My Dissertation. The Menace of Memes: The Impact of Social Media on Political Apathy: Has the growth of Facebook and Twitter made people more or less engaged in mainstream politics?

This blog is primarily a showcase of my journalistic work, in effect it’s my portfolio. I don’t normally publish my academic work on here. However, a lot of people have asked to read it – so here it is.

I knew I wanted to study something to do with social media – as this has defined generation Y. However my final idea, was a long way from my original proposal.

At times it felt like it would never happen, but alas, I did it and passed with a decent mark.

Bridie Pearson-Jones - bpj1n12 Diss copy
Original proposal

Although I had a full year to write my dissertation. I did it all in under a month, typical student style. Not out of laziness, but more due to disorganisation and spending so much time on media and not academia.

After a heavy few weeks of research and data collection (by that I mean begging my twitter follows to participate in my experiment while listening to copious amounts of Justin Timberlake) I FINALLY had something to write about.

Here is the full 10,000 words.

The Menace of Memes: 

The Impact of Social Media on Political Apathy:  Has the growth of Facebook and Twitter made people more or less engaged in mainstream politics?

10,000 words.

Abstract

This research looks to addresses the research gap around media effects in the 21st Century. In 2016, social media is an intrinsic part of everyday life in Western democracies. This dissertation questions the effect on social media on political apathy.

After exposing 106 healthy adults, to one of two treatments (treatment A: a newspaper clipping, treatment B, a Facebook post with identical informational content to the newspaper clipping), I found that people were 10.45% more likely to vote in a local election after being exposed to a political story on Facebook (p = 0.09), and also more likely to vote if exposed to a political story in a traditional medium such as a newspaper by 9.95% (p = 0.11).

In a general election, those exposed to a political story on Facebook were less likely to vote by 8.95% (p = 0.14), than those who hadn’t read any media.  Those who read a political story in a newspaper were also less likely to vote than the control group by 5.36% (p = 0.27).

Someone who read a political story in a newspaper is 0.46% less likely to vote in a local election than those who read the identical story on Facebook (p = 0.48). Those who read the story in a newspaper are 3.8% more likely to vote in a general election than those who read the identical story on Facebook (p = 0.35).

List of figures and tables

Figure 1: % use of offline vs. online media

Figure 2: How often is news read on social media?

Figure 3: How often is news read in a newspaper?

Figure 4: Has anything you’ve seen on social media made you change your mind on a political issue?

Figure 5: Has something you’ve read in a newspaper made you change your mind on a political issue?

Figure 6: Do you trust the news you read?

Figure 7: What factors most influence the way you vote?

Figure 8: What factor is most likely to change your political view on an issue?

Figure 9: Where do you gather news?

Figure 10: Where origin of the people who like the ‘Donald J Trump’ Facebook page.

Figure 11: General election Turnout since 1945

Figure 12a: Treatment A

Figure 12b: Treatment B

Figure 13: Age of participants

Figure 14: How likely are you to vote in a general election?

Figure 15: Liklihood to engage in activism

Figure 16: Mean number of factors engaged per treatment group

Figure 17: If there was a general election tomorrow, who would you vote for?

Table 1: Number of like and followers on Facebook and Twitter (of US Presidential candidates)

Table 2: How likely are you to vote in a general election?

Table 3: likelihood to engage in activism

Table 4: likelihood to engage in more than one activist activity

Table 5: Hypothesis 1

Table 6: Hypothesis 2

Table 7: Hypothesis 3

Table 8: Hypothesis 4

Table 9: Hypothesis 5

Table 10: Hypothesis 6

Table 11: Hypothesis 7

Table 12: Hypothesis 8

Table 13: Hypothesis 9

List of Social Media Sites

The following social media sites are referred to throughout this dissertation, here they are explained.

Facebook – the largest social media site in the world. It allows users to create profiles, upload photos and video and send messages.

Google + (Google Plus) –  a social networking service where users can upload personal profiles.

Google Hangout – A free video, voice and text calling service which allows users to communicate with multiple people at once.

Instagram  – an online mobile photo, video and social networking service.

LinkedIn –  a business-oriented social networking service, mainly used for professional networking.

Pinterest – a web and mobile application company that operates as a photo-sharing and bookmarking tool.

Periscope- a live video streaming app for mobile devices.

Reddit  –  an entertainment and social news networking service. Users submit content, and up or down vote each other’s content.

Snapchat – a mobile messaging application used to share photos, videos, text, and drawings.

Spotify – digital music service that enables to stream songs.

Twitter – a micro-blogging service, where members write 140 (max) length tweets. 

Vine – a short-form video sharing service where users can upload six-second videos.

Introduction

Social media is “an umbrella term generally applied to web-based services that facilitate some form of social interaction or networking” (Zappavigna, 2012). It is the defining medium of the 21st century, encompassing all traditional media.  This dissertation looks at the manner in which the news paradigm has shifted away from ‘traditional forms’ of media such as TV, radio, magazines and newspapers, to a new digital format, in particular social media, and how this has affected engagement in politics in developed western democracies. I will focus mostly on the UK, with references to other developed democracies with high internet penetration rates.

Engagement in politics is affected by two major factors, anger and apathy. The way it is measured is complex and contested, but this dissertation looks at both traditional civic forms, such as voting, and anti-political engagement such as political activism, signing petitions, and taking part in protests.

Politics is the process of collective decision-making (Stoker, 2006) and the majority of citizens engage in politics through the media. Society, and therefore politics, is created and sustained through communication. Without a continuous exchange of information both would be impossible (Hague and Harrop, 2016, page 111).

The rise of social media in recent years has made interaction with news more horizontal. The relationship between the audience and news provider is less formalised. The rise of user-generated content has caused everyday citizens to become both news providers and the audience.

Western democracies are saturated by news in many forms. In the UK, the average adult spends two hours a day social networking (Mander, 2015). Facebook and Twitter are in the top ten most-used websites in the world and amongst the fastest growing (Alexa, 2016). When Twitter was founded in 2007, an average of just 5,000 tweets were sent a day (Zappavigna, 2012). In 2016 there are over 7,000 tweets sent per second (Internetlivestats.com, 2016).

