Ph.D. Candidate Matthew Adeiza discusses elections and social media

Matthew Adeiza wears a blue shirt in front of a bright blue ocean scene.

Mid-term elections are approaching on November 6, and, of late, even Facebook is reminding us to get to the polls (or, in Washington state, mail our ballots). But there’s a lot of evidence that social media is influencing our elections beyond simply reminding people to vote. So, we called up Matthew Adeiza, Ph.D. candidate in Communication, to discuss social media use in the context of elections.

Matthew studies how presidential campaigns in Sub-Saharan Africa use digital media, including social media platforms, to organize and mobilize voters. We asked Matthew to tell us about his research and relate his findings to the upcoming mid-term elections here in the States.

Explain your research in plain terms — both the focus of your dissertation and the implications of your research, more broadly.

My research is an exploration of how presidential campaigns in Sub-Saharan Africa use digital media like Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter and websites to organize their campaign teams and mobilize voters. I conducted four months of fieldwork in the lead up to the 2016 election in Ghana, and found that campaigns relied heavily on social media for organizing their teams but considered it ineffective for mobilizing voters. So, most campaign efforts to mobilize voters revolved around offline house-to-house canvassing.

There is a lot of discussion in the news about how social media in particular may be harming our elections process through the rise of misinformation and increasingly isolated political “bubbles.” What does you research say about the role of social media in elections, particularly in terms of whether they help or harm the process?

Two people pose in NDC-affiliated clothing at a campaign rally.
Members of the National Democratic Congress party in Ghana participate in a campaign rally. Photo courtesy Matthew Adeiza.

It is complicated for a few reasons. Social media use was still relatively low (compared to the U.S.) at the time of the election in Ghana. Generally, social media tends to exacerbate existing divisions, rather than creating those divisions in the first place. So, while there were sometimes raucous debates on social media, the strength of cross-party relationships and trust between the two main political parties moderated the worst effects of social media.

Can you relate some of the principles and patterns you study in social media use in sub-Saharan Africa to our midterm elections locally in the U.S.? How are political groups using social media to organize or share messages?

Campaigns in the U.S. invest millions of dollars in social media advertising, but Ghanaian campaigns barely spent a fraction of that because they made a strategic decision to make voter mobilization local, including voter data. In the current U.S. campaign cycle, candidate campaigns, PACs and SuperPACs can and do target voters by using attributes such as party affiliation, previous donations and location, which can be fairly specific. This could help these groups maximize value for dollar spent but could worsen the echo chambers that are a feature of the modern American political information environment.

How are citizens using social media to mobilize, if at all? And how could they better use social media to mobilize, according to your research?

Most citizens use social media for mobilization by sharing political information from usually very partisan sources. We know from communication research that exposure to information people already agree with helps to reinforce their beliefs. So, sharing partisan content might be one way of giving fellow partisans additional reasons to vote for or against a candidate, depending on the composition of the sharer’s social network composition. To be more effective, people could do two things: one, actually engage people and directly ask them to vote; or two, logout of social media and talk to people offline. There is hardly a tactic as powerful as engaging people offline.

Published October 30 2018