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Driving Us Further Apart? The Effect of Exposure to News and Angry User Comments on Social Media on People’s Covid-19 Attitudes

Political Psychology
Internet
Social Media
Communication
Experimental Design
Public Opinion
Jakob Bøggild Johannsen
European University Institute
Jakob Bøggild Johannsen
European University Institute

Abstract

While large parts of the public in most Western countries supported lockdowns and tough restrictions during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, public opinion towards Covid-19 policies has since become more polarized. One of the possible causes of increasing polarization over Covid-19 policy is exposure to news and angry user comments about Covid-19 policy on social media. Drawing on theories of emotional contagion and motivated reasoning, we hypothesize that exposure to news articles about Covid-19 policies presented alongside angry user comments may increase polarization over Covid-19 policies, regardless of whether the news articles and user comments are pro- or counter-attitudinal. To examine this hypothesis, we carried out two online survey experiments, in which we exposed respondents to news articles and user comments (i.e. information) about Covid-19 policies in a simulated Facebook news feed and afterwards measured their attitude towards Covid-19 policies. We randomly varied whether the news articles were pro- or counter-attiudinal and whether the user comment was angry or non-emotional. Our results showed that exposure to pro-attitudinal information made respondents’ Covid-19 attitudes more extreme relative to a control group that was not exposed to any information, whereas exposure to counter-attitudinal information made respondents’ attitudes less extreme relative to the control group. The presence of angry relative to non-emotional user comments did not significantly change the effect of either pro- or counter-attitudinal information, except for respondents living in areas with a high Covid-19 infection rate. In this case, exposure to angry counter-attitudinal information had no effect on respondents’ Covid-19 attitudes. This suggests that when Covid-19 is more threatening and salient, people become more resistant to counter-attitudinal information. Yet, except in this case, our results show that to the extent social media has contributed to increasing polarization over Covid-19, the likely mechanism is exposure to pro-attitudinal information rather than exposure to angry user comments.