Since its beginning, the Internet’s potential to disseminate information broadly and easily has been hailed as a great democratizing force. Today, this idealist vision has somewhat deteriorated, with some arguing that the Internet creates “echo-chambers” and “filter bubbles” of like-minded people who can choose to only engage with material that agrees with them, and preventing people from being active citizens engaged with the “real world.” The evidence is mixed, suggesting that engagement with online groups and news material has positive correlations with political engagement offline (Smith, 2009), although not necessarily with political knowledge. (Feezell, 2009). But the media landscape is still shifting drastically, and it is hard to see what the overall impacts will be in terms of informing citizens and changing modes of democratic engagement.
A crucial element of this landscape is social media, which directly links social networks and institutional media outlets. In order to better understand the existing theories and data surrounding the influence of social media on political knowledge and engagement, I explore the actual practices of information sharing and consumption surrounding the “news feed”.
The “news feed” is the general terminology for the dashboard or home page of social media sites which displays the content posted by one’s friends (on Facebook) or those one follows (Twitter). Typically this feed is not restricted to “news” in the general media sense, but is the “news” within one’s particular realm of interests or social world. However, big news events will flood even more personal social media channels, a phenomenon that was very visible throughout the course of the 2012 elections. In this section, I consider how the news feed encourages certain practices of production and consumption of news content, and how these practices manifested themselves during the 2012 elections. I also suggest possible implications of these practices for engagement in the democratic process more generally.
Part 1: Facebook
Facebook, unlike Twitter, is characterized by a highly personal and more-or-less closed social network. “Friending” is a mutually approved relationship, and content posted is generally visible only to Friends. On Twitter, anyone may follow you (and you may or may not follow them back), and your Tweets are generally public and searchable even by those without Twitter accounts. This character of the Facebook social network heavily influences practices of posting and updating, as well as practices of consumption and sharing. The news feed is the “hub” of ones’ social network, and so practices are heavily shaped by the structure of the news feed, the nature of one’s social network, and the interaction between these two forces which generates “social norms” of content production and consumption.
For the sake of organization, I have broken down my analysis into practices of “production” and “consumption”. This is a bit of a misleading dichotomy, as one of the central features of new media is the way that it blurs and breaks down the the traditional lines between media production and consumption. My use of these terms is not meant to imply any strong theoretical distinction, but merely to generally organize two main types of practices.
In the context of Facebook, I use the phrase “production” particularly loosely. In the most general sense, this refers to the act of posting a status update or otherwise sharing content that gets published into the news feed. Since I am focusing on the production of news content here, ironically most of this content is not originally produced by the poster, but simply being taken from its original source and reposted in the context of Facebook, perhaps with some additional commentary. Occasionally, individuals may produce their own news content, such as a blog post or some other piece of citizen journalism, but this is relatively rare on Facebook. This productive practice is how the majority of news content enters the “news feed” and becomes visibly for the public (or rather, one’s personal public.)
As mentioned, the Facebook news feed revolves around networks of “friends”, which generally consist of friends, family, friends of friends/acquaintances. Compared to many other online contexts, Facebook’s network is a highly personal one, and the content posted tends to be personal in nature. Everyday experiences are the emphasis here; photos of children, of vacations, anecdotes about waiting in line for Starbucks, quotes from favorite songs, etc. In keeping with this, much of the content shared is that which is most intimately connected with everyday lives. A recent study explored the patterns of content posted on Facebook, and found that sports, art, and entertainment were the dominating topic, making up 40% of all posts. Current events made of 15%, and politics just 9% (Baresch, 2011).
It seems that many people often do not feel comfortable posting about politics, evidenced by frequent prefacing of political posts with “I normally don’t like to post political things on Facebook but…”. Others outright decry the existence of political debate in their newsfeeds, threatening to defriend anyone who participates, and even spurring the invention of a program which can filter all political content from your news feed. Perhaps this taboo attitude towards political content reflects an expectation that Facebook is a space for leisure activity, and people do not want this sanctuary of private existence to be invaded by “the issues.”1 This is perhaps particularly true during election season, when we all came to sympathize with this now virally famous little girl.