This paper proposes that the growth of social media is positively correlated to disillusion towards mainstream politics, but more engagement in non-parliamentary political activities – such as protest and activism – leading to lower voter turnout. This was tested using an online experiment of 106 UK adults, each exposed to a different trigger related to social media or newspapers.

Existing research indicates that generally more time is spent on online media than offline. Global Web Index conducted a study of 32,000 netizens (Warc, 2013). It showed consumers spent an average of 10.7 hours a day using all forms of media, with an average of 5.6 hours using digital media.

Figure 1 

Figure 1

106 voting-age participants were given one of three triggers: –

Treatment A:  A newspaper clipping The Independent (2016) newspaper titled “Students can expect to pay £10,000 tuition fees” (Figure 11).

Treatment B: A screenshot of a Facebook post, from the Independent’s Facebook page titled “Sorry, students, but you’ll be paying £10,000 in fees soon” (Figure 12).

Control group: no trigger was given.

Accompanied with both treatment A and B was the text, “Five figure tuition fees will be the norm by the end of the decade, with most universities expected to charge students £10,00 a year, according to a major report published today.” (Garner, 2015)

The participants were then asked the following questions: –

How important do you think it is to vote in a general election?

How important do you think it is to vote in a local election?

Do you ever participate in non-parliamentary political action – such as signing petitions or protests?

Their answers were then graded from zero to five, and a mean of these figures was taken. There were also a number of other questions asked before the control on media effects and political participation.

With these results, I tested the following nine hypotheses: –

Reading a political story on Facebook makes people less likely to vote in a general election.

Reading a political story on Facebook makes people less likely to vote in a local election.

Reading a political story on Facebook makes people more likely to engage in anti-politics.

Reading a political story in a newspaper makes people more likely to vote in a general election.

Reading a political story in a newspaper makes people more likely to vote in a local election.

Reading a political story in a newspaper makes people less likely to engage in anti-politics.

Reading a political story in a newspaper makes people less likely to engage in anti-politics. 

Reading a political story on Facebook is less likely to drive people to vote in a local election reading a political story in a newspaper. 

Facebook users are more likely to engage in anti-politics than newspaper readers.    

The ‘anti-politics’ referred to in hypothesis three, six and nine is defined as at least one of the following: signing petitions, engaging in political discussion online, attending protests, rallies or marches, attending union or activist meetings, writing to or meeting with politicians, attending party political meetings.

I found that users were 10.45% more likely to vote in a local election after being exposed to a political story on Facebook (p = 0.09), and also more likely to vote if exposed to a political story in a traditional medium such as a newspaper by 9.95% (p = 0.11).

In a general election, those exposed to a political story on Facebook were less likely to vote by 8.95% (p = 0.14), than those who hadn’t read any media. Those who read a political story in a newspaper were also less likely to vote than the control group by 5.36% (p = 0.27).

Someone who read a political story in a newspaper is 0.46% less likely to vote in a local election than those who read the identical story on Facebook (p = 0.48). Those who read the story in a newspaper are 3.8% more likely to vote in a general election than those who read the identical story on Facebook (p = 0.35).

Unlike other media, social media is both passive and active. It allows the user to produce output and remain an observer. Generally, social media is not powered by corporate interests in the same manner as mainstream media. Hence news shared and produced online has different vested interests to news consumed through TV, radio, and newspapers which often has many different commercial interests setting agendas.

In my experiment, I concentrated on Facebook because it is the most-used social network in the UK, with 79% of British people holding accounts (Ugur, 2015). In March 2015, British citizens spent more time on Facebook-owned websites and apps that any other (Edge, 2015).

Of the 106 participants surveyed, only 23.7% said they read news daily in a newspaper or magazine, whereas 77.6% said they read news on social media daily, and 95.9% said they read news from social media at least once a week. Only 60.8% said they read news in a paper at least once a week (see figure 2 and 3).

Figure 2 

Figure 2

Marshall McLuhan broke media into ‘hot’ and ‘cold.’ Hot media extends to a single sense that is low in participation while a cold medium is high in audience participation (McLuhan, 1964, page 25). McLuhan described hot media, such as radio, as having very different effects on the user from a cool medium like the telephone.

Twitter can be seen as a ‘cold media’: looking to break news rather than provoke feeling with Facebook a ‘hot medium’, often with sensationalist headlines looking to provoke emotion. Both Facebook and Twitter are high in participation. News on each medium operates differently. On Facebook, users gather news from family and friends, whereas on Twitter the majority comes from news sites (Duggan and Brenner, 2012).

If the medium is the message (McLuhan, 1964) then viewing a news story on Facebook, Twitter or in traditional media makes a difference to the message received. Benartzi (2015) looked into this in a digital age and discovered that not only does a user think differently on screen, they think differently depending on what type of screen (e.g. tablet, laptop or mobile).

Figure 3 

figure 3

Monthly, there are approximately 320 million active users on Twitter, (About.Twitter.com, 2015) and about 1.55 billion on Facebook (Statista, 2015). Half of these users get their news from one or both of these sites daily (Anderson and Caumont, 2014).

This research addresses the lack of empirical evidence on how 21st Century media – in particular social media – affects political apathy and participation.

Chapter 1: How does new media and traditional media influence the news agenda – and how does this influence participation in politics?

There is extensive research on the effects of classical media on political viewpoints. There is a lack of evidence to suggest the effect of social media has on political participation, in particular Facebook.

Lazarsfeld and Katz (1955) argue that people are more influenced by their peers than the media. Zappavigna (2012) argues that the social web is designed to share information as well as enact relationships. There is little research on how Lazarsfeld and Katz’ ‘two step theory of communication’ theory (1955) applies to social media.

Does the medium have an effect news consumption? This research will find whether or not two media with identical informational content differs in effect on the user’s view of politics and/or political participation.

