Sometimes it seems that Twitter is the Trump campaign’s main way to communicate his message. So it’s hard to believe that this is only the third presidential election since Twitter was launched and since Facebook opened to the public, both in 2006. And it’s only the second since Instagram and Snapchat joined the social-media fray. Already, these online platforms are essential to modern campaigns.
But because social media is so young, political science hasn’t fully explored the political implications of how citizens use it to get news. Research has found that consuming news makes people more likely to vote. In theory, democracy should benefit from the presence of more information sources. But we don’t know yet exactly how social media influences its consumers.
Here are three things to think about as you read your social feed.
1. More and more people rely on social media for news and information.
Younger voters, in particular, increasingly get their news from social media.
According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in January, 35 percent of respondents between ages 18 and 29 said that social media was the “most helpful” source of information about the presidential campaign. For those aged 30 to 49, social media ranked third, behind cable TV and news websites.
Of course, much of the news on Facebook and Twitter comes from traditional news outlets such as CNN and the New York Times.
But clearly, young people find social media especially useful, in part because they can follow news recommended by people in their social networks. A recent study by Eschelon Insights and Hart Research on behalf of BuzzFeed found that adults ages 18 to 49 trust news and political information shared from friends more than news delivered from other sources.
Not surprisingly, social media is less popular among voters 50 and older, according to the Pew survey. Older Americans still depend primarily on television and other traditional news outlets to learn about elections.
2. Despite its growing popularity, social media’s influence on political participation remains unclear.
Some research finds that any effects of online news on political participation – such as voting, advocacy or self-expression – still depend on traditional factors such as how interested in politics someone is to begin with. Other studies find that exposure to information, even for audiences that are not seeking it, can increase political participation, at least online. But research also suggests that the increase occurs mostly among those already interested in news and politics.
On the other hand, some work has found that social media can affect political engagement. A study conducted in Germany, Italy and Britain during the 2014 European Parliament elections found that citizens who were less interested in news and politics became more politically engaged online after coming across news and political information on social media. That included activities such as emailing a political leader, signing an online petition and encouraging friends to vote.
There are differences between the U.S. and European election systems, of course, but this result suggests some connection between social media and political engagement.
Since the voters who rely most heavily on social media for news and information tend to be young, we would expect them to be most influenced to participate in politics, if social media were to have that effect. Historically, youth turnout is lower, and turnout increases with age. One thing that helps increase the likelihood of voting is consuming news and political information. Could increased access to news via social media boost the turnout of younger voters? We don’t yet know.
A common narrative from the 2008 presidential election was that the Obama campaign motivated younger voters through social media. Post-election studies, however, have not consistently been able to verify this speculation.
Not all young people are open to political information in their Facebook feeds. Whether young voters accept political talk on Facebook – which can often get into heated disagreements – depends on their views on conflict in general. One study found that those who avoid conflict tend to dislike political posts. Those who say they enjoy conflict, on the other hand, post political content more frequently. This study concluded that young voters are open to political information on social media only when it is presented in a civil manner.
But political participation may be contagious. A study of 61 million Facebook users during the 2010 midterm elections found that knowing whether your friends had voted made a difference. Turnout by people who saw an “I Voted” message from friends was 0.39 percent more than those who did not receive the message. While that was not a dramatic increase, it did show that social pressure via social media motivates others to vote.
3. Gathering political information via social media brings an increased risk of digesting information from questionable sources.
This is not new to politics. In her 1992 book Dirty Politics: Deception, Distraction and Democracy, Kathleen Hall Jamieson expressed concern about political advertising because voters collect information but forget where it comes from. She compared voters to pack rats, gathering bits and pieces of information here and there, without remembering the sources.
Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, expresses a similar concern. Under what he calls “fast thinking,” we pick up ideas throughout our lives and may not be aware of where they come from. “[D]o you discriminate sufficiently between ‘I read in The New York Times…’ and ‘I heard at the watercooler…’?” Kahneman asks in his book.
In a recent study of whether the news source affects how much people trust the story, one respondent commented, “It’s not that the reputation of the publication did not affect my opinion … but more that I didn’t pay attention to it at all.”
That means social media might make it easier to spread false information and manipulate voters. With social media, we tend to read and quickly digest ideas and views from individuals whom we already consider “friends” or “followers,” mixing them with those from the news media. How well will citizens remember whether they heard a particular idea from Uncle Joe on Facebook or from The Washington Post on Twitter?
Clearly, social media is an exciting new platform for political information, opinion, and even dialogue. But we do not yet know what that means for democracy — especially among the young voters who rely on social media most.
Kevin Curry is the director of integrated media at Linfield College, where he also teaches communication courses. He is completing a doctorate in public affairs and policy at Portland State University’s Hatfield School of Government.
This post is part of a series on youth political engagement organized by the Monkey Cage and CIRCLE, a national research center on youth civic education and engagement that is part of the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University.