How has social media effected news consumption and political participation in Western democracies?
Social media is the defining medium of the 21st Century. Defined as “an umbrella term generally applied to web-based services that facilitate some form of social interaction or networking” (Zappavigna, 2012) – it has shaped the way netizens interact and how the general population consumes news.
Since the end of the First World War traditional forms of political participation (such as voting) in the United Kingdom and the United States have gradually declined (Stoker, 2006). However, political participation in itself is much wider than ‘traditional methods’. In terms of giving citizens a voice to talk about – and engage in – politics, social media has revolutionised political participation.
Each generation tends to rely on another medium as its primary source of media. Research from the American Press Institute (API, 2014) shows the majority of Americans across generations now combine a mix of sources and technologies to get their news each week (see graph below).
Both Weiner (1954) and McLuhan (1967) argue the real political implication of media is not the content but the effect. Hence, media should be viewed as ‘social machinery’, as the system of the transmission stabilises the entire social system (Weiner, 1954). McLuhan (1967) argued that, in essence, the medium in which information is presented is more important than the message itself. He described the next medium as “the extension of consciousness” which will encompass “A computer as a research and communication instrument [that] could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organisation, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function and flip it into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind” (Coupland, 2011). This can be observed in use of social media today.
Twitter currently has 320 million active monthly users (About.twitter.com, 2015) and Facebook has 1.55 billion monthly active users (Statista, 2015) and roughly half of twitter and Facebook users get their news from each site (Anderson and Caumont, 2014). In 2012 Facebook adjusted its algorithm to see more relevant and breaking news (Newsroom.fb.com, 2014). It is clear that the introduction of social media has shifted the paradigm of news consumption. There is further evidence to show that younger adults are more likely to discover the news through social media. 13% of those under 30 cite social media as their preferred way to find news (API, 2015).
Of those born between 1981 and 1997, 88% stated they get news from Facebook regularly, and over 50% said they do so daily. Over 70% of this group said their social media feeds were comprised of diverse viewpoints and 73% stated they were often exposed to views different to their own. (API, 2015).
Katz and Lazersfeld (1955) argue that media does not have significant effects in shaping social and political phenomenon, and only has a very narrow, sensitive, conditional effect on people. Instead, beliefs are passed on through ‘opinion leaders’ or their friends (McClung Lee, 1949). In 2015, this can be observed through social media. Zappavigna (2012) describes social media connections as ‘ambient affiliates’. In sharing a news story – or a view on social media, social media users are acting as ‘opinion leaders’. This then trickles down into the community of their ‘ambient affiliations’ and shapes the political interest of their ‘friends’ or ‘followers’. 15% of Americans who accessed news from social media in 2015 said they had ‘high levels’ of trust in what they had read on Facebook (API, 2015). Further, modern research has shown that, as people are exposed to a more diverse media – their political views change and less reflect those of their parents (Patterson, 2014).
Not all social media is alike in purpose. The two most popular sites in most western democracies are Twitter and Facebook (Statista, 2015). Under the McLuhan (1967) school of thought, Twitter can be treated as ‘cold media,’ seen more as a breaking-news source than something to provoke emotion. Facebook can be viewed as ‘hot media’ – something to make the user emotionally invested. Pew Center research (2012) found that Twitter and Facebook function differently from one another. Facebook news users get more news from friends and family and see news they may have got elsewhere (71% of those who follow news links on Facebook also get news from a website or app).
Conversely, for Twitter the news comes primarily from news organisations – and is unique (See below graphs, Mitchell, Rosenstiel and Christian, 2012). The rapid growth of mobile technology is also shaping the way humans engage with news. 78% of smart phone users and 73% of tablet users use their device to get news on a weekly basis, and news consumers state that the growth of technology means its easier to keep up with news now than 5 years ago (API, 2014). It is clear that the way news consumption occurs has changed significantly since the introduction of social media.
Mitchell, Rosenstiel & Christian, 2012 1
Mitchell, Rosenstiel & Christian, 2012 2
Mitchell, Rosenstiel & Christian, 2012 3
The role of traditional media (such as print, television and radio) has been questioned and examined. Most research shows that the definition of news value is largely what the global media see fit to report (Alleyne, 1997). Social media shifts this paradigm two-fold. Social media allows its users to share information they view relevant, while at the same time, allowing them to become ‘citizen journalists’ and spread and break news themselves.
The Arab Spring was the “biggest political upheaval since the collapse of the Soviet Union” (Carvin, 2012). The way it was reported has been described as “a stunning revolution in the way breaking news is reported around the world – and who controls the news. With countless revolutionaries using the Internet as part of their protests, anyone online could gain direct access to the news, moment-by-moment – no filters, no spin, no delay. No longer did media outlets have a monopoly on international reporting. People on Twitter or YouTube could patch directly into the revolution of their choice” (Carvin, 2012, xii). Secondly, social media outlets act as a way for citizens (or netizens) to share content, allow them to act as ‘opinion leaders’ and set news value.
A large percentage of the public believes mainline news media is biased. The majority considers this bias to be against their own viewpoints. However, empirical data shows that the perception of media bias was unrelated to the overall amount of discussion but positively related to the amount of conversation between individuals with a similar viewpoint (Eveland and Shah, 2003). This supports Lazerfeld’s claims about ‘opinion leaders’ that people are more influenced by reading other people who they associate with, over the media itself. On social media, anyone can have a voice. There is significantly less monetary and political interest invested in social media than in traditional media.
Pippa Norris (Stoker, 2006) argues that a free and varied media is essential to the operation of a democratic government. News media can potentially bring varied benefits to democracy, one of which being by providing a civic forum in which to be heard. If a free media can provide a forum in which to hear ‘serious and extended political viewpoints’ (Stoker, 2006) then social media – the freest form of media – should enable democratic engagement.
According to the CLEAR model of political participation (Lowndes, Pratchett and Stoker, 2006), the ‘like to’ element and ‘responded to’ elements comply strongly with use of Twitter and Facebook in order to voice opinions. Stoker et al. argue that it is important to have a sense of attachment that reinforces participation and a clear voice in democracy. Whether this means actively going out and voting or merely voicing an opinion on social media, it is clear that social media is allowing people to engage in politics.
McLuhan described the television as an ‘extension of our central nervous system’ (Kreimer and McLuhan, 1969) his work is based on the theory that it is the medium that is important, not the message (YouTube, 1977).
Norbert Wiener (1948) sees media as a system, which attempts to bring entropy into equilibrium so that the system is sustainable. Weiner’s argument that the physical functioning of an individual is “precisely parallel in their analogous attempts to control entropy through feedback”. This is directly reflected in social media, where users create accounts of themselves, the media they share becoming a direct extension of themselves.
Social media has significantly shifted the manner in which people engage with politics and news consumption. People are more likely to be effected by their peers, and opinion leaders within their community rather than the media itself. Hence, people are engaging in politics – whether negatively or positively – due to the manner of news consumption from social media.
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Zappavigna, M. (2012). The discourse of Twitter and social media. London: Continuum International Pub. Group.
 Defined as a user of the Internet, especially a habitual or keen one.
 C an do – that is, have the resources and knowledge to participate;
L ike to – that is, have a sense of attachment that reinforces participation;
E nabled to – that is, are provided with the opportunity for participation;
A sked to – that is, are mobilised by official bodies or voluntary groups;
R esponded to – that is, see evidence that their views have been considered.