Factors which cause anger or apathy towards politics are widely discussed and disputed. These are separate factors. Apathy is not equal to anger, however sometimes they present the same results, such as refusing to vote in local and general elections.

 

Stoker’s CLEAR framework (Lowndes, Pratchett, Stoker 2006) is used as a group of five signpost factors that help to engage people in the democratic process – it is used by the Council of Europe (2008) to encourage civic participation.

The CLEAR model breaks political participation down into five measurable factors: Can do, which is having resources and the confidence to use them; like to, a sense of involvement with the public entity that is the focus of engagement; enabled to, which du having the civic infrastructure of groups and umbrella organisations that encourage participation; asked to, which is mobilising people by simply asking for their opinion; and responded to, meaning citizens must feel that they are being listened to in order to participate in the democratic process.

In an age of social media, the can do and responded to factors are perhaps the easiest to create.  Social media gives citizens a platform to speak directly to politicians, and for politicians to respond to them. On the other hand, social media can also have the opposite effect – it can be a place where “netizens” go to voice concerns and anger about politics, which can fuel disengagement in more traditional forms of political participation. People are more influenced by their friends or ‘opinion leaders’, as Lazarsfeld and Katz (1955) argued, and this is fuelled by the emergence of social media.

By sharing a political view (accompanied by a news story) online, social media users act as opinion leaders. In turn, these views trickle down their circle of ‘ambient affiliates’ (Zappavigna, 2012), and help shape that circle’s political interests. At two degrees of separation (friends-of-friends) Facebook users on average reach 156,569 other Facebook users within one ‘post’ – the most influential users could reach nearly 8 million other users in one post alone (Hampton et al, 2012).

Hampton et al. (2012) found that Facebook users who said that they would attend a political meeting or rally were also more likely to have more Facebook friends, and more friends-of-friends. They were also more likely to be added to a group, send more personal messages, and be tagged in more photos. The more politically active a Facebook user, the more active they are on social media, and thus they are effectively opinion leaders.

The study also found that Facebook users are over twice as likely to attend a political meeting, and 78% more likely to try and influence someone’s vote. What the cause and effect are here is unclear. There is not enough evidence to suggest being more socially active on Facebook makes users more politically active in everyday life, or vice versa. However, what matters is that those on Facebook who are politically active, aim to shape the views of their friends and followers.

It is very easy for the average citizen to communicate with the masses online. Social media has transferred power to them, thus communication is horizontal. It has enabled users to share political causes and discuss politics online, influencing one another in a manner that perhaps only traditional media could, before the emergence of Web 2.0. Of those surveyed in this research 59.4% said that they had definitely been influenced politically by something they had seen on social media (see figure 4).

Similarly, 57.7% said something they’d seen on TV made them change their mind on a political issue, and 55.7% said something they’d read in a newspaper changed their mind on a political issue (see Figure 5).

Figure 4 

figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 5

A 2015 study showed that over a third of 18-34 year olds had changed their mind on who to vote for, due to something they had seen on Twitter; meanwhile 47% had changed their mind on an issue, due to something they had seen on Twitter (McMillian, 2015).

As social media recreates dialogues through online interactions, it now rivals traditional media in influencing political outcomes. If used effectively, social media can place political messaging away from the mass media model and into peer-to-peer dialogue.

What is the Role of Traditional Media?

The influence and presence of social media are ever increasing, however, there is still a role for traditional media in Western democracies. In the UK, every Prime Ministerial candidate in a general election since 1979 who was supported by The Sun won (Worrall, 2015).  During the 2015 UK general election, 62% of people claimed the televised leaders’ debates influenced their vote, whereas only 11% said the same for social media (Parsons, 2015).

Traditional media players have become more digitised in recent years. The emergence of news blogs such as Huffington Post becoming part of the mainstream has blurred the lines between traditional media outlets. In the UK, all major newspapers now have an online presence, and some, such as The Independent and Trinity Mirror have created websites aimed at the online community – for example the Independent have indy100.co.uk, a shareable journalism platform aimed to rival Reddit and Upworthy, where users vote stories up or down.  The Independent have also recently launched inews.co.uk, which aims to offer a ‘concise and quality round-up of the key need-to-know stories across Britain’, as well as a news matrix allowing users to see the daily news headlines at a glance (Ponsford, 2016).  The Trinity Mirror, another major player in the UK news market, launched UsVsTh3m, Row Zed, and Ampp3d in 2013. These are described internally as the ‘social content’ part of the website, giving users more of a voice and allowing it to be more interactive (Turvill and Ponsford, 2015).

Other websites, such as Buzzfeed have strong links to its readers, allowing them to create profiles, react, and post articles themselves. On every Buzzfeed article, readers are asked to react with a series of buttons. In 2013, Buzzfeed launched the ‘community’ part of its website, which consists entirely of user-generated content. Buzzfeed is distinct from traditional media, or other news blogs in that it is also a social platform. It approaches social media as not a way to drive traffic to the website, but as stand-alone publishing platforms. As a result of this strategy, Buzzfeed now receives over 5 billion content views a month, across various platforms including Facebook and Snapchat (Mohan, 2015). The lines between the old and new media are blurring.

Online media is now saturated by news-blogs and companies that are exclusively web-based: The Huffington Post is the 4th most-read news website in the world (10,000,000 unique visitors in January 2016), and Buzzfeed is the seventh most read (7,799,200).
Of the top 50 news sites globally, 14 were exclusively online (Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project, 2015).  In the UK, four of the top 11 websites are social networking sites, and only one is a news site. It is evident that in 2016, social media is an intrinsic part of the way people communicate, and thus, clearly has an effect on how citizens in Western democracies engage in politics.

A free media is a central feature of democracy (Norris, 1997), but developments in technology are not only shaping the way news is consumed – through social media – but also shaping the manner in which traditional news outlets perform. Due to the emergence of 24-hour news programming, there is an increasingly lower quality of news coverage on television, which leads to a mix of reporting and comment (Stoker, 2006).

