With all the content posted on her timeline during the 2016 presidential election, Amanda Jordan, an advertising and social media lecturer, decided to look into political misinformation on Facebook and other social media platforms for her master’s thesis.
A few days after the election, as Jordan prepared to defend her 120-page dissertation, she received a notification from Apple News: Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg publicly stated that his platform had a problem. of misinformation.
She got her master’s degree that day, Jordan said.
Six years later, social media has only become more essential in political campaigns and has played an important role in the way its users access information. This year, half of American adults get news at least sometimes from social media, according to the Pew Research Center.
It also served as an entry point for consuming news and augmenting already existing habits.
Biology junior Katelyn Ruehlen said she remembers back in 2009, when social media was just beginning, she turned to watching TV or reading the newspaper. But now, with access to headlines at the click of a mouse, she’s exposed to more news than she was before, and older modalities have taken a back seat.
Although social media has a huge impact on providing readily available information, Jordan said, its downside is that there is no gatekeeper. People can post whatever they want without ramifications.
People with different political views often try to pass on information to family members through shared posts and linked articles without any verification or factual backing, Ruehlen said. These posts are then presented as facts when they are often opinion pieces, forcing people to double-check and cross-check information.
With the amount of access to information today, it is easy for personal biases to get mixed up with
the line of truth, says Ruehlen. It can also take the form of outdated articles presented as new information or taking information out of context to fit into a new narrative. People have to be diligent to make sure they get the right information.
“If people just knew the facts for what they are, and there wasn’t a lot of discussion or picking out certain details and omitting certain things, I feel like it might really help,” she said.
Unlike when Jordan was developing her thesis, she said today political misinformation and social media are huge areas of study, as users may not even realize they are consuming false information.
“You’re going to go to the polls to make your voting decisions based on false information that you think is correct, which is actually probably more dangerous than being misinformed,” Jordan said.
While the platform offers the opportunity to expose users to different perspectives by giving everyone a platform to express themselves, the ability to customize who and what sources they follow creates a situation where people are trapped in a bubble with like-minded others, Ruehlen said. . This may widen the already severe divide between the two dominant ideologies on the American political scene.
Social media algorithms encourage cognitive dissonance, Jordan said. The algorithm shows people content based on the people they follow and the content they interact with, so they will continue to see the same misinformation due to their social media habits indicating their political leanings.
The person then never encounters opposing viewpoints or factual information, Jordan said.
Nyla Ruffin, a sophomore in education, said she gets her news from Apple News or friends’ posts on Snapchat or TikTok and will click on links to read the actual article before coming back back and read the comments section. If it’s something she really cares about or disagrees with, she’ll do her own research and dig deeper, she said.
“I feel like everyone should always check their sources, like going to a higher level or directly where it came from,” Ruffin said.
A study developed by the Harvard Kennedy School in 2020 showed that 71% of pollsters agreed that social media companies should provide factual verifications of politicians’ claims, with 86.9% of Democrats and 56.97% of Republicans agreeing. ‘OK.
People might also consider cross-referencing information on social media with different sources or searching for information by going directly to news source websites instead of relying on social media as the only medium, Ruehlen said.
Jordan said it’s hard to correct misinformation because humans tend to hate admitting they’re wrong due to feelings of vulnerability. For some, it is difficult to deal with information that contradicts what they originally believed, because it means they would have to admit that they believed lies.
“The more polarized an individual is, whether left or right, the more likely you are to consume and then share misinformation,” she said.
Social media is a great opportunity to give people a platform as long as their opinions don’t cross the line into disrespecting others and spreading misinformation, Ruffin said. Those with an extremely popular voice audience need to be very careful about what they say online.
“With elections coming up and things like that, if you don’t do your research, you’ll never know, and you always hear that one voice, that one biased opinion,” she said.
Leaving misinformation aside, Jordan said social media has exposed Gen Z to more information and demographics have used the platform to their advantage for social justice movements. Social issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, would not have happened as strongly, if at all, without social media.
In 2020, Darnella Frazier, 17, pulled out her cell phone to record Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer, kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, 46. The video, originally uploaded to Facebook, sparked international protests against racism and police abuse. In 2022, Chauvin was sentenced to more than 20 years in federal prison.
“Clearly there were other issues around it, and the things that were happening at that time kind of led to the success, but social media played a huge role in that as well as a role huge in the organization,” Jordan said. “That’s how people were able to know when the rallies were happening or where to show up or something like that.”
Social media has the ability to not only provide a space where more voices can be heard, but it also provides control over certain demographics, making it easier for people to recognize and speak out against discrimination, Ruehlen said.
“There are hidden things that end up affecting our daily lives, the way we do things, that we wouldn’t have this information about if we didn’t have [social media] today,” she said.
Sharing private issues on social media has also allowed people to bring in more relevant perspectives on issues that are happening, Jordan said. Before, you might think they were alone with some issues, but social media plays a role in connecting people with similar needs and helping them come together.
People who share information on social media also have a responsibility to ensure that the information is correct. Otherwise, it becomes a phone game and the facts become watered down, Ruehlen said. This can be extremely detrimental to certain communities, such as older generations who are not as technologically capable as their younger counterparts.
People who have used the same news channels or traditional newspapers all their lives have built their trust in this source. When they see those same names on social media, they automatically assume they can trust the attached information, Ruehlen said.
But the risks associated with regulating the platform could outweigh the risks of misinformation.
Ruffin said information regulation will eventually turn a free speech platform into one that only allows for one perspective that everyone must follow.
The growth of social media in political campaigns is widespread. In 2008, Jordan said most candidates don’t use social media, and former President Barack Obama’s campaign was one of the first to use it to its advantage. Now, a campaign must have a social media presence.
Jordan said she’s also seen completely “clean” Gen Z politicians for saying something backward or hypocritical on social media. In the past, these politicians would have gotten away with spreading false information during a debate, but now people can verify their accuracy.
In August, Olivia Julianna, a 19-year-old political activist from Texas, raised more than $2 million for abortion care after directly and indirectly trading blows with Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz on Twitter. The congressman previously said in a speech that overweight and unattractive women need not worry about getting pregnant.
“I think everybody’s kinda tired of the fights and ready to, like, ‘Let’s get some stuff done,'” she said. “You’re starting to notice there’s a bit of a change there. Candidates who share information and try to be as helpful as possible and reach their constituents are starting to see a bit more traction than those who simply use it as a fighting tool.