After this election cycle, it appears that social media has become an integral part of our nation’s political process. Politicians and normal citizens alike have used social media to engage with politics, both to connect with voters and to obtain news about candidates and their policies.
During Spring Quarter of 2016, The University of Chicago Democracy Initiative (UCDI) conducted a survey in order to better understand the UChicago undergraduate community’s opinions on politics and social media. The survey explored the ways in which students use social media to both gain information and express viewpoints. It also looked at the ideologies and issues that students most strongly identify with. While the scope of the survey was fairly small, with only 133 responses, the information collected provided some insight into our school’s perception of politics and social media, highlighting the ways in which our engagement can improve.
The Reliability of News
One of the biggest stories to come out of the election cycle this past year was the influx of “fake news” that pervaded Facebook and other social media sites. One such story claimed that the director of the FBI placed a pro-Trump sign in his front yard, while another insisted that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex-ring out of a pizzeria. We posit that these news stories — no matter how seemingly benign or how radical they may be — are harmful to the election process because they obscure reality and focus on pieces of false information.
As a community that is highly active on social media, it is inevitable that we at UChicago will be exposed to such stories. Of those surveyed by UCDI, 78.2% said that social media sites are one of their primary sources of news, falling only slightly behind newspapers (including online publications) at 79.7%. Additionally, 80.1% of those surveyed said that they engage with politics on social media in some way at least once a week.
Most of those surveyed seemed to apply limited credibility to what they read on their feeds. Of those that selected social media as a primary source of news, just over 10% said that they would consider it to be mostly or completely trustworthy while approximately 27% found it to be hardly or not trustworthy at all. The vast majority — the remaining 62% — said that they found it to be somewhat trustworthy. These results seem to indicate that our community at large seems to recognize that social media can be a valuable source of information, but that this information must be approached with caution.
While it appears that the UChicago community possesses a sense of caution toward the reliability of social media sites, one way in which our engagement can improve is by adding a larger variety of news sources. If we aim for a society with informed citizens (as the UCDI does), we believe that information must be obtained from varying sources. When asked about where they get their news, 57.9% of those polled said they seek out only a small number of news sources that contrast with their ideologies, while an additional 7.5% said they only get news from sources of one political ideology. In contrast, only 18.8% said that their news sources are mostly or completely mixed.
Although this election cycle has come to a close, it is important to remember that being an active participant in our democracy does not mean voting for a presidential candidate every four years. Between now and November 2020, countless opportunities for political participation will arise at various different levels. In order for the issues that we most care about to be addressed, it is important that we take advantage of these opportunities as much as possible.
As an example, those surveyed were asked to select the top three issues that they were the most passionate about. Participants were given seventeen policy options — ranging from topics such as immigration to gun control — as well as a write-in option. While the results were fairly scattered, education stood out as the most popular choice by far, with 44.4% participants selecting it.
It should not be a surprise that education that concerns the members of our community. After all, our very presence at this institution indicates that we are passionate about this topic. Education, however, is not something that is controlled solely at the federal level. While federal politics do indeed have a significant impact upon education, state and local governments play an equally important role. In fact, only 8% of financial contributions to education come from the federal government, with the rest coming from non-federal sources.
The UChicago community’s participation in politics does not seem to reflect an awareness of these ideas. Of the 133 participants, only around 40% said they always participate in state elections and only around 26% said that they always participate in local elections. This stood in stark contrast to federal elections, in which over 60% said they always participate. In order for educational policies to be changed or maintained — whatever the case may be — it is important for us to stay involved in politics at both the state and local levels. For example, the next Illinois gubernatorial election will be held in 2018; it is important for those who have the ability to vote in this election ensure that they do so to influence decisions not only in education but in other issues such as reproductive rights.
These numbers were in fact even higher than the reported statistics for the University of Chicago, which the NSLVE voting report puts at 19% participation in midterm elections and 42% in presidential elections.