The manner in which The Independent, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Trinity Mirror, and others allow the user to engage adds to this mix of reporting and comment. The lack of accountability from social media and blogs, and blurred lines between reporting the news and commenting on it creates a confusion around politics, where it becomes a mixture of “facts” and opinions with a lack of sufficient evidence.

This creates a climate in which political discussion is distorted and understanding is obscured, due to a struggle for ratings and a need to make reporting more entertaining.

This is also true for digital media. While news is not the primary purpose of social media, internet blogs add to the stream of combined commentary and information available to people.

When politics appears as a mix of opinions with a lack of strong evidence, it can further isolate people from civic forms of engagement. If a free media can provide a forum in which  ‘serious and extended political viewpoints’ can be heard (Stoker, 2006) then social media – the freest form of media – should enable democratic engagement, but often instead causes anger.

There is a lack of accountability on social media as in most countries it is not bound by the same libel and slander laws as newspapers and broadcasters. Everyday, memes are shared on social media sites are widely assumed to be true. Often, these are shared by hundreds of thousands of people, as fact, despite having no basis in truth.

In April 2016 a story went viral stating that “Now President Obama is encouraging schools to teach the Quran for extra credit, while at the same time, they cannot even talk about the Bible, God, pray, or salute the American Flag.” this was widely shared on social media, despite being entirely fabricated (LaCapria, 2016).

Figure 6 – Do you trust the news you read?

 Figure 6

In July 2015, an image of US Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton in front of the confederate flag went viral, after it was shared by Republican Dinesh D’Souza (Twitter, 2016). Another image of Clinton, this time shaking hands with Osama Bin Laden, was widely circulated online with various different background stories, including that Bin Laden had donated money to Hilary Clinton’s campaign.

The photo was completely fake and actually first emerged online as the result of a Photoshop competition (Mikkelson, 2014).

In 2015 an image went viral on Reddit, with an interaction of over 4000, saying “Reagan’s first trip to Moscow in ’88, KGB Agent Vladimir Putin posing as a tourist” (Reddit, 2015). This image, despite being picked up by major news outlets, was completely fake.

 

A meme of Republican Presidential candidate, Donald Trump saying “If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.” has been widely circulated online since mid-2015, but there has been no confirmed record of him saying this anywhere (LaCapria, 2015).

The research conducted for this paper found that 25% said they are generally trusting of the news they read, and 35% said they never trust it. Only 18% distinguished between sources.

Often these ‘fake viral’ stories are picked up by the mainstream press and widely believed by the public. Bessi (et al., 2015) studied a sample of 1.2 million Facebook users to see how information was consumed on the website. They found that polarised communities emerge around distinct types of content, and many people believe fake news stories.

If media coverage influences how we interpret events beyond those in a particular story (Hague and Harrop, 2016), then the priming of it is important. In an age of misinformation, the effects of a meme are essential. These stories – often related to an individual candidate rather than policy – can often reinforce one’s political ideals.

Research shows that the media strengthens existing positions through selective exposure, rather than changing it to an entirely new position.  In effect, people consume media that support their existing outlook, and interpret information to render consistency to their existing positions, as well as discarding information conflicting with their existing beliefs. Political discussion online that is contrary to one’s viewpoint also motivates others to become more informed with their own opinions (Eveland & Shah, 2004).

In 2013, 5,000 participants (Frenda et al.) in a study were shown four photographs: three real and one digitally altered. The doctored images included Democratic President Obama shaking hands with President Ahmadinejad of Iran, and Republican George Bush holidaying during Hurricane Katrina. Many individuals claimed they remembered seeing the “original” photo, elaborating on the feelings they had at the time of seeing it.

Figure 7: What factors most influence the way you vote?

figure 7

Half the participants falsely remembered that the event happened, and 27% said they saw the events happen on the news. Republican voters were much more likely to claim to remember a fake event reflecting badly on Obama and Democrats were much more likely to claim to remember events reflecting badly on Bush.

People are more vulnerable to exposure to untrue or misleading news – particularly regarding politics – when using social media, compared to traditional media. Further, many believe and share fabricated stories without fact-checking them.

Of those surveyed for this paper, 9% said the media (both digital and traditional) was the biggest effect on their political views, and 15% said the opinion of their peers.

Social media encompasses both the opinion of peers, political discussion and media (see Figure 7). Although 35% claim policy issues as the most influential, it is important to note that this is framed through the media.

Despite the growth of social media, TV remains the most popular way for people to get their news for 85% of UK adults (OfCom, 2015). Of the 106 I surveyed, most said that broadcast media was the biggest factor influencing the way they vote (68.1%). Friends and family were the second and third biggest (61.7% and 57.5% respectively, (Fig. 9).

Figure 8: What factor is most likely to change your political views on an issue?

figure 8

According to the CLEAR model of political participation (Lowndes, Pratchett and Stoker, 2006), the ‘like to’ and ‘responded to’ elements comply strongly with the use of Twitter and Facebook in order to voice opinions. Stoker argues 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, yet this ‘engagement’ often doesn’t encourage civic participation, instead causing anti-political feeling and the propagating of anger in online communities.

Of those surveyed, 49% said they get the majority of their news from online sources, including Facebook, Twitter, news blogs, and apps (Figure 9).  This is the significant proportion of the way citizens gather news, and is clearly shaping the forms of its consumption.

Figure 9: Where do you read/watch/listen to the majority of your news?

figure 9

Chapter 2: Case studies

Four more years: How Obama Revolutionised Campaigning.

Barack Obama has been dubbed the ‘social media president’ (Katz et al., 2013), because he revolutionised both election campaigning and civic engagement during his time in office, through digital resources and social media. In the upcoming 2016 Presidential election, candidates are increasingly reliant on social media as a campaign tool to engage participants. 38% of American adults who use social media use it to promote political causes, and 35% use it to encourage people to vote (Pew Research Center: Internet, Science and Tech, 2015) Thus engaging digitally is a wise move for candidates who want to engage citizens politically.

