UKIP leader Nigel Farage poses for a photo May 6 in Ramsgate, England. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

The following is a guest post by New York University political science PhD candidate and graduate student researcher at the NYU Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) laboratory Kevin Munger.

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When U.K. voters go to the polls  May 7, one of the major issues they’ll be thinking about is immigration. A big story in this election is the increased popularity of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP, whose leader Nigel Farage is pictured above) as they have criticized the government for allowing too many immigrants from other E.U. countries and thus allegedly jeopardizing the job prospects of native Britons and undercutting the National Health Service. Indeed, though UKIP has plenty of detractors, surveys indicate that they are the party most trusted to control immigration. UKIP has also been punching above its weight on social media, and were at one point the most talked-about party on social media.

The debate over the effects of social media on politics remains unsettled. While social media is central to how modern campaigns are conducted, and many people use social media to consume political information, there has so far been no evidence produced to show that there has been any increase in voter turnout among young social media users. Another open question is whether social media use makes people more informed, especially about politically contentious information like the number of immigrants to the U.K.

To investigate this question, researchers at the Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) lab at NYU are conducting a survey of social media users in the U.K. in collaboration with YouGov. We asked detailed questions about social media use, along with a number of factual questions, to see how informed different types of social media users are. It is important to note that this sample differs from a nationally representative sample in several ways. In addition to being younger and more educated, the social media sample has systematically different party preferences. In general, they are less likely to identify with the Conservatives, and more likely to support smaller parties, especially UKIP (see the table* at the end of this post for more details).

To find out how much knowledge people have about immigration, we asked them the following question:

Over the past 5 years, has the number of immigrants to the United Kingdom from other E.U. countries been:

  1. Less than 100,000 per year
  2. Between 100,000 and 300,000 per year
  3. Between 300,000 and 500,000 per year
  4. More than 500,000 per year

The correct answer is “3,” between 300,000-500,000 immigrants per year. The most recent government statistics estimate that there was a net long-term migration of 298,000 to the U.K. in the year ending in September 2014, and the net migration to the U.K. has averaged just over 200,000 since 2004.

In general, more social media use — and especially political social media use — is correlated with more knowledge. (An important note: This is only a correlation, and while we are working on establishing a causal impact of social media use on knowledge, none of the analysis in this post does so). One example of the social media use questions we asked is about how often people see political information posted by politicians and political campaigns on Twitter. It turns out that people who see more of this kind of information are likely to answer our immigration question correctly: people who report frequently seeing politicians post information on Twitter were 10 percentage points more likely to know how many people have been immigrating to the UK than were people who report never seeing politicians post information on Twitter.

Seeing more political information posted by politicians is positively correlated with more knowledge about immigration. (Data: NYU Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP)-YouGov British Elections Panel Survey; Figure: Kevin Munger)
Seeing more political information posted by politicians is positively correlated with more knowledge about immigration. (Data: NYU Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP)-YouGov British Elections Panel Survey; Figure: Kevin Munger)

We were also interested if people who identified with UKIP were more knowledgeable about immigration. It’s possible that people who are most concerned about immigration as an issue are also the most informed, but it might also be the case that people who tend to overestimate the magnitude of immigration are likely to think it’s an important issue. Our findings tend to support the first explanation, as people who identified with UKIP are much more likely to answer the question about immigration correctly.

People who identify with UKIP are more likely to know the correct number of immigrants to the United Kingdom. (Data: NYU Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP)-YouGov British Elections Panel Survey; Figure: Kevin Munger)
People who identify with UKIP are more likely to know the correct number of immigrants to the United Kingdom. (Data: NYU Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP)-YouGov British Elections Panel Survey; Figure: Kevin Munger)

However, the positive relationship between knowledge and social media use does not always hold. We asked a number of other factual questions about political topics and added together the number each person got right to create an Accuracy Index. It turns out that people who posted most frequently about politics on Facebook are actually less knowledgeable, according to this measure:

Posting about politics on Facebook is *negatively* correlated with factual knowledge. (Data: NYU Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP)-YouGov British Elections Panel Survey; Figure: Kevin Munger)
Posting about politics on Facebook is *negatively* correlated with factual knowledge. (Data: NYU Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP)-YouGov British Elections Panel Survey; Figure: Kevin Munger)

The relationship also holds for frequency of posting political information on Twitter, though it is not quite as strong:

Posting about politics on Twitter is *negatively* correlated with factual knowledge.
Posting about politics on Twitter is *negatively* correlated with factual knowledge (Data: NYU Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP)-YouGov British Elections Panel Survey; Figure: Kevin Munger).

Opinions about the impact of social media on the political process vary; some people applaud the horizontal networks for sharing information, others decry the potential for echo chambers and the spread of misinformation. The preliminary findings presented here show that the reality is nuanced. People who use social media to get information directly from political actors can learn important political facts, but the most vocal social media users are not necessarily the best informed.

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*The following table shows differences in partisan preferences across our survey of social media users (i.e., the data featured in the above post) and a nationally representative sample:

Partisan preference for respondents in SMaPP-You Gov 2015 British Elections social media users' survey and nationally representative sample.
Partisan preference for respondents in SMaPP-You Gov 2015 British Elections social media users’ survey and nationally representative sample.

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Additional Monkey Cage coverage of 2015 British elections includes:

Personality will affect the British election results, but not the way you think it will…

What would Britain look like under Proportional Representation?

Four key developments to watch in the British election

Moving to the center can be costly for left-wing parties