Steinhardt junior Justin Berkowitz had to miss the first presidential debate between Gov. Mitt Romney and President Obama earlier this month. But he said he was unaffected by not being able to watch the broadcast.
“I was able to keep up with the debate through Facebook,” Berkowitz said. “Just through status updates.”
Many undergraduate students at NYU are experiencing the first presidential election in which they can vote, and they are turning to what people are beginning to utilize for everything: social media. As Facebook posts and tweets abound, how much of the election is determined by social media, and what kind of engagement is being promoted?
Gallatin professor Vasu Varadhan, who specializes in media studies, said even though social media allows for more inter-connectivity among young people, it does not do so on a level that would encourage more informed voting or increase political involvement.
“After the first debate, many posts on Facebook were parodies of Big Bird,” Varadhan said. “Rarely did anyone comment on the details of how each candidate would boost the economic recovery or the inaccuracies in their statements.”
But Gallatin senior Kana Felix said she felt differently about Obama after seeing the president’s playful post on his Tumblr page, which referenced the movie “Mean Girls” and a joke about the debate on Oct. 3.
“The way I have perceived Obama has changed,” Felix said. “It makes him more of a friend to me … it felt like he was reaching out to me as a person … Now he seems more real.”
Although social media engages young people, students are also finding it hard to believe the content they read on sites like Facebook or Twitter.
CAS junior Alison Isaacs, who remains undecided about her vote, has a hard time discerning what to think after viewing the onslaught of opinions, jokes and parodies she finds on sites like YouTube.
“I want to make an informed decision, but I’m depending on the people that are so pro- either candidate, that they’re not telling me anything real,” she said. “Just antagonizing one side.”
Ryan McTernan, a Steinhardt junior, agreed.
“Facebook is extreme,” he said. “There’s no moderate view. There are a lot of uncertified half-truths.”
Varadhan expressed a similar opinion. She said untruths can be masked quickly and rumors can circulate on social media.
“These platforms make it difficult to determine the credibility of the source,” she said.
But as members of the already polarized voting constituency habitually use the Internet, they are not forced to confront opposing opinions very often. After all, the beauty of social media is that people get to choose what they see and do not see.
“Even when given contrary evidence, most people will ignore the findings and stick to their original opinions,” Varadhan said. “Merely hitting the like button on Facebook does not necessarily translate into action. Most Facebook users share friends who tend to be like-minded politically.”
Tisch senior Gwynna Forgham-Thrift gets most of her election news from Twitter and admits that she is not seeing all sides of the story.
“I follow liberal-leaning people. I’ve chosen them,” she said. “I know what I’m getting with them.”
Gallatin senior Eileen Liang, who suspended her Facebook account two years ago, expressed her belief that the interactions young people may have with a candidate on social media represent more of a superficial engagement.
“If you think about it, you go to a rally or see a president speak, that’s a completely different experience than seeing something that the Obama campaign posted on Facebook,” she said. “It’s trying to create a substantial relationship on nothing.”
However, it seems as if most people already know where their vote is going. Changing their mind, on Facebook or otherwise, may hardly be possible. When asked, students agreed that their opinions are rarely changed by status updates they receive on Facebook.
“I think [my opinion] was never drastically changed,” said CAS senior Alyse McGuigan. “I think it would just reinforce things I already believed because I don’t think it’s at the stage where it’s powerful enough to completely change my opinion about something.”
Gallatin sophomore Kasey Connolly described the interaction between candidate and voter as a double-edged sword.
“It helps the candidates reach a wider audience,” Connolly said. “But I really don’t know how many people are actually influenced, I don’t know how positive it is.”
But she said social media can be an effective tool people can use to become more educated.
“Facebook is a vehicle for finding news elsewhere, leading to an article that might change my mind,” Connolly said. “[But] I feel like the status updates are never particularly informative.”
A version of this article appeared in the Friday, Oct. 26 print edition. Grace Whitney is a contributing writer. Email her at [email protected].