Although it may sound like a worn-out cliché, we must remember that voting is important, even if it may sometimes feel like our voices do not matter. We must also take the time to contact our representatives and engage with government on all levels both inside and outside the polling booth. Our system of democracy does not function without each and every person taking responsibility and pushing for the issues that matter the most to them to be addressed. Therefore, we at the UCDI hope that between now and the next presidential election, all of you reading this will take the steps necessary to stay politically engaged and shape our country in a positive way.
Like many divisive political issues, campaign finance is a battle of values: freedom versus equality.
Since the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, we’ve seen more money than ever flood elections. Direct contributions to candidates’ campaigns are still limited to $2,700, but “soft money”—indirect spending—took a turn after 2010. The court’s decision stated that corporations and unions can spend unlimited funding on political activities, which often takes the form of issue advertisements, often endorsing certain candidates.
Attempts to limit spending in different ways, such as the 2002 “McCain-Feingold” legislation, have become largely impotent by Supreme Court decisions in 2010 like Citizens United and Speechnow.org v. FEC, which allows unlimited contributions from individuals to organizations that take conduct political activities.
We’re in an era of essentially unlimited spending to try to get candidates elected. Two questions arise: Is this a problem for democracy? If so, how can we fix the system?
In his 2006 book The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform, John Samples, Vice President and Publisher of the libertarian Cato Institute, argues that political spending is protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment as freedom of speech. This is the same reasoning that the Supreme Court has employed in its decisions to disallow campaign finance regulations.
Many who support campaign finance regulations argue that unlimited donations creates corruption. However, the Supreme Court finds no examples of “quid pro quo”—exchanging contributions for political decision-making to favor the donor—and Samples highlights the lack of conclusive research proving any of this kind of corruption.
In his 2011 book Republic, Lost, Lawrence Lessig, 2016 Democratic presidential candidate and Harvard Law professor, argues that unlimited political donations have created a different kind of corruption. Candidates exhibit this kind of corruption by holding large gatherings for wealthy people, with the purpose of raising campaign funds. He also describes the reality of campaigning: it takes a lot of money to do so.
Lessig describes this “dependency” of candidates on wealthy donors as corruption. Oxford Dictionaries defines corruption as “dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power.” Lessig’s argument, therefore, states that our political system—a democratic republic—is dishonest, as the time and access that candidates give to wealthy donors does not reflect the principle that candidates represent all citizens, not just the rich ones. Lessig contends that this causes citizens to lose faith and trust in government.
There isn’t much compelling research that unlimited political spending by individuals, organizations, and corporations concretely harms decision-making by politicians—though many argue that candidates are beholden to corporate interests, as businesses often contribute to and benefit from decisions made by anti-regulation politicians—but it’s easy to see that candidates do rely on large-scale funding to campaign. Just look at the 2016 Presidential race: As of August 1—for those donations that have been disclosed—all major candidates had raised over $10 million, with most having raised over $15 million (and the top three having raised $120 million, $67 million, and $52, respectively).
Lessig is right, that this does seem to create a dependency of candidates on lots of money, which—under the current laws—is most easily raised from wealthy individuals and corporations. However, many believe that political spending is akin to free speech, and that regulating campaign contributions is unconstitutional. So, the state of campaign finance law does seem to distort the “representativeness” of our democracy, but how can we limit freedom of financial expression, constitutionally?
This clash of freedom versus (democratic) equality is reconcilable. The most common solution—which 13 states currently employ, in some fashion—is public campaign financing, which provides candidates campaign funding from government revenue if that candidate raises a certain amount of donations under a certain amount, incentivizing candidates to focus on more individuals, and therefore relatively fewer wealthy individuals.
Solutions like this still allow for freedom of expression through campaign contributions and attempts to improve democratic equality. However, is there enough political will to enact such solutions? And, will some sort of public campaign financing actually solve the problem of dependency on wealthy donors?
Look out for upcoming articles in UCDI’s series about money in politics.
Sam Zacher is a fourth-year in the College studying political science and economics.
The University of Chicago Democracy Initiative (UCDI) is an independent, nonpartisan, student-led organization.