Did social media make us more or less politically unequal in 2020?

Dr Daniel Lane

Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication atthe University of California, Santa Barbara and director of the UCSB Digital Political Inequality Lab.His research and teaching explore how individuals and groups use communication technology to create social and political change.

Nancy Molina-Rogers

Graduate student in the Department of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research interests include media communication and exploring women of color in traditional/new media and how media messages impact perceptions of identity.

Section 5: Social media

The 2020 election has once again laid bare a defining feature of American life: some citizens yield far greater political power and influence than others. Despite record voter turnout, there is evidence of persistent gaps in voter engagementcampaign donations and political advertisement targeting, across lines of class, age, gender, and race. These political inequalities are not only a product of systematic disenfranchisement, but also reflective of enduring social inequalities that often leave people from marginalized groups with fewer of the resources they need to engage in elections.

Yet the past four years have also taught us that groups that have been politically marginalized for centuries are exercising political voice and influence, often in innovative ways that are decisive for the American story. Think of the young people who mobilized around gun control after the Parkland mass shooting in 2018 or Black activists who led historic mass mobilization against racial violence in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. At the center of these movements have been social media platforms, tools that have sometimes been positioned as a potential equalizing force in American politics. As campaigning increasingly shifts to social media, it is unclear how these technologies are shaping political inequality in electoral contexts.

Despite well-founded concerns about the often contentious, uncivil, and partisan nature of political communication on social media, research suggests that who engages on social media matters. Social media can be key sources for learning about elections and might serve as “gateways” to further participation in campaigns. In addition, social media are now where reporters go to gauge public opinion and where political campaigns go to target voters. Yet, when researchers have examined digital political inequality more closely, they have often found that those who already have political resources or interest reap the benefits.

Our past work from the 2016 election tells a nuanced story of political inequality on social media. Across 2016 survey datasets, we find that Americans from traditionally marginalized groups (e.g., those with lower socioeconomic resources, or racial/ethnic minorities) are sometimes less politically engaged on social media. However, these trends are inconsistent and sometimes reversed. For example, in one survey, young voters (18 to 24) with lower (vs. higher) socioeconomic status were more likely to express their political views on social media. Another survey found that racial/ethnic minorities engaged in more symbolic types of political expression (e.g., hashtags, changing profile pictures) than white users.

Early data from the 2020 election paints a similar picture. For example, a higher percentage of white respondents reported engaging in traditional political behaviors on Facebook, while a higher percentage of racial/ethnic minorities reported using Facebook to get information about protests or to post about discrimination and injustice.

Looking at the mixed evidence in this area, we offer three points to consider when thinking about social media’s role in shaping political inequality in the 2020 election. First, we need to acknowledge that those with the most political power and political resources continue to have advantages in expressing their voices on social media. As long as some groups (e.g., those with higher education, white people) disproportionally possess resources like political knowledge and interest, certain types of political behavior will continue to be unequally distributed on social media. Second, to see the potentially equalizing power of social media, we need to look more deeply at how marginalized groups use these technologies. When scholars have done so, they find that social media offer essential spaces for social movement organizing, building political solidarity, and sharing experiences of injustice. We take seriously the ways in which social media can help the politically rich get richer, while also urging that more attention be paid to how marginalized groups are using social media to reclaim political voice. Finally, it may be that social media’s impact on political inequality is more indirect than we suspect. For example, journalists and scholars might need to zoom out to see how movements like #BlackLivesMatter shaped the 2020 election by framing racial justice as a key issue. Such indirect influence may be difficult to see if we only look at individual election-related behavior on social media.

The 2020 post-mortem is sure to cast social media in a primarily negative light; as engines for political misinformation, partisan conflict, and perhaps even electoral violence. As with any technology, we need not completely resign ourselves to social media being a net evil for democracy. Scholars like Ethan Zuckerman are already exploring ways to build more equitable social media platforms. Others are pushing for technology companies to take more responsible approaches to moderating political communication on social media. In these efforts, reducing inequality between the political haves and have nots should be central. Social media are not going anywhere. Our only option is to try to make them better tools for democracy.