In order to encourage civic engagement, Obama has done [a] Reddit ‘Ask Me Anything’ session (2012), and used multiple digital mediums, which are powered by vitality in order to promote his causes. For instance, using Buzzfeed video (Gauthier et al, 2016) and Funny or Die’s ‘Between Two Ferns” (Obama et al., 2014) to promote the Affordable Health Care Act (U.S. House of Representatives, 2010). The Obama campaign in 2012 produced 2000 official videos, which were viewed more than 80 million times on YouTube (Pilkington and Michel, 2012). His was the first campaign (and subsequent Presidential term) to understand how to use the internet and digital media to engage the electorate. In 2012, Obama spent 10 times more than his opponent Mitt Romney on digital campaigning. He also received twice as many ‘likes’ to his Facebook page and nearly 20 times as many re-tweets. In 2008, Obama had more than 2 million likes on Facebook, whereas McCain only had 600,000 (Fraser and Dutter, 2008).

Throughout American history, when a President has understood the medium of that time, they have been successful. In the 1960s, John F. Kennedy was the first President to understand how to engage the electorate politically via television. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Thomas Jefferson used newspapers to effectively win the Presidency and in the 1930s Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the manner of political communications via radio. Instead of speaking to citizens, he used radio to talk as a citizen (Hague and Harrop, 2016, page 113).

In the same manner that Kennedy, Roosevelt and Jefferson understood media before him, Obama understands that the internet can be a medium with which to build a brand, and create a sense of connection and engagement with the public. It transfers power into their hands for a quick, direct, and transparent line straight to politicians (Carr, 2008). Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media are interactive platforms. They bridge the gap between mass and personal communication and enable citizens to engage.

The Presidential candidates from 2016 also are also using social media more than ever before. The remaining five candidates collectively have over 40 million ‘likes/followers’ on Facebook and Twitter. Some candidates, such as Democratic front-runner Hilary Clinton, also use other social media platforms. For example, she has over 335,000 followers on LinkedIn, and campaigns on niche social media platforms such as Spotify, Instagram, Pinterest, Periscope and Snapchat.

The Republican frontrunner Donald Trump used Periscope to announce his candidacy, and has used videos throughout his campaign. Trump often uses Instagram, Vine, Twitter and Facebook to post political campaign videos, and holds weekly live-streams on Periscope, and regularly live-tweets events such as the Democratic debates.

Those who have understood social media are the ones who have been most successful so far in the American 2016 Presidential election. Jeb Bush, who was initially the Republican frontrunner and has now dropped out, spent more than 100 times what Donald Trump did on TV adverts (Parkinson, 2015).

pastedGraphic.png

Table 1: Number of Likes and Followers on Facebook and Twitter

It is a fair assumption to make that 2016 is going to be the social media election. To that effort, Facebook is sharing its data with ABC News and Buzzfeed (Gold, 2016). The data gathered from posts will classify sentiments about politicians or issues into ‘positive, negative or neutral’.

The 2015 UK General election

In the run up to the British general election in 2015, dozens of political hashtags trended  on Twitter, yet the majority were anti-political. #StopSocialCleansing #RoadToRuin and #CameronMustGo to all encouraged readers not to vote for a particular party, or at all.

Further, netizens took to Twitter to combat what they described as unfair portrayals of particular candidates in the mainstream media. Through widely trending hashtags such as #WeBackEd and #Milifandom, these tweeters shaped and created their own content, becoming opinion leaders in the process and influencing the electorate hugely.

What is unclear, is whether these trends were reflective of the larger political environment, or were the cause of it.  Despite the rise of Twitter, traditional media still dominated the 2015 general election. During the 3rd April debate, nearly 8 million people watched the leaders on TV, yet only 1.5 million tweets were sent about it (Geary, 2015).

However, there are limitations to how effective social media is in changing political viewpoints, and social media activity does not necessarily translate to electoral success. In 2015 the Labour Party, and Ed Miliband were tweeted about much more frequently, and more positively than any other leader or party (Hobbes, 2015). Further, it’s much easier to click ‘like’ or follow than to actually vote, or engage in politics in a civic manner.

Liking a page does not necessarily translate to supporting it. For example, Donald Trump has the most likes and followers of any American Presidential candidate on both Twitter and Facebook (see Table 1) but only 42% of his followers on Facebook are American (see Fig 10), and many come from developing countries (Brown and Cohen, 2016).

Figure 10: Country of origin of people liking the ‘Donald J. Trump Facebook page 

figure 10

Chapter 3: What causes apathy and anger towards politics?

Since 1945, traditional forms of political participation  – such as voting – have gradually declined in the United Kingdom and other Western democracies. However, political participation in itself is much wider now than it was under  ‘traditional methods’. In terms of giving citizens a platform to talk about and engage in politics, social media has revolutionised political participation.

Figure 11

figure 11

While voter turnout has been on a steady decline in the UK, this does not necessarily indicate apathy. Apathy and anger are different, but often manifest in the same way – such as low voter turnout. In the UK, and US, there is strong evidence to suggest a gradual decrease in people’s faith in the political system, as well as a lesser sense of decision-influencing power  – but interest in politics is up (Pew Center, 2010).

Generally, people are disappointed by politics, but not disinterested.

News media can bring varied benefits to a democracy, one of which is providing a civic forum in which to hear ‘serious and extended political viewpoints’. If a free media forum can do so (Stoker, 2006) then social media – the freest form of media – should enable democratic engagement.  Norris (in Stoker, 2006) argues the news media can potentially bring three benefits to democracy: –

It can provide a civic forum in which to hear serious and extended political viewpoints from all voices in society.

It can be ‘a watchdog to check abuses of civil and political liberties’.

Finally, they should stimulate interest in public and political affairs

Social media easily does one and two as allowing all citizens to hold authorities to account, and engage in political conversation. Yet, whether or not it stimulates interests in public affairs is difficult to measure. When people are frustrated by politics they often take to social media to vent that frustration. This can also involve engagement in things such as signing petitions.

