By Maria Yulikova* for RIA Novosti
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During the first US presidential debate on October 3, the audience sent a whopping 10.4 million tweets commenting on the discussion, in yet another demonstration of the growing role of social media in shaping public opinion.
"The candidate which embraces the change in communications and media will be a winner," Rory O'Connor, a prominent US filmmaker and journalist, said, in a speech titled "The Effects of Social Media on Politics, Brands and Traditional Media" at Harvard University on Wednesday.
At the moment, with the presidential race at its peak, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are actively posting pictures and videoclips on Instagram and Youtube, posting on Facebook and Google+, and sending tweets. As of October more than 13 million people had followed Obama on Facebook and almost 21 million on Twitter compared to Romney’s 9 million and 1.4 million respectively.
While the mainstream media is heavily connected with other corporate and government entities, and aims at influencing and maximizing audiences, as well as controlling and manipulating public opinion, alternative media is virtually free from these constraints.
Media consumers tend to trust their friends and their friends’ friends: real people, rather than companies, organizations and channels. This raw reporting, although often non-professional, builds more credit than selected, edited, and polarized content.
In this socio-political environment, it is not surprising that US citizens tend to trust direct and unfiltered Twitter and Facebook posts more than stories in the press.
Obama was the first US presidential candidate to extensively exploit digital technology for his campaign in 2008. He embraced the Internet in fundraising and direct communications with his supporters during his first presidential race.
Obama had his profile in over 15 social media networks, and launched his own social network "My.BarackObama.com.”
Even Rick Perry, the former Republican Party candidate, actively used Twitter, blogs, and other social media, in his campaign for the presidency, and chose not to seek the endorsement of the mainstream press.
Researchers from the University of California, San Diego, and Facebook, have recently analyzed the voting behavior of approximately 6.3 million people using publicly available records. They found that the Facebook message increased turnout in the 2010 Congressional midterm election "directly by about 60,000 voters and indirectly through social contagion by another 280,000 voters, for a total of 340,000 additional votes.”
There is an unfolding media credibility crisis in the US. A recent Gallup poll finds that 60 percent of Americans “have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.” In 1990, 74 percent of Americans said they had either a great deal of confidence or some confidence in the press. A decade later, that number had fallen to 58 percent. Today, only 40 percent of the American audience trusts big media.
The Gallup poll also shows that this decline in trust in the media is driven primarily by independents and Republicans. Only 31 percent of independents and 26 percent of Republicans said they trust the media, while 56 percent of Democrats said that they still trust conventional news reporting.
Another factor behind the erosion of mainstream media audiences is partisanship. Major players like The New York Times, Newsweek, and NBC are traditionally considered left-wing, while the popular TV channel FOX News, the magazine Weekly Standard, and the Washington Times provide right-wing content.
Many viewers in the United States believe that there is no such thing as unbiased media, Jason Stanley, the American philosopher argues.
"The job of any news outlet would be then not to produce balanced news, but rather to continually "counterbalance" ideological messages from the other side," Stanley writes in his recent New York Times blog.
Moreover, there is a debate in US humanities studies that Americans don't trust political speech any more. False statements do not seem to harm a presidential candidate these days, Stanley says. People tolerate these statements, and don't even expect politicians or media to tell the truth.
* Maria Yulikova is a recent graduate of Tufts University and a Boston-based freelance journalist.
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