Blogs, social networking sites, traditional news, political satire, print news... the list of sources for political information multiplies daily. Because my research examines media and politics in a digital era, this ever-evolving and growing media landscape means that my research is never quite finished. That's a good thing for someone whose job it is to figure out who uses these various sources, why and how they use them, and what effects they have on important indicators of citizenship like voting, participation, and knowledge. But it also means that my research is forever chasing a moving target.
I am often asked what role social networking sites, like Facebook, play in citizens' understanding of, and participation in, politics. After all, Facebook allows its millions of users to talk about politics, share news stories, generate support for issues, and connect with other like-minded individuals in addition to updating a status and posting baby photos. As with all questions related to politics and technology, I usually answer, "Well, it depends."
I recently published a study in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, with my co-authors Carroll Glynn and Michael Huge of the Ohio State University. This research explored one of these new resources for political information -- getting and posting news via Facebook. Previous research demonstrates that online behaviors, like information-seeking, can have a positive effect on offline political behaviors, as well as on other types of news media use. But research had yet to explore the ways in which citizens increasingly access news within social networking sites themselves.
Although social networking sites have primarily been seen as social tools connecting friends and family, news organizations and candidates alike have discovered the value of these sites to make stories go "viral" and get more traffic to their own sites. So users who may have signed up for Facebook primarily to connect with others could inadvertently see news content posted by friends in their network or subscribing to news feeds. The potential result? On one end -- unintended exposure to news and diversity of viewpoints -- and at the other end -- exposure to like-minded viewpoints resulting in an ever increasing cycle of selective exposure. In other words, a virtual public sphere versus echo chambers.
In the case of our research, gender, age, and life satisfaction played a role in predicting the use of Facebook for news purposes (you can read the results here). But since we conducted the study in 2010, an additional 300 million users have added Facebook accounts. Businesses, politicians, candidates, lobbyists -- you name it -- have created and cultivated a presence on Facebook.
So how will social networking sites play a role in this year's general election? Again the answer is, "It depends." It depends on the social and economic context. It depends on individual characteristics and personalities. And to make things more complicated these effects are rooted in place and time, since social networks are a dynamic medium. But perhaps one thing is for sure: social networking sites will certainly play a large role in how citizens share information about the election. And as news organizations adapt their policies and resources to keep up with an increasingly digitally connected world, we may find that social networking sites become a major conduit for news as well as status updates and baby photos.