In total, 69% of those surveyed said they engage in unconventional political activity, such as signing petitions or protesting. Thus, as Lazarsfeld argues in his ‘Two step theory of communication‘ (1955) people are more likely to be influenced by friends, and what they say on social media, than by what they read in the mass media.

A large percentage of the public believes mainline news media is biased. The majority consider this bias to be contrary to whatever viewpoints they may hold.

However, empirical data shows that perception of media bias was unrelated to the overall amount of discussion, but instead was positively related to the extent of conversation between individuals with a similar viewpoint (Eveland and Shah, 2003).

This supports Lazarsfeld claims about ‘opinion leaders’ – that people are more influenced by reading the views of other people that they associate themselves with, than by 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 – thus it can act as a forum to engage people politically, but not in civic forms such as voting.

Chapter 4: The Study

This study tested 106 British adults using an online experiment. Approximately a third were given treatment A – a newspaper clipping, a third given treatment B, a Facebook post, and a third were the control group, not exposed to any medium.

Accompanied with both treatment A and B was the text, “Five figure tuition fees will be the norm by the end of the decade, with most universities expected to charge students £10,000 a year, according to a major report published today” (Garner, 2015)(Figs ab)

pastedGraphic.png

Figure 12a – Treatment A ( adapted from Garner, 2015a)

Facebook was chosen because 80% of millennials use Facebook to find news (American Press Institute, 2015) and half of under-35s use Twitter and Facebook to access political news. This has doubled in the last four years (Newman, 2015).

As many of the subjects in this experiment were recruited through social media, many were Facebook friends, and Twitter followers, and the majority were born between 1981 and 1997. Of this demographic, 88% stated that they got news from Facebook regularly, and over 50% said they did so daily (American Press Institute, 2015).

Figure 12b  – Treatment B (adapted from Garner, 2015b)

figure 14

On social media, the effect of age is subverted, while 18-25 year olds are the least likely to vote in the digital realm, they are more engaged (Vaccari, 2013). Facebook is the largest social network in the UK. In April 2015, Facebook had a digital audience of 40.7 million unique visitors in the UK – almost twice the size of Twitter (21.6 million), LinkedIn (20.7 million), and Google+ (20.2 million) (Edge, 2015).

While there is extensive research around the effects of media and social media – in particular the effect that Twitter has on political participation – there is not much existing research on Facebook, and how reading news on Facebook compares to reading it in a newspaper. I also choose to use Facebook as opposed to Twitter or another social medium as it compares the most directly to newspapers. There is not for example, a limit on the length of posts. Furthermore it is the most widely-read site, and a place where the majority of news is picked up by friends or connections, as opposed to news sites.

The story was related to tuition fees. This was chosen as the majority of participants were students, aged 18-25. After running the experiment I discovered this was true, 75.3% of participants were 18-25, and 88.7% were 18-44.

Figure 13 – Age of participants 

figure 13

The headlines shown to groups A and B were different. However they were linked to an identical story presenting the same information. Both were digitally altered to appear as such.  The original image was kept instead of it being digitally altered as to reflect the way the story would be presented on Facebook, and the manner in which social media sensationalises headlines, even though they link to the identical story, and present the exact same information.

After being exposed to the treatment or control, participants were asked the following questions: –

How important do you think it is to vote in a General election?

How important do you think it is to vote in a local election?

Do you ever participate in non-parliamentary political action – such as signing petitions or protests? If yes, please state how.

For questions 1 and 2, participants were given one of the following options: –

Very unimportant

Not important

Somewhat Not Important

Somewhat Important

Important

Very Important

The data for question 1 and 2 was then decoded by giving each response a value from 0-5, with very unimportant given a value of 0 and very important a value of 5. The mean value of each group yielded the following results.

Figure 14

fig 14a

Table 2

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With this data, the following nine hypotheses were tested: –

Reading a political story on Facebook makes people less likely to vote in a general election

Reading a political story on Facebook makes people less likely to vote in a local election

Reading a political story on Facebook makes people more likely to engage in anti-politics

Reading a political story in a newspaper makes people more likely to vote in a general election

Reading a political story in a newspaper makes people more likely to vote in a local election

Reading a political story in a newspaper makes people more likely to engage in anti-politics

Reading a political story in a newspaper makes people more likely to engage in anti-politics

Reading a political story on Facebook is less likely to drive people to vote in a local election reading a political story in a newspaper

Facebook users are more likely to engage in anti-politics than newspaper readers

In a local election, this study found that users were 10.45% more likely to vote after being exposed to a political story on Facebook (p = 0.09), and also more likely to vote if exposed to a political story in a traditional medium such as a newspaper by 9.95% (p = 0.11). These were the most significant results in the study (hypothesis 2 and 6).

However, those exposed to a political story on Facebook were less likely to vote in a general election by 8.95% (p = 0.14), than those who had not read any media. Those who read a political story in a newspaper were also less likely to vote than the control group by 5.36% (p = 0.27) (hypothesis 1 and 4).

Someone who read a political story in a newspaper is marginally less likely to vote by 0.46% in a local election than those who read the identical story on Facebook (p = 0.48). Those who read the story in a newspaper are 3.8% more likely to vote in a general election than those who read the identical story on Facebook (p = 0.35). These were the least significant results (hypothesis 7 and hypothesis 8).

For question 3, there was a blank text box, where respondents had freedom to write their own responses. I then categorised the responses into one or more of the following categories:-

Signing petitions

Engaging on social media discussion or sharing political views online

Attending protests, marches, or rallies

Attending union or activist meetings

Writing to, or meeting with MPs or other politicians

Attending party political meetings

Striking

For the control group, 68.3% said they would do at least one of the above, for the Facebook treatment group, 72.3% said they would do at least one of the above, and for the press treatment group 65.7% said they would engage at least one of the above. Despite Facebook users being 4.99% more likely to engage in at least one anti-political factor than the control group, they are 21% less likely to engage in two or more factors, 6.7% less likely to engage in three or more and 37.8% less likely to engage in four or more factors. However, this did not take into account frequency of each activity, just whether or not the participant would be willing to do it. Overwhelmingly the most common way to engage in anti-politics was signing petitions (62.5%)

(See Table 3 and Figure 14).

