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

Release Date: 27 Sep 2021
NMSU researcher explores the ‘dark side’ of social media influence on political participation

Do Americans put more stock in what we feel we know rather than actual facts? A New Mexico State University communication studies professor’s recently published study shows the influence of social media on public engagement turns the traditional belief about voter participation on its head.

The study points to increased political participation by uninformed voters, considered the “dark side” of political participation. It finds uninformed voters can actively engage in politics thinking that they know enough about politics and current affairs.

Sangwon Lee, assistant professor in NMSU’s communication studies department, is the lead author of a paper published in the September issue of the journal Human Communication Research titled “Rethinking the Virtuous Circle Hypothesis on Social Media: Subjective versus Objective Knowledge and Political Participation.”

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

Questions included 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 traditional sources such as national and local newspapers, radio and television broadcasts to get their news information. Researchers gauged the subjects’ objective knowledge by asking a series of factual political questions, then subjects were asked how knowledgeable they think they are about politics. In addition, they were questioned about their extent of participation in political activities ranging from rallies, boycotts or fundraising events to attending public meetings or contacting public officials.

“Existing scholarship has always treated 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 Jan. 6 insurrection. Our study implies that political action can also be driven by inaccurate information.”

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

“One reason my study’s findings are important is that people need to be aware that the more they consume news from social media alone, the more likely they are to be less informed,” said Lee. “If they consume all of their news via social media, they are more vulnerable to act on misinformation.”

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