NMSU researcher explores the ‘dark side’ of social media influence on political participation



Do Americans care more about what we think we know rather than the real facts? A recently published study by a professor of communications studies at New Mexico State University (NMSU) shows that the influence of social media on public engagement is disrupting traditional beliefs about voter participation.

The study highlights an increased political participation of uninformed voters, seen as the “dark side” of political participation. He finds that uninformed voters can actively engage in politics believing that they know enough about politics and current affairs. nmsu

Sangwon Lee, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at NMSU, is the lead author of an article published in the September issue of Human Communication Research entitled “Rethinking the Virtuous Circle Hypothesis on Social Media : subjective versus objective knowledge and political participation ”.

“For a long time, researchers have postulated that the consumption of information informs people about politics, which in turn leads to political participation,” said Lee. “But, in this article, we found that such a ‘virtuous circle’ no longer holds in today’s social media environment. On the contrary, the consumption of information via social media tends to create a “feeling of being informed” rather than being actually informed, which stimulates political participation. In other words, it is “an illusion of knowledge” that motivates political participation. nmsu

Lee’s study drew on data from a national survey of more than 1,500 people in the 2018 U.S. midterm elections by polling firm Dynata. The company selected survey participants based on gender, age, education, and income to closely mimic the general population of the United States.

The questions focused on how often they used various social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Google+, YouTube, Instagram, Reddit, and Linked-In to get their news. They were also asked about their use of traditional sources such as national and local newspapers, radio and television broadcasts to obtain their current information.

Researchers assessed subjects’ objective knowledge by asking a series of evidence-based policy questions, and then subjects were asked how well they thought they knew about the policy. In addition, they were asked about their degree of participation in political activities ranging from rallies, boycotts or fundraising events to attending public meetings or making contact with officials.

“Existing stock exchanges have always viewed political participation as a good thing and important for a functioning democracy,” Lee said. “Political participation may not always be a good thing, as evidenced by the January 6 insurgency. Our study implies that political action can also be motivated by inaccurate information. nmsu

Social media algorithms also contribute to the echo chamber of social media which can reinforce current opinions, creating the impression that a person is knowledgeable. Another contributor to this ‘feeling’ of being informed is the concept of ‘News finds me perception’, in which people don’t bother to actively seek out other types of information because they are already inundated with news from. their social media feeds. People believe they can stay informed through this kind of exposure.

Lee urges the public to diversify their approach to news by including as many news sources as possible, including traditional media, online media, and social media.

“One of the reasons why the results of my study are important is that people should be aware that the more information they consume from social media alone, the more likely they are to be less informed,” said Lee. “If they consume all of their information through social media, they are more likely to act on disinformation.” nmsu

Author: Minerva Baumann – NMSU


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