Figure 15 – Likelihood to engage in activism.

fig 15

Table 3, likelihood to engage in activism

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Those exposed to a political story via Facebook were 6.85% more likely to engage in at least one form of activism than the control group (p = 0.34). Those exposed to a political story via a newspaper clipping were 4.4% less likely to engage in activism (p= 0.41) than those not exposed to any medium. Those who read the exact same story via Facebook rather than a newspaper were 9.59% (p = 0.1) more likely to engage in anti-politics or activism (hypothesis three, six and nine).

Table 4, mean number of factors engaged in per treatment group

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Figure 16 – Mean number of factors engaged in per treatment group

fig 16

Hypothesis Testing: How Significant are these Results?

As this data is normally distributed, we can use a t-test on the aforementioned nine hypotheses to check the equality of means across the control and treatment groups. All are tested at a 95% confidence level (α  = 0.05).

Hypothesis 1: Reading a political story on Facebook makes people less likely to vote in a general election

Null Hypothesis (H0): Reading a political story on Facebook makes has no effect on voting in a general election. The mean of the control group will be equal to the mean of the Facebook (treatment) group.

Alternative Hypothesis (H1): Reading a political story on Facebook makes people less likely to vote in a general election. The mean of the Facebook (treatment) group will be less than the mean of the control group.

Where X̄1 = the mean of the control group and X̄2 = the mean of the treatment group.

H0: X̄1 = X̄ 2   

H1: X̄1 > X̄ 2  

Table 5

pastedGraphic_4.png

p > α, therefore we fail to reject the null hypothesis.

As 0.14 is more than 0.05, we fail to reject the null hypothesis. There is not sufficient evidence to show that reading a political story on Facebook has an effect on likelihood to vote in a general election, at a 95% confidence level.

Hypothesis 2: Reading a political story on Facebook makes people less likely to vote in a local election.

Null Hypothesis (H0): Reading a political story on Facebook has no effect on voting in a local election. The mean of the control group will be equal to the mean of the Facebook (treatment) group.

Alternative Hypothesis (H1): Reading a political story on Facebook makes people less likely to vote in a local election. The mean of the Facebook (treatment) group will be less than the mean of the control group.

H0: X̄1 = X̄2

H1: X̄1 > X̄2

Table 6

pastedGraphic_5.png

p = 0.09 > 0.05, therefore we fail to reject the null hypothesis. There is not sufficient evidence to show that reading a political story on Facebook has an effect on likelihood to vote in a local election, at a 95% confidence level. However, if we test at a 10% significance level (α  = 0.1), we can reject the null hypothesis, and thus there is significant evidence to suggest makes people more likely to vote in a local election.

Hypothesis 3: Reading a political story on Facebook makes people more likely to engage in anti-politics

Null Hypothesis (H0): Reading a political story on Facebook makes people has no effect on engaging in anti-politics. The mean of the control group will be equal to the mean of the Facebook (treatment) group.

Alternative Hypothesis (H1): Reading a political story on Facebook makes people more likely to engage in anti-politics. The mean of the Facebook (treatment) group will be more than the mean of the control group.

Anti-politics is defined as at least one of the following: signing petitions, engaging in political discussion online, attending protests, rallies or marches, attending union, activist meeting, writing to or meeting with MPs, attending party political meetings.

Table 7

pastedGraphic_6.png

H0: X̄1 = X̄2

H1: X̄1 > X̄2

p = 0.34 > 0.05, therefore we fail to reject the null hypothesis. There is not sufficient evidence to show that reading a political story on Facebook has an effect on engaging in anti-politics at a 95% confidence level.

Hypothesis 4:  Reading a political story in a newspaper makes people more likely to vote in a general election

Null Hypothesis (H0): Reading a political story in a newspaper has no effect on voting in a general election. The mean of the control group will be equal to the mean of the press (treatment) group.

Alternative Hypothesis ( H1): Reading a political story in a newspaper makes people more likely to vote in a general election . The mean of the press (treatment) group will be more than the mean of the control group.

H0: X̄1 = X̄2

H1: X̄1 < X̄2

Table 8

pastedGraphic_7.png

p-value is 0.27 > 0.05, therefore we fail to reject the null hypothesis.  There is not sufficient evidence to show that reading a political story in a newspaper has an effect on likelihood to vote in a local election, at a 95% confidence level.

Hypothesis 5: Reading a political story in a newspaper makes people more likely to vote in a local election

Null Hypothesis (H0): Reading a political story in a newspaper has no effect on voting in a local election. The mean of the control group will be equal to the mean of the newspaper (treatment) group.

Alternative Hypothesis (H1): Reading a political story in a newspaper makes people more likely to vote in a local election. The mean of the newspaper (treatment) group will be more than the mean of the control group.

H0: X̄1 = X̄2

H1: X̄1 < X̄2

Table 9

pastedGraphic_8.png

The p-value is 0.11  > 0.05 therefore we fail to reject the null hypothesis.  There is not sufficient evidence to show that reading a political story in a newspaper has an effect on likelihood to vote in a local election, at a 95% confidence level.

Hypothesis 6: Reading a political story in a newspaper makes people less likely to engage in anti-politics

Null Hypothesis (H0): Reading a political story in a newspaper makes people has no effect on engaging in anti-politics. The mean of the control group will be equal to the mean of the newspaper (treatment) group.

Alternative Hypothesis (H1): Reading a political story in a newspaper makes people less likely to engage in anti-politics. The mean of the newspaper (treatment) group will be less than the mean of the control group.

H0: X̄1 = X̄2

H1: X̄1 > X̄2

Table 10

pastedGraphic_9.png

p= 0.41 > 0.05, therefore we fail to reject the null hypothesis. There is not sufficient evidence to show that reading a political story in a newspaper has an effect on engaging in anti-politics.

