More Evidence Facebook Is Harming Democracy

August 17, 2018

Facebook has turned out to be the perfect platform to spread both Russian propaganda and good old American hate speech. While the social media giant and its competitors have, under public pressure, taken some steps to limit the damage, new research suggests Mark Zuckerberg’s lucrative creation may be harming the American political process in a different way: by perpetuating ignorance.

It reports users of the social media site are, on average, less informed about politics than non-users.

“On balance, the overall impact of social media on political knowledge appears to be negative,” write University of Wisconsin–Madison scholars Sangwon Lee and Michael Xenos. “Political social media use does not have a significant effect on political knowledge, while general social media use has a modestly negative effect.”

The results echo those of a separate study released in May, which used different data but came to similar conclusions. It found “increased use of Facebook for both news consumption and news sharing purposes was associated with lower political knowledge levels.”

The new research, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, featured data from two studies: one conducted during the final days of the 2012 election, which featured 1,149 Americans; and a second conducted during the 2016 campaign, which featured 750 people who were contacted both before and after election day.

“In both studies, we asked a series of factual knowledge questions about respondents’ awareness of issues during the presidential election, and their more general knowledge of the U.S. political system and institutional rules,” the researchers write.

The 2012 study featured six questions on general political knowledge (“Which party is generally more supportive of reducing the size and scope of the federal government?”) and 14 that related to issues specifically discussed in that year’s campaign.

Participants in the 2016 study were similarly asked questions reflecting general knowledge of politics, and specific issues raised in the campaign. When contacted a second time, shortly after the election, they were asked about issues and events that had occurred since they were initially contacted in September.

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