Apart from this expectation of political asylum, so to speak, productive practices are also determined by the structure and character of the news feed itself. Some individuals may chose to share political content via directly messaging friends, or on existing political pages or groups, because these are places where political posts are expected. But to post on the news feed via status update is to publicly address a fairly substantial chunk of one’s entire social sphere. This, in itself, is a kind of a radical practice, as it is essentially using the news feed as a virtual soapbox. In this light, the taboo against posting political content directly into the news feed may simply be an extension of the existing taboo against soap boxing, and the practice of avoiding the topics of politics, sex, or religion in general company.
Of course, not everyone subscribes to this taboo. Particularly during elections, Facebook becomes a media platform for pushing political agendas and general grandstanding. Posters change their profile pictures to pictures of their favorite candidate, and making absurd claims about moving to Canada if the other candidate wins. This election cycle, we saw coverage of the incredibly racist Tweets posted publicly about Obama’s re-election, suggesting that many people are not inhibited from posting contentious political statements on social media. But this basic voicing of opinion via social media is not really of interest here; it does not seem that the introduction of social media has changed this practice radically, except perhaps to make it easier and more public. What is more intriguing is the ability of social media to actually change the nature and practices surrounding individual political speech by linking it directly to news media and institutional authority.
In general, the content of Facebook posts can be reasonably compared to water cooler conversation. Politics is generally avoided as too heavy and involved a topic for a 5-minute coffee break with a co-worker. When it does come up- as is nearly unavoidable during election season- the tone is often light and humorous, and deals with peripheral stories like “What did you do for election night?”, or “Did you see that SNL skit?”, etc. Or for a more familiar colleague, perhaps a jab at their candidate of choice: “Does your wife know you’re voting for Mitt?”. On Facebook, these get converted to sharing jokes and memes and video of SNL skits, broadcasting the drinking game you are playing to the debates, and sharing an article about the Republican representative from Georgia who compared women to farm animals.
Additionally, like on a Facebook news feed, news about polling stats or the details of Romney’s proposed medicare plan do not have a place at the water cooler. The “news” that makes it here is the kind of sensational content that gets used in political ads and talked about on “The View”; reports about the release of Romney’s taxes, or Obama’s public backing of gay marriage, or Clint Eastwood’s speech at the RNC. Despite all these similarities, the Facebook news feed does have one main difference that gives it a different kind of political atmosphere than the water cooler: the ability to hyperlink.
The ability to easily access and share news was the central feature which caused people to have such high hopes for the Internet as a tool for promoting democratic engagement and awareness. But the real influence has turned out to be more complicated than in theory. Ease of communication does not overcome existing social norms and practices…for the most part. Whereas the majority of political news during an election quickly becomes inane and repetitive, there are some things which still are able to touch readers to the quick. Unlike news of a candidate’s latest political gaffe or a cynical skit on SNL, there is a category of content to which people personally respond and are inspired by- including rousing editorials, Michelle’s Obama’s speech at the DNC talking about her husband and family, or a video of Obama telling you (possibly a successful entrepreneur plagued by bureaucratic government) that “you didn’t build that”. It is this kind of content that can persuade a reader to overcome the taboo against posting serious political content.
This is a case where the technological affordances of social media actually change practices. Whereas in the past, you may have shown such an article to your spouse, or perhaps emailed it to a few friends, now the ease of clicking the “share” button allows you to spread this rousing political message wide and far. At the water cooler, standing face to face with another co-worker, you may hesitate to corner them with your political message. On Facebook, you are not necessarily addressing anyone in particular, and your audience is free to listen or not as they please. Furthermore, it is much easier to make a political statement when it need not be in your voice at all; to share this content is to simply provide a space for another voice to speak, and for others to listen. This is also a voice that is more authoritative, more informed, more eloquent. In this way, the right content combined with the nature of the news feed can create a new space for meaningful political discourse, even in a fairly hostile environment.
