Having Facebook Friends with Different Views May Increase Political Knowledge
Social networks are a major source of information during presidential campaigns. Facebook, the most popular social networking site, was a source of information for nearly 40 percent of Americans during the 2016 presidential campaign. In a new article published in NCA’s Communication Monographs, Minchul Kim, Yanqin Lu, and Jae Kook Lee examine how network heterogeneity, or differences between people and their Facebook friends, influenced knowledge of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Citizens’ political knowledge is considered essential to a healthy, functioning democracy because it fosters informed participation. Facebook can be a source of political information for people, but the amount and type of information varies among users depending on their social networks. For example, if someone’s friends post about politics infrequently, they will see less political news than someone whose friends frequently post about politics. People’s friends may also differ from them because of demographic characteristics, political beliefs, or other reasons, which may result in exposure to more diverse information sources, such as news from a different political party.
Kim, Lu, and Lee surveyed respondents in two waves during the 2016 presidential election; a total of 503 respondents who replied to both waves between September and November 2016 and indicated that Facebook was their most frequently used social network were included in the analysis. The surveys asked respondents about presidential candidates’ views on particular issues, the extent to which the respondents encountered negative or positive information about different candidates, the key differences between respondents’ Facebook friends and themselves (e.g. political party, gender, religion, or race), and respondents’ general interest in the presidential campaign.
The results showed that people “with a heterogeneous Facebook network were more likely to encounter campaign information,” which was associated with campaign knowledge. Because their friends had different views, these Facebook users were exposed to different kinds of political information. However, the study also found that, by itself, time spent on Facebook was not related to increased campaign knowledge because people may not necessarily be exposed to political information just by using the platform.
People’s interest in campaigns also affected their knowledge. This study showed that people with lower and moderate interest in campaigns benefitted more from heterogenous networks than people with high interest in campaigns. Kim, Lu, and Lee suggest that this may be because people with high campaign interest consume more news in general. Therefore, they may have already encountered some information that they see on Facebook from other sources. In contrast, people with lower interest may not be visiting news sites as frequently and thus may be exposed to information on Facebook that they otherwise would not have seen.
Kim, Lu, and Lee note that because in today’s new media environment, fewer people are consuming news from traditional sources, Facebook’s use as a source of political information is important. They argue that “Facebook has the potential to (in)directly help narrow the political information inequality between the politically attentive and inattentive.” Because of the importance of an informed electorate, they conclude, it becomes critically important to consider the role that Facebook could play in promoting a healthy democracy.