION: Social media’s impact on elections is already clear

A rather poorly titled event took place on campus this week: “Virgin Voters: The 2018 Midterm Elections.” The event carries a message that, thankfully, has ingrained itself more fully in contemporary politics than the phrase “virgin voters” has.

The event’s main elements are incredibly indicative of the current political moment — it’s hosted by USC’s voter registration initiative and streamed on Facebook Live. The existence of this event, and the dozens of events like it, sends a clear message: The youth vote is incredibly important, and dozens of groups are working to sway it in one direction or another.

To be a college student in America is to belong to one of the most valued target audiences in the nation: old enough to vote, young enough to do so morally. As a constituency, college students are more politically disparate than many groups.

As political advertisements increasingly rely on social media to reach young voters — especially the virgins among us — young people must demand more from the platforms broadcasting these messages. With Nov. 6 fast approaching, college students’ discerning consumption of media, that is perhaps more valuable than ever.

Viral online videos focusing on personal narrative are replacing conventional forms of political communication, allowing a new wave of unconventional candidates the opportunity to directly and immediately engage with young people.

Such videos can be seen as a solution, or at least a response, to a political advertising system often unwelcoming to outsider voices that may appeal to a youth vote.

As such, strategists cite the success of candidates such as Massachusetts congressional candidate Ayanna Pressley, New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and  Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams with optimism.

For young progressives within the Democratic Party, the rise of these voices is especially rousing. Some pundits have called these candidates and their low-cost videos a solution to a Democratic Party that is seen as increasingly out of touch.

But therein lies a chunk of the problem. If a solution relies on a flawed foundation, its own effectiveness stands to be contested as well. This may become the case with our new approach to campaign communication.

That viral videos have opened the once-locked realm of political advertising for new candidates is an objective benefit. That this had to happen largely on social media, a platform that stands on increasingly shaky ground with regards to partisan — let alone truthful — political messaging, is unfair.

Historians will have a fun time untangling the current state of society and politics. As social media becomes more and more synonymous with the core of American youth culture, security breaches, notably at Facebook, have surged. These events are not necessarily causal, or even correlated, but their impacts — many of which could very well be felt this midterm cycle — will certainly link.

It is unsurprising that candidates with more diverse life experiences — many of whom excited young voters with their debut — have had to engage most heavily with the very platforms accused of threatening democracy, thus placing an uneven burden on outsider candidates.

We can be critical of platforms like Facebook and their impacts on elections, while supporting a candidate who uses it cleverly. However, it’s a decision calculus — and there’s no clear formula. One can only hope that somehow the medium, given the limited options, might not really be the message. It is, after all, unlikely.

Still, there is no reason to cling to bygone modes of political communication. Former president Barack Obama’s famous 2008 infomercial would be but a blip in a now-relentless news cycle.

Similarly, Obama’s huge ad spending back in 2008 would be entirely inaccessible to candidates in 2018. A decade has passed and even in forced dependency to troubling platforms, there could be some change the young people of America can finally believe in.