A new Pew Research Center study has shown that despite the common wisdom that politics and social pleasantries don’t mix very well, political discussion that happens on social media could be changing the minds of many who witness it. In fact, one out of every five people who saw that angry rant or funny political meme you posted on Facebook just might have been convinced by it.
In a recent survey of 4,579 Americans, Pew found that most people who are exposed to political content across their social media feeds react negatively to it. Nearly 40 percent of respondents described themselves as “worn out” by political debates on sites like Twitter and Facebook, and 80 percent of respondents said that when they see political posts they disagree with, they usually choose to ignore them. Meanwhile, 40 percent reported blocking or filtering political content and/or fellow users who posted political content on their feeds; the vast majority said it was because they felt the content was “offensive.”
But that doesn’t mean said political content has no measurable effect on Election Day. In Pew’s study, 20 percent of respondents admitted that they had changed their minds about a political issue or candidate after seeing the issue or candidate discussed on social media.
Example responses provided by Pew revealed shifting views on a variety of topics and social issues, from the Black Lives Matter movement to gun control to LGBTQ rights. According to Pew, one respondent wrote:
Initially, I saw nothing wrong with saying “All lives matter” — because all lives do matter. Through social media I’ve seen many explanations of why that statement is actually dismissive of the current problem of black lives seeming to matter less than others and my views have changed.
Some respondents mentioned reacting to a wide variety of political content they saw on social media, from videos on Reddit to statements written and shared by friends. Of those who said they changed their opinion based on what they read or talked about on social media, many were referring to shifts in their mindset regarding major social issues that are frequently discussed online, like gun control.
However, the majority of respondents who said they changed their opinion reported a specific sequence of events — namely, they went from feeling positively about a specific candidate to feeling negatively about the same candidate. According to Pew, people who said they’d changed their mind about Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump were far more likely to have experienced an increase in negative feelings toward the candidate in question — three times more likely in Clinton’s case, and five times more likely in Trump’s.
Pew also found that “a substantial majority of highly engaged users see social media as angrier, less civil and less respectful than other venues for discussing politics.” In other words, as almost any woman who’s ever tried to have a civil discussion on Twitter can tell you, social media is, to put it mildly, frequently sexist and not very polite. Still, it has become an indispensable tool for politicians and political campaigns, and for good reason: One in four respondents in the Pew survey said they follow political figures on social media, usually those who share their own views.
If social media can change politics, social news feeds are now more important than ever
While some may find it easy to simply avoid certain social media platforms altogether if we want to avoid the political discussions that occur on them, it’s tougher to ignore the implications of these kinds of responses regarding the influential role social media plays in our lives.
For example, Facebook, with 1.8 billion active users, is particularly crucial in its approach to moderating and surfacing political discourse and news. That’s why it’s troubling that the site’s automated newsfeed uses an algorithm that reinforces users’ cultural echo chambers, meaning that big, important news can end up buried while smaller news gets blown out of proportion. If one out of every five social media users are influenced by the political content they see in their feeds, then ideally that content should be accurate, truthful, and reflective of reality.
After all, we live in a world where sometimes not even professional journalists can tell what’s real and what’s satire; it’s even harder when memes, parody, and extremist conspiracy theories are shared among groups of like-minded individuals, often overlapping and sometimes getting disguised as real news and “real” political issues.
Certainly, not all instances of exaggerated or false political claims are as transparent as the Bat Boy tweet above. But given Pew’s findings, it’s not too much of a stretch to envision a world where political discussions on social media make or break a political candidate’s chances — or, at the very least, keep us more isolated in our digital silos than ever.