been taking a lot of flak of late, with the revelations that Russian
entities used the social media platform tosow
discord and spread misinformation. But it turns out that's not the
only way Mark Zuckerberg's ubiquitous creation may be harming our
studyreports the more time people spend reading
and sharing news items on Facebook, the poorer they did on a simple test
of foundational facts about our system of government and its key
greater reliance on social media and Facebook specifically for news
might serve to depress knowledge levels," writes a research team led byMichael
Cacciatoreof the University of Georgia. "This
is particularly important given the growth of news sharing and
consumption through social media."
Research Center surveyfound two-thirds of
Americans get at least some of their news through such platforms. Only
20 percent said they did so "often," but that figure was up from 18
percent the year before. This research suggests that may not be a good
study, published in theJournalism
and Mass Communications Quarterly, used data from two
surveys: one featuring 2,806 Americans in late 2011 and early 2012, and
another featuring 3,006 Americans contacted in June of 2010. All were
asked how often they read news stories on Facebook, and how often they
share such stories.
then answered a series of multiple choice questions about politics and
government. For those in the first survey, these included "Who is the
current vice president?," "Who has the final responsibility to determine
whether a law is constitutional or not?," and "Which one of the parties
is more conservative than the other at the national level?" The second
group was asked, among other things, which party held a majority in the
House of Representatives, and to identify Eric Holder (who was then
analysis revealed that, while Facebook use itself failed to predict
political knowledge scores, HOW Facebook users engaged with the platform
was a significant predictor of knowledge," the researchers report.
"Increased use of Facebook for both news consumption and news sharing
purposes was associated with lower political knowledge levels."
reasons for this aren't clear, but the researchers offer some plausible
explanations. The first and most obvious is "selective exposure"—the
notion that "users who rely heavily on Facebook for news purposes are
specifically selecting agreeable information from like-minded
individuals." In other words, their goal is to feel good, not learn new
things—hence their lower level of knowledge.
other possibilities: People who spend a lot of time on Facebook are
spending less time with traditional news sources, and thus missing out
on important information; and social media encourages people to engage
in emotion-laden "hot button" issues, rather than nuts-and-bolts
information about how the government actually operates.
these findings are troubling, Cacciatore and his colleagues offer some
reasons for hope. They note that people who had Facebook accounts for
longer periods of time also tended to have higher levels of political
knowledge. While they could simply be older, it's possible that, "as
people become more familiar with Facebook, they become better equipped
to sift through the vast quantities of data available on the platform,
making knowledge acquisition easier."
But on balance, this research offers more evidence that—asFacebook
itself admittedearlier this year—"social media
can have negative ramifications for democracy." Contributing to the
decline of the republic is quite a price for the pleasure of sharing
vacation photos with your friends.