Study: Social Media Has Little Impact on User Beliefs

A young man uses a smart phone on Sept. 16, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo)

(CN) – The commonly held narrative regarding social media and the 2016 presidential election is that the platforms were a den of misinformation, breeding fake news and building echo chambers. But a study published Wednesday finds Facebook and Twitter – both the focus of vitriol immediately after the election and since – actually have little influence on how much people believed falsehoods about candidates.

In fact, the researchers say Facebook in particular reduced users’ misperceptions compared to people who only consumed information via other social media platforms.

“Given the amount of attention given to the issue, it may seem surprising that social media doesn’t have a larger impact on Americans’ belief in falsehoods,” said R. Kelly Garrett, author of the study and a communications professor at Ohio State University. “It is an issue that we should be concerned about, but it is not the main driver of why so many people believe false information about issues and candidates.”

Reliance on social media as a source for political information has increased rapidly during the past decade. In 2012, two in five people said they used social media for political purposes, according to the Pew Research Center.

By 2016, more Americans named Facebook as the primary source of election related news than any other site including major news organizations, according to the research.

The research for the study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE dates back to the 2012 election cycle, before the proliferation of the term “fake news.”

In it, researchers asked about 600 study participants to fill out surveys three separate times during the 2012 and 2016 election cycle, which included reporting the frequency of social media consumption and their beliefs in confirmed falsehoods.

The 2012 responses involved misperceptions about candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, including the oft-repeated canard that Obama is a Muslim. Falsehoods about Romney included one that claimed he used taxpayer money to fund abortions while governor of Massachusetts.

Participants were asked to rate their level of belief in the various falsehoods on a five-point scale.

Unsurprisingly, the study found partisans tended to believe falsehoods about candidates representing the opposing party. And while increased use of social media in 2012 reduced the accuracy of participants’ beliefs about Obama, the effect was small: In the most extreme case, someone using social media to get political information had an accuracy score concerning Obama falsehoods almost half a point lower than someone who did not use social media at all.

Regarding Romney, consumption of social media had no effect on participant misperception, likely because the falsehoods concerning Romney were not circulated as widely or frequently and were generally less well known, Garrett said.

For 2016, the study switched from misperceptions about candidates to misperceptions about four campaign issues, including: repealing Obamacare would reduce the national debt; a majority of Muslims support violence against the west; immigrants are more prone to violent crime than U.S. born people; and human activity has no impact on global warming.

The issues were selected by Garrett because of their prevalence on the campaign trail, the extensiveness of media coverage and evidence that Americans were at least occasionally mistaken about them.

Overall, Republicans were more prone to falsehoods around the four issues – not surprising because the Republican campaign strategy involved spreading such falsehoods, Garrett said.

Meanwhile, participants with higher levels of education had more accurate beliefs, the study found.

In a departure from the 2012 study, participants in 2016 were asked to identify which social media platform they used the most. Facebook came out on top, followed by YouTube and Twitter.

Overall, the study found that social media use was not determinative of accuracy of users’ beliefs.

“It is not a huge difference, but it does call into question the conventional wisdom that Facebook had an especially harmful influence on campaign issue beliefs,” Garrett said.

He said the main takeaway from the study is that if Facebook and other social media venues have been unfairly scapegoated for the closely held misperceptions of the American electorate, more work needs to be done to identify the real source of falsehoods.

“We know that Americans hold beliefs that are not accurate, with frightening regularity,” he said. “And if social media aren’t the primary driver of this, we really should invest more energy into finding out what else is going on.”

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