Q&A  | 

How does social media influence our vote? Pew Research Center

"Social networks use computer algorithms that classify and prioritize posts based on interests."


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The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, content analysis and other data-driven social science research and does not take policy positions. It’s also one of the most highly regarded of its kind worldwide.

The Pew Research Center has shared some of its insights with Digital Future Society on where the public stands as far as technology and democracy are concerned. One thing seems clear: the regular citizen is aware of the manipulation of information on social media and of how this contributes to the radicalisation of political views.

Following your research, does the digital disruption affect democracy?

Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center canvassed technology experts in the summer of 2019 to gain their insights about the potential future effects of people’s use of technology on democracy.

Overall, 979 technology innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers, and activists responded […] About half predict that humans’ use of technology will weaken democracy between now and 2030 due to the speed and scope of reality distortion, the decline of journalism and the impact of surveillance capitalism.

A third expect technology to strengthen democracy as reformers find ways to fight back against info-warriors and chaos.

How does the internet lead to poor political decision making?

“Jonathan Morgan, senior design researcher with the Wikimedia Foundation, described the problem this way: “I’m primarily concerned with three things. 1) The use of social media by interested groups to spread disinformation in a strategic, coordinated fashion with the intent of undermining people’s trust in institutions and/or convincing them to believe things that aren’t true. 2) The role of proprietary, closed platforms run by profit-driven companies in disseminating information to citizens, collecting information from (and about) citizens, and engaging political stakeholder groups. These platforms were not designed to be ‘digital commons,’ are not equally accessible to everyone and are not run for the sake of promoting social welfare or broad-based civic participation. These companies’ profit motives, business models, data-gathering practices, process/procedural opacity and power (and therefore, resilience against regulation undertaken for prosocial purposes) make them poorly suited to promoting democracy. 3) The growing role of surveillance by digital platform owners (and other economic actors that collect and transact digital trace data) as well as by state actors, and the increasing power of machine learning-powered surveillance technologies for capturing and analyzing data, threaten the public’s ability to engage safely and equitably in civic discussions.”


Following your research, is social media a widespread way of staying politically informed worldwide?

Getting news from social media sites is an increasingly common experience. More than half of U.S. adults get news from social media often or sometimes (55%), up from 47% in 2018. About three-in-ten Americans now get news on social media often (28%), up from 20% in 2018.

Facebook is far and away the social media site Americans use most commonly for news. About half (52%) of all U.S. adults get news there. The next most popular social media site for news is YouTube (28% of adults get news there), followed by Twitter (17%) and Instagram (14%). A number of other social media platforms (including LinkedIn, Reddit and Snapchat) have smaller news audiences.

Along with Facebook, Twitter and Reddit stand out as the sites where the highest proportion of users get news – 73% of Facebook’s users do so, as do 71% of Twitter’s and 62% of Reddit’s users. However, because Facebook’s overall pool of users is much larger than those of Twitter or Reddit, far more Americans overall get news on Facebook than on the other two sites

Is the regular citizen aware of the sometimes false or biased nature of the information they see on social media?

Majorities say that social media companies have too much control over the news on their sites, and that the role social media companies play in delivering the news on their sites results in a worse mix of news for users. At the same time, social media is now a part of the news diet of an increasingly large share of the U.S. Population.

The largest social media platforms control the content on their feeds using computer algorithms that rank and prioritize posts and other content tailored to the interests of each user.

These sites allow users to customize these settings, though previous research has found that many Americans feel uncertain about why certain posts appear in their news feed on Facebook specifically. Social media companies have also been public about their efforts to fight both false information and fake accounts on their sites.

While social media companies say these efforts are meant to make the news experience on their sites better for everyone, most Americans think they just make things worse.

Social media companies do have established policies when it comes to publishers, including prioritizing certain news sources, banning or limiting others that produce lower-quality content, and using their monetization policies to discourage particular behaviors.

Has social media increased the risk of foreign countries interfering in a county's election?

According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted July 27-Aug. 2.Three-quarters of U.S. adults say it is very or somewhat likely that Russia or other foreign governments will attempt to influence the presidential election, including 44% who say it is very likely.

Meanwhile, Americans have become less confident that the federal government is making serious efforts to protect U.S. elections from hacking and other technological threats. Since October 2018, the share of Americans who say this has declined from 55% to 47%.

Has the internet become a way to get politically involved?

Younger social media users also are more likely than older users to say social media is important to them in these ways. About six-in-ten (58%) of those ages 18 to 29 say that social media is very or somewhat important for them when getting involved with political and social issues that are important to them. Among older adults, 43% of those 30 to 49 say this, while a smaller share (36%) of those 50 or older say this.

A separate Pew Research Center analysis of tweets found an unprecedented use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Twitter. The hashtag had been used roughly 47.8 million times between May 26 and June 7.

Black and Hispanic social media users (60% and 57%, respectively) are more likely than white users (39%) to say that social media is very or somewhat important to them personally for finding other people who share their views about important issues. There are similar racial gaps when asked about these sites’ personal importance for getting involved with issues they care about or giving them a venue to express their political opinions.