Social media affects political decisions – for better or worse, University of Hawaii at Manoa researchers say.

As the election season heats up, it’s important to understand how sites like Facebook and Twitter could be affecting voters’ political opinions. UH researchers from the Hawaii Computer-Human Interaction Lab recently produced a study that looked at how adults born after 1980 make decisions about candidates by using social media.

The group of researchers — Sara Douglas, Roxanne Raine, Misa Maruyama, Bryan Semaan and Scott Robertson — found that posts on social media can change millennials’ stances on issues and the way they feel about how public officials serve the community.

Yet it’s not only the content candidates are posting online, but also how social media sites filter news feeds that could be influencing voters.

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Nearly two-thirds of millennials engage in politics on social media.

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“People who are exposed to political information on social media might be making decisions differently than those reading traditional news,” said Misa Maruyama, a co-author of the study. “People can actually be influenced by what they see on (social media).”

The medium is really the message when it comes to users’ experience with political information on sites like Facebook, Maruyama said.

The study founds to two key conclusions – millennials tend to “bump into” political information instead of actively seeking it, and they’re undeniably influenced by what they see online.

Still, interactions in the real world are also important, most notably, their parents’ political views, the study said.

With the 2016 elections months away, the study could shed light on how social media users can be better informed to make decisions and how candidates might be able to use social media to influence potential voters.

About two-thirds of 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. have used social media to engage in politics. They make up about 25 percent of America’s eligible voters, but have a notoriously low voter turnout, which has been partly blamed on a lack of trust in the political process.

And some millennials engage in politics only on social media. So-called “slacktivists” constitute about 17 percent of social media users in that age group. 

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Social media users, such as friends on Facebook, often share similar political opinions. That can limit what voters see on news feeds.

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But researchers say social media could be the key to increasing young adults’ participation in elections, and more campaigns and candidates are studying how they’re using it to make political decisions.

The UH researchers split 70 students ages 18 to 29 into three groups that viewed coverage of candidates for Mississippi’s governor in 2012. They wanted participants to have no previous knowledge of the campaign issues.

One group viewed only candidates’ Facebook walls and campaign-related news articles, while another saw candidates’ Facebook walls and a speech that was unrelated to the candidate’s’ campaign. The last group only viewed campaign-related news articles.

Researchers found that those who were engaged with social media were more sensitive to public officials’ relationships with the community than those who were not using social media. And, the type of posts they saw affected the way they felt about candidates.

Pictures were one of the main ways users judged candidates’ personalities. For instance, seeing a photograph of a candidate smiling, shaking hands or appearing comfortable with the public in photos was taken as a sign of a public official caring for the community.

The group exposed to social media used the word “community” nearly four times more than the group only exposed to news articles. And some study participants reacted negatively if they didn’t see community-driven posts on candidates’ Facebook feeds.

“We should be aware that we may have some biases,” Maruyama explained. “(This study) can hopefully make voters more aware.”

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Many participants in the study said their parents were the greatest influence on their political opinions.

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The way candidates, or their social media staff, responded to comments also affected opinions of candidates. The tone and grammar used, as well as responsiveness to comments, led study participants to develop feelings about candidates’ intelligence and involvement in communities.

Millennials also tend to be highly influenced by others’ opinions. For instance, posts made by the public on candidates’ Facebook walls were viewed as more reliable than those that came from the candidates themselves.

Another key finding was the fact that some millennials didn’t actively seek political information about candidates — online or otherwise. Instead, they stumbled across information by chance, while scrolling through Facebook feeds or watching the news at their parents’ homes. 

But simply coming across information on social media — instead of seeking it out — can be a problem. 

22 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In her own research, Maruyama is studying how using Twitter might change users’ opinions about development in Kakaako.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Dubbed the “Echo Chamber Effect,” social media users exist in like-minded groups that share similar opinions. As codes behind social media sites become more tailored to the individual, users are more likely to see content that keeps them clicking, rather than being exposed to alternative political viewpoints.

“Most of us have friends that we agree with and share viewpoints with,” said Scott Robertson, a co-author of the study and the head of UH-Manoa’s Hawaii Computer-Human Interaction Lab. “(That’s) good and bad … and it’s important to understand how that works.”

Robertson says social media sites can use this research to develop platforms that expose users to a variety of political viewpoints and issues.

In the near future, however, the UH researchers plan to explore how social media might affect Hawaii residents’ knowledge of local topics, such as development in Kakaako. They also plan to look at how social media users feel about specific issues, like privacy and security.

“It’s a new media landscape, so we should try to understand it,” Robertson said.

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