Maybe social media is good for us after all

During last year’s American election many people became convinced that using social media warped users’ understanding.  Getting news from Twitter or Facebook helped slide us into comfortable bubbles, or heightened hateful rhetoric, or opened us wide to fake news, or maybe a mixture of all of these.

But perhaps the conventional wisdom is wrong.  Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab just released a new study looking at news consumers’ habits, and found the opposite: that the more social media one consumes, the greater the number and diversity of news sources one follows.  “[S]ocial media use is consistently associated with more, and more diverse, news diets“.

How did Richard Fletcher and Rasmus Kleis come to this unpopular conclusion?  They analyzed data from a Reuters/Oxford YouGov survey of users from several nations (Britain, the United States, Germany) looking for connections between users’ descriptions of their sources and social media usage.  “Social media” here seems to mean “Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter”.  The study then built a quick and unremarkable model of the political leanings generally expressed by professional journalism outlets – i.e., Fox News and Sky News tends to the right, while NPR and the Guardian lean to the left.

The authors checked for the number of sources users, well, used.  Fletcher and Nielsen found the more people touched social media, deliberately or accidentally, the greater the number of sources they encountered.

Sources used by different populations

“Incidentally exposed” are people who use social media for non-news purposes, but come across news that way.

News diversity: the study argues that people normally love their bubbles.  “Few people, when left to their own devices, opt for a politically diverse news diet.”  Yet using certain new devices changes that habit:

In the U.S., just 20 percent of those who do not use social media consume news from online brands with left-leaning and right-leaning audiences… However, the figure rises to 37 percent for those incidentally exposed to news on social media, as they see news links posted by people with different views and different patterns of news consumption. 44 percent of those who use social media for news end up using sources from both the left and the right — more than double the number for non-users.

“more than double” the number of people exposed themselves to politically diverse news.  That’s a huge claim for the beneficial results of social media exposure.

The study concludes on an uncomfortable (for many) final note, concerning and gingerly praising social media giants.  Harold Jarche draws our attention to it:

These findings underline that the services offered by powerful platform companies like Facebook and Google, despite what critics fear, may in fact currently contribute to more diverse news diets, rather than narrow filter bubbles. Whether they will still do so after the next algorithm update only they know.

Facebook and Google are helping us become better news consumers?

Obviously there is plenty to challenge in this study.  The YouGov survey may have selected out for social media partisans, who sought to portray their practice in a positive light, and the “accidentally exposed” may have wanted to make themselves look better.  Self-reporting always poses risks.  Being an online survey, it underrepresents the offline population.  Politics is more complex than a two-dimensional line.  There can be large differences between how different social media platforms present news and politics – think of Twitter versus Pinterest, or YouTube versus Instagram.  I’m curious about the difference between usage of rich media (video and audio) versus less computationally and cognitively intensive media (text).  Moreover, the authors don’t address online abuse.

And yet what they describe makes sense to anyone who’s spent time in social media.  Setting aside their source data for the moment, it’s clear that it’s quite easy to follow, read, or subscribe to diverse news and commentary sources through Twitter, Facebook, the blogosphere, YouTube, etc.  Some of us do this deliberately, including myself, or Librarian Angie:

Most readers should also be able to confirm to accidental exposure experience.  How many of you have followed someone on Facebook because of shared interest in folk music, say, and then were surprised to see them share a pro-Trump or anti-Stein meme?  I’m no longer surprised to read political content from people I track for professional reasons: librarians, technologists, university presidents, organization leaders, faculty members, scientists, etc. sharing their political thoughts or online discoveries.  In a different domain, people I follow because they live near me in Vermont will sometimes emit political opinions which I don’t always anticipate – very much like offline daily life for politically minded extroverts like myself.

I pair this study with a March publication from Stanford and Brown researchers.  Levi Boxell, Matthew Gentzkow, and Jesse M. Shapiro looked into connections between demographics and political polarization (pdf).  They found that the oldest populations, the ones least likely to use social media, and the most reliant on older media (especially television), were the most polarized demographic of all.  “We find that the increase in polarization is largest among the groups least likely to use the internet and social media”.

Polarization for those aged 75+ grows by 0.38 index points between 1996 and 2012, and polarization for those aged 65+ grows by 0.32 index points over the same period. Polarization among those aged 18–39 increased by 0.05 index points between 1996 and 2012.

So it’s not social media that’s to blame for our political divides.  I interpret this as making room for tv “news” driving polarization – hardly a surprising idea for anyone who spends five minutes watching either MSNBC or Fox News.  Even if I’m wrong, Boxell et al provide more evidence for social media being neutral, if not benign.

I’m also reminded of Jesse Walker’s 2011 criticism of Eli Pariser’s filter bubble model.  People online like to argue with each other, of course, which means engaging with opposing points of view.  We read the enemy to defy them, and seek out opponents to wrestle.  “Republican and Democratic blogs scour one another for posts they can link and mock; rumbles break out in the comment threads.”  And our political identities are just one segment of our broader identities, which are complex, and can lead us through cyberspace to a variety of sources and communities which might oppose one another.  While we can bubble up (Jesse prefers the verb “cocoon”), we can also make connections beyond the borders of a single meniscus.

This obviously has major implications for digital, information, and media literacy.  To pick one example, our evolving notions of when we support information authorities versus individual judgement shift drastically depending on our view of social media.  If social media makes us obnoxious, less well informed, and cocooned away from important segments of the world, then perhaps we should advocate for a return to 20th-century-style information authorities to improve the situation.  On the other hand, if we use social media in ways that expand our knowledge and improve our political engagement, it’s time to focus efforts on helping individual users use the tools more effectively.

In short, in mid-2017 there seem to be two mutually opposed interpretations of social media’s role in news consumption and society.  Either social media degrades and worsens democratic participation, or it improves our civic life.   Deciding between them seems crucial for anyone interested in digital literacy – or, for that matter, with public life in general.

You may now react to this post through social media via your fiercely guarded bubbles or cocoon-crossing information paths.

(thanks to Jesse Walker)

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2 Responses to Maybe social media is good for us after all

  1. VanessaVaile says:

    fits my news reading patterns too. Degradation or enrichment? Both, depending on individual users and networks. I do like “cocoon crossing paths.” Forking too…

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