Do Americans put more stock in what they feel they know rather than actual facts? A New Mexico State University communication studies professor’s recently published study shows the influence of social media on public engagement turns the traditional belief about voter participation on its head. The study points to increased political participation by uninformed voters, considered the “dark side” of political participation. It finds uninformed voters can actively engage in politics thinking that they know enough about politics and current affairs. Sangwon Lee, assistant professor in N.M. State University’s communication studies department, is the lead author of a paper published in the September issue of the journal Human Communication Research titled “Rethinking the Virtuous Circle Hypothesis on Social Media: Subjective versus Objective Knowledge and Political Participation.”

“For a long time, scholars have posited that news consumption informs people about politics, which subsequently leads to political participation,” Lee said. “But, in this article, we found that such a ‘virtuous circle’ doesn’t hold anymore in the current social media environment. “Rather, news consumption via social media tends to create a ‘sense of being informed’ rather than actually being informed, which drives political participation. In other words, it is ‘an illusion of knowledge’ that drives political participation.”

Lee’s study drew on data from a national survey of more than 1,500 people conducted during the 2018 U.S. mid-term elections by the polling company Dynata. The company selected survey participants based on gender, age, education and income to closely mimic the U.S. general population. Questions included how often they used various social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Google +, YouTube, Instagram, Reddit and Linked-In to get their news.

They were also asked about their use traditional sources such as national and local newspapers, radio and television broadcasts to get their news information. Researchers gauged the subjects’ objective knowledge by asking a series of factual political questions, then subjects were asked how knowledgeable they think they are about politics. In addition, they were questioned about their extent of participation in political activities ranging from rallies, boycotts or fundraising events to attending public meetings or contacting public officials. “Existing scholarship has always treated political participation as a good thing and important for a functioning democracy,”

Lee said. “Political participation may not always be a good thing as evidenced by the January 6 insurrection. Our study implies that political action can also be driven by inaccurate information.”  Social media algorithms also contribute to the echo chamber of social media that may reinforce currently held opinions, creating an impression that a person is well-informed. Another contributor to this feeling of being knowledgeable is the concept of “News Finds Me Perception,” in which people don’t bother to actively seek out other types of news information because they are already inundated with news from their social media feeds. People believe that they can stay informed through these kinds of exposure.

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