Social Media’s Influence on Elections

A user reads political news on a cellphone.
A user reads political news on a cellphone.

Savvy leaders have often leveraged new media to influence politics. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s adoption of the radio and John F. Kennedy’s use of television bridged communication gaps between politicians and the public to great political success.

Social media’s influence on elections was evident in the early 2000s. Barack Obama harnessed social media in his first presidential campaign to rally a majority of voters and win the 2008 election. Around 74% of internet users sought election news online during Obama’s first campaign, representing 55% of the entire adult population at the time, according to Pew Research Center.

Social media plays a powerful role in local elections as well. Beto O’Rourke’s near upset of incumbent Senator Ted Cruz in 2018 is a notable example. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the 2018 Texas Senate race broke the record for the most money spent in a U.S. Senate election — $93 million— much of which was raised by and spent on social media ads and events.

With candidates diverting so many resources to social media campaigns, understanding how social media influences elections and what voters can do to navigate the web wisely is crucial.

“I Voted”: The Power of Social Norms

Peer pressure seems to correlate with political activity. In a 2012 study cited in Psychology Today, creating a social norm (an unspoken standard of behavior deemed appropriate and good) around civic duty, such as voting or contacting elected representatives, encouraged more civic participation.

For example, when Facebook users were shown an “I voted” button along with a message that highlighted their friends who had already voted, they were far more likely to vote than if they were solely shown an informational message.

Algorithms, Big Data, and Microtargeting

Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat, or Instagram, companies design social media platforms to curate information for people based on specific factors:

  • Demographic information (age, gender, and location)
  • Interests (for example, soccer, music, or photography)
  • Engagement (for example, “likes,” clicks, or time spent on page)

As a user engages — navigating, posting, checking, clicking, liking — the social platform shows the user more content of a similar type.

Platforms curate political information through the same process. A user who sets their location to St. Louis may notice newly recommended Missouri political forums on their social media feed, for example.


This model of content curation (sometimes described as “the algorithm”) empowers advertisers to target ads to specific demographic groups. Political campaigns regularly pay social media platforms to push political ads to prospective voters.

An important consideration is that social media operates as designed. Companies may have innocent intentions when creating a social media platform, yet good intentions do not ensure a positive impact. Like any communication technology, social media can be used for any number of purposes, many of which arguably undermine civil discourse.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, announced it will no longer allow advertisers to buy targeted ads based on sensitive user data — including political affiliation — starting in January 2022.

Big Data

During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica successfully collected and sold social media user information to influence voters with targeted ads.

Its strategy? Collect widely available demographic data from social media platforms on a massive scale. The firm then used large-scale modeling to conduct election analyses and make statistically calculated predictions about what sorts of advertisements might appeal most to members of different groups.

Misinformation, Echo Chambers, and the Bandwagon Effect

An echo chamber is a setting that reinforces rather than challenges existing beliefs. Studies such as research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2021 show that social media’s content curation creates political echo chambers.

Political echo chambers are a natural extension of social media’s impersonal algorithm, wherein a platform analyzes a user based on their engagement and then shows them more content of a similar type. For example, a platform is more likely to recommend a politically left-leaning person more left-leaning content.

Data shows that social media has become more insular. A 2020 YouGov poll found that around 24% of Democrats were not friends with anyone who held very different political views from them, up from 10% in 2016.

Thus, social media echo chambers give rise to the bandwagon effect. Social media amplifies and reinforces mass media’s messages (for example, from cable news channels) without context or fact-checking, which can affect the public’s perceptions of candidates and their platforms.

This allows misinformation to spread quickly and easily. When all messages on a person’s social media pages cohere with their existing beliefs, and no one within their social circle steps up to challenge those messages, misinformation spreads unchecked.

Politicization of Social Media Spaces

Another negative effect of social media on voters includes a sense of political information overload on social media platforms.

According to a Pew Research Center poll that looked at political perceptions in 2016 and again in 2020:

  • The number of people who found political discussions via social media “interesting and informative” decreased from 35% in 2016 to 26% in 2020.
  • About 55% of social media users in the U.S. felt “worn out” by the number of political posts on social media, up nearly 16% since the 2016 presidential election.
  • Nearly 70% of individuals said that talking about politics on social media with people on the opposite side was often “stressful and frustrating,” compared with 56% in 2016.

Election Interference

Unfortunately, antagonistic state actors have used social media to influence public opinion in the U.S. presidential elections. During the 2016 presidential election, Russia used tactics such as propaganda, troll farms, and bots to leak false news stories and sow disorder.

Companies designed social media platforms to encourage engagement, but while this engagement can help candidates disseminate their messages and reach more voters, it has also been shown to easily enable election misinformation on a global scale.

Navigating Social Media Wisely

As important as it is to keep pressure on companies to monitor and maintain ethical standards for social media platforms, it is crucial to navigate social media wisely as an individual user. People should consider how their social media behavior affects others in their networks and think twice before resharing unverified information.

In Maryville University’s online degree programs, students learn information literacy and practice critical thinking skills, including analyzing and interpreting sources on the web. Maryville is committed to creating a culture of respect and inclusion in person and online, where all students can safely challenge themselves and grow. Discover more about Maryville today.


Forbes, “Meta Will Soon Ban Targeting Ads Based On Sensitive Categories Including Religion And Politics”

The Guardian, “How Beto O’Rourke Became a Texas Sensation Who Could Shape the Future of the Democrats”

Lexington Books, “Communicator-in-Chief: How Barack Obama Used New Media Technology to Win the White House”

Nature, “A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization”

The New York Times, “​​How Parler, a Chosen App of Trump Fans, Became a Test of Free Speech”

OpenSecrets, “Cruz, O’Rourke break spending record”

Pew Research Center, “10 Tech Trends That Shaped the 2010s”

Pew Research Center, “55% of U.S. Social Media Users Say They Are ‘Worn Out’ by Political Posts and Discussions”

Pew Research Center, “The Internet’s Role in Campaign 2008”

Pew Research Center, “Key Findings About Voter Engagement in the 2020 Election”

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “The Echo Chamber Effect on Social Media”

Psychology Today, “How to Get More People to Vote”

USA Today, “Machines on a Mission: How Algorithms Drive Our Political Polarization”

YouGov, “Americans Are Less Likely to Have Friends of Very Different Political Opinions Compared to 2016”

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