The news feed may not be a good tool for educating people about “the facts”. The general practices of sharing political news described here creates a kind of inverse bell-curve of content, with lots of SNL skits and scandalous headlines at one end, a radical dearth of basic informational news-stories in the middle, and a reappearance at the other end of the spectrum of moving, persuasive political content. What it does seem to do is make it easier for individuals to voice their political opinions even to a large and potentially hostile audience, and to give that voice more power and authority by literally linking it to the more authoritative and powerful voices of institutional media.
There is one other “outlier” which is not addressed by this description of political news postings online: the “real time” response and commentary on ongoing events. This kind of practice is more widespread on Twitter, which is much more news-oriented and devoted to the hyper-current, but in the case of huge media spectacles will also be apparent on Facebook. Recent examples of this include the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the 2012 Olympics. The three debates, as well as election day itself also spawned this kind of engagement on Facebook. These posts generally fall on the left side of the spectrum described above, being largely politically superficial and joking. This kind of coverage does not differ substantially from the kind of posts produced during the Olympics, with even the “political” statements being a reformulation of “Go America” to “Go Obama” or “Go Romney”. The political value of this practice does not come from the content, but from the gross effect of individuals displaying their engagement with an event. Combined with the social capital of Facebook’s social network, it seems that this would be a powerful motivator to engage for those who may otherwise be tuned out of these events.
Apart from effecting a kind of peer-pressure towards engagement with political events, this shared experience also offers interesting potential for a more participatory kind of engagement. Whereas much content posted on Facebook is specific to a certain experience and thus inaccessible to a large portion of the network, this unifying event provides a focus of conversation and discussion. Furthermore, these particular events carry the weight and seriousness of “civic duty”, making them more appropriate and available for discussion than an event like the Olympics.
This kind of moment, which uses social mechanisms to encourage engagement with political events and fellow citizens, suggests the way that social media truly does encourage and facilitate democratic participation. Yet, this positive effect is tempered by the evidence that these kind of influential events also may inflate social capital by the circulation of huge quantities of low-quality content. The evidence of this effect can be seen in people posting comments such as “Obligatory voting status”, or other “mock the vote” type statements. These can be directed either at other users, or at the process more generally.
In summary, this type of live political spectacle recreated on the Facebook newsfeed seems to be enticing to some, but to others, it only enhances their cynicism about the democratic process. I will return to this idea later to consider specifically how this phenomenon may effect political mobilization or voter turnout.
There is a good amount of existing literature on social media as a news source- however the majority of it deals with Twitter rather than Facebook.(Mitchell, 2012). Whereas Twitter is a platform that combines social media and news media, Facebook use is largely dedicated to social networking. Yet I want to argue that it is precisely this characteristic that makes Facebook a subtly powerful source for news content.
As I’ve already described, Facebook’s network is very personal. Of course, many point out that the term “Facebook ‘friend’” is a bit of a misnomer, since our networks are often comprised in the most part by people we would not necessarily call a friend, but simply “people we know”. Yet in the context of online networks, to know someone from a physical context such as school, work, or living in the same neighborhood constitutes a relatively strong tie. This network of strong ties thus exerts a relatively strong control over our behavior. When considering news media, Facebook may not have a lot of good content, or even really any large amount of content at all, but what does appear here has a much stronger influence on our attention. This may be described as a “social filtering” of news media.
This filter is particularly valuable in the case of election coverage, since the coverage is so extensive that it becomes hard to discern what is meaningful. As described above, this filter also tends to block “horserace” coverage, and stick to more entertaining or personally powerful content, which is more likely to be interesting to a general audience as well. Apart from filtering by content type, Facebook also has an advantage over other news sites and even Twitter in that news content is contextualized on a personal level. Reading news content posted on Facebook does not just make me a more informed citizen- it makes me a more informed friend. In this sense, Facebook is a filter not just in terms of what content gets posted, but in terms of how that content is viewed and consumed. News consumption practices thus become entwined with social practices more generally.
Of course, this may add even more layers of bias and distortion to news consumption, but I would argue that this is to a certain extent unavoidable, and that ultimately this distortion is also what makes the news more intimate, and more meaningful personally. This drawing down of political news and affairs into a context of everyday sociality and existence, rather than a distant, obscure spectacle seems to speak powerfully to the ability of social media like Facebook to make civic and political engagement a feature of our everyday lives. Indeed, Zuniga et al. (2012) conducted a study which shows that “seeking information via social network sites is a positive and signiﬁcant predictor of people’s social capital and civic and political participatory behaviors, online and ofﬂine.”