Hypothesis 7: Reading a political story on Facebook is less likely to drive people to vote in a general election than reading a political story in a newspaper

Null Hypothesis (H0): Reading a political story on Facebook is no different to reading a political story in a newspaper and will not make people more or less likely to vote in a general election.  The mean of both control groups will be the same.

Alternative Hypothesis (H1):  Reading a political story on Facebook is different to reading a political story in a newspaper and will make people less likely to vote in a general election. The mean of the press treatment group will be more than the mean of the Facebook treatment group.

H0: X̄1 = X̄2

H1: X̄1 > X̄2

pastedGraphic_10.png

Table 11

p-value = 0.35498 > 0.05, therefore we fail to reject the null hypothesis.  There is not sufficient evidence to show that reading a political story in a newspaper has more of an effect on voting in a general election than Facebook.

Hypothesis 8: Reading a political story on Facebook is less likely to drive people to vote in a local election reading a political story in a newspaper

Null Hypothesis (H0): Reading a political story on Facebook is no different to reading a political story in a newspaper and will not make people more or less likely to vote in a local election.  The mean of both control groups will be the same.

Alternative Hypothesis (H1):  Reading a political story on Facebook is different to reading a political story in a newspaper and will make people less likely to vote in a local election. The mean of the press treatment group will be more than the mean of the Facebook treatment group.

H0: X̄1 = X̄2

H1: X̄1 > X̄2

Table 12

pastedGraphic_11.png

The p-value is 0.48 > 0.05, therefore we fail to reject the null hypothesis.  There is not sufficient evidence to show that reading a political story in a newspaper has more of an effect on voting in a local election than Facebook at a 95% confidence level.

Hypothesis 9: Reading a political story in a newspaper makes people less likely to engage in anti-politics than reading a political story on Facebook 

Null Hypothesis ( H0 ): Reading a political story on Facebook as suppose to a newspaper has no effect on engaging in anti-politics. The mean of both treatment groups will be the same.

Alternative Hypothesis ( H1): Reading a political story in a newspaper makes people less likely to engage in anti-politics than reading it on Facebook. The mean of the newspaper group will be less than the mean of the Facebook group.

Table 13

pastedGraphic_12.png

The p-value is 0.19. The result is not significant at p < 0.05. Therefore we fail to reject the null hypothesis, there is not sufficient evidence to suggest that press has an effect over Facebook.

Implications and Limitations 

At a 95% confidence level, none of these values are significant. However, this does not mean that Facebook and Twitter does not makes people more politically active in non-conventional and less active in traditional, civic ways. Simply the experiment may need to refined.

For questions one and two, the scale may be too small, 0-5 is not enough to show a real difference. Secondly, it is not a natural environment. In an ideal world, participants would view an actual newspaper (not a photo of a clipping), and it would be seen over a longer period of time, not just in a one-off brief experiment.

If I had enough participants, I would also have further controls, including a radio and TV broadcast, as well as a tweet. Furthermore my participants were only briefly exposed to these triggers; if time and resources allowed it I would have done the experiment over a longer period of time, and only let participants be vulnerable to one medium, which is very hard to create in the real world.  Finding one medium as a cause that effects political participation is difficult too, as generally social media use or consumption of traditional mediums are not mutually exclusive.

Additionally, as this survey was recruited through social media, the majority of participants were my peers. These people are generally from the same demographic group, students, aged 18-24, and AB social class. This is not a reflection of wider society. It is important to note the age distinction as the biggest factor when looking at patterns of social media use. Factors such as class and gender have a minimal effect.

Further, the partisanship of my demographic is not reflective of wider society. Of the sample, 52% said they would vote Labour, 14% said they would vote Conservative, 11% Liberal democrat, 9% Green, 3% UKIP and 5% for other parties.  According to the most recent opinion poll by YouGov (2016), a better reflection would be Conservative 33%, Labour 34%, Liberal Democrat 6%, UKIP 16%, and Green 3%.

Figure 17 – If there was a general election tomorrow, who would you vote for?

fig 17 

The most significant result was hypothesis 2, ‘reading a political story on Facebook 

makes people less likely to vote in a local election’, followed by hypothesis 5, ‘reading a political story in a newspaper makes people more likely to vote in a local election’. Perhaps the two strongest thesis were related to a local election as local politicians are the easiest to get in touch with for the electorate. In a local election, the candidate is likely to be physically closer via degrees of separation that those in a general election, thus, voters are 10.45% more likely to vote in a local election after being exposed to a  Facebook post as they feel they can have more of a say on social media and reach a local politician more easily than a national one.

The third most significant was hypothesis one, reading a political story on Facebook makes people less likely to vote in a general election, those exposed to a political story on Facebook were less likely to vote by 8.95% (p = 0.14).

Hence, we can say there is significant evidence for hypothesis 1, 2 and 5 at an 85% level of confidence.

Conclusion

The internet, like politics, is a human creation. Democracy is about constraining power and holding authorities accountable; this is something that the internet, as the excellent tool to enable.  Hence Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms work as fantastic tools in fuelling political news online, sharing it and shifting the news paradigm to give everyone a voice. Politics, and its framing are no longer in the hands of a social elite. Facebook and Twitter, though fuelling apathy and anger, can perhaps be best described as creating politically cynical beings. Apathy and anger come from the same disillusionment with the system that cynicism best represents

Traditional media still holds a place however, especially as there is an increasing merge of traditional and social media with social content websites and news blogs becoming part of the mainstream.

The growth of Facebook and Twitter has made people more engaged in mainstream politics. Both platforms allow people to be more engaged in politics, yet this often is not in traditional civic forms, and might even be viewed as ‘anti-politics’. Facebook and Twitter enable people to spread their view about politics to a mass audience, complaints that once would have been shared to a few friends in a social situation are now shared online to a potential audience of millions, where they can be liked and shared. However this is not necessarily an improvement in public attitudes towards politics, it can fuel anger, and lessen engagement in civic forms, such as voting.

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