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Why Do(n’t) We Learn from Social Media? Studying Effects of and Mechanisms Behind Social Media Use on Political Knowledge

Social Media
Electoral Behaviour
Patrick van Erkel
Universiteit Antwerpen
Patrick van Erkel
Universiteit Antwerpen
Peter Van Aelst
Universiteit Antwerpen

Studies investigating the effects of news exposure on different types of political behaviour, such as political participation and electoral behaviour, often assume that these effects occur because citizens who follow the news become better informed. However, while this is an implicit assumption behind a lot of studies, not many have actually tested it. Nevertheless, this assumption is worth investigating as the political information environment is changing rapidly. In particular, since citizens have new channels at their disposal such as social media to follow what is happening in the world around them. This paper investigates to what extent following the news via social media result in more political knowledge, and compares this with knowledge gains via traditional media. Moreover, we distinguish between several types of knowledge such as static political knowledge, the knowledge citizens have about the basic institutional arrangements of a political system, and surveillance political knowledge, more short-term knowledge about the day-to-day politics.
We expect that following political news especially has a positive effect on the latter type of knowledge as this knowledge needs to be constantly monitored and ‘updated’. We also expect that even today traditional news channels are still more important news sources than social media channels. Following the news via social media may even not result in political learning at all, as the filtered media environment may cause citizens to only receive information about topics they are already interested in (the personalized news thesis) or because social media may provide little news, while going at the expense of time spent on traditional media (time displacement hypothesis). We investigate these expectations and potential mechanisms using a longitudinal panel survey in Flanders, consisting of four waves (N=4000 in the first wave) over a period of one and a half year, where we ask citizens several knowledge questions and questions about their media consumption.
First results, based on the first two waves, show support for our expectation that whereas traditional media channels have a positive effect on surveillance political knowledge, there is no positive effect of consuming news via the social media. Moreover, we find first evidence that this is due to time displacement and not due to filter bubbles/personalized news. A finding that is consistent with other studies that show that concerns about filter bubbles on social media are less warranted than often suggested. Using the third and fourth wave (March and May 2019) we will delve deeper in these mechanisms and test whether the same results hold for static political knowledge.
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