Although this study is framed by a context of “information seeking”, I would also suggest that an area for further consideration would be those who are otherwise almost completely disengaged with the news and political processes, and the potential of this social filter to engage individuals who are not explicitly seeking information, and may even be avoiding it to some extent.
Apart from simply consuming content posted on Facebook, users also may comment on, like, and share this content. To publicly comment on an article, a basic practice that only became really possible with online media, is an exercise in participatory journalism. The reader can engage with the material, question it, extend it, and invite dialogue with other readers. This is another feature that can make news posted on Facebook more personally meaningful and engaging for users.
Yet this ability is one that is not always fully utilized; extensive and deep commentary tends to be a practice that is utilized mainly by the already politically committed or the contentious. There is an interesting imbalance in practices of commenting, wherein if posted content is something that you agree with or find informative, you are more likely to simply “share” it and repost it on your news feed, or “like” it. Commenting tends to be reserved for statements of disagreement. This reflects the nature of political coverage generally, which makes disagreement and argument more visible, while points of agreement are left unspoken. This may be a contributing factor in the taboo against political content on Facebook, since what is most apparent are the disagreements, rather than neutral or positive discussion.
Although I have suggested that the news feed has the power to expose people to new information and events, I should note that there is another filter at work which potentially counters this effect. Apart from the obvious fact that you only see content from your “friends”, who are more likely to have similar political opinions than the general population, Facebook itself also filters your news feed based on your strongest ties. This means that you do not even see all of the posts by all of your friends- but rather by a smallish sub-section of the friends whom you interact with the most.
This seems to be something which may amplify the “echo chamber” effect, limiting your exposure to unfamiliar views and perspectives. However, David Weinberger makes the compelling point that in reality, we very rarely deeply engage with things we don’t agree with. In this sense, echo chambers are nothing particular to the Internet, but are more a feature of our own habits of mind. But the “strong tie” seems to be the most promising means to actually get someone to engage with and consider another perspective, and it is these people who dominate our news feeds.
David also suggests that conversation among those who agree is actually essential to democratic engagement and practice. In this sense, perhaps it is unfortunate that agreement on Facebook rarely takes the form of conversation, but instead is communicated via the “like” or a “share”. But then again, when the majority of consumption practices are utterly invisible, perhaps this simple token of agreement still carries meaning of some kind.
In this exploration of practices of news production and consumption via the Facebook news feed, I attempt to show the ways that social media can shape general political awareness and engagement. Although this description is necessarily an over-generalization, and of course different individuals engage in different kinds of media practices for different reasons, I think I have identified a few main effects that hold true somewhat universally.
Perhaps the most obvious effect is the intertwining of the political realm with the social realm. In terms of production practices, users may voice their personal political opinions via Facebook, but may strengthen the power of these opinions by directly supporting them with more authoritative, institutional voices via hyperlink. Furthermore, the audience is more likely to engage with this news content when it is being “said” by a personal connection. In this way, political news and the social context mutually reinforce each other, strengthening practices of the production and consumption of political news.
Of course, this positive implication is tempered by evidence of the inflation of social capital via excessive postings (especially in the context of the elections), the lack of informational news content, and practices of commenting which encourage political argument while replacing more neutral or affirmative political commentary and discussion with a “like”.
The implications of the Facebook news feed for political awareness and engagement are hard to summarize. In the next section, I conduct a similar exploration of practices surrounding the Twitter news feed, with rather different conclusions. If nothing else, this may help us to understand the hidden complexity underlying claims about the democratic power of “Social media”.
1In this context, it is interesting to consider Murray Edelman’s claim about the political associations of art that deals with private life and contains no explicit political message: “the message, for example, that politics is a relatively trivial concern most of the time, or that it can be an unfortunate intrusion on what people want to do with their lives.” (Edelman, p.50). It seems possible that this taboo on political dialogue could be partially motivated by a Tea Party aesthetic of getting government out of people’s lives…