9 Concrete, Specific Things We Actually Know About How Social Media Shape Elections

7. So what remains special about social media is that nonelite users control distribution.

Last month, a team of researchers led by New Mexico State's Ivan Dylko released their study of YouTube videos about the 2008 American Presidential election in the journal New Media & Society. Dylko's team looked at the most popular political videos every month, and those featured on the front News and Politics pages. Then they divided the figures depicted into "elite" and "nonelite" piles: the elite being major parties and media organizations; the nonelite being everybody else.

And what did they find? Check this chart, which looks at the percentage of video content variously featuring, made and posted to YouTube by elites and non-elites (as they defined those two groups):


Elites -- the candidates, but also the broadcast journalists -- dominated as the subject of the videos and as the makers of the videos. But "nonelite" people had posted almost all the videos.

Here's another graph that makes that more clear. This graphs the percentage of footage in each video created by pros:


Most of the videos were mostly made by the journalistic elite. But, in the words of the study, "over one-third of the most popular videos in the sample relied on no traditional media content at all."

The lesson here is nuanced: most political content in the 2008 election concerned candidates and was filmed by network camera crews. Media democratization of the sort predicted by the most radical technofuturists wasn't going on -- but ordinary people controlled what content made it to YouTube, and a non-trivial amount of content was being filmed and posted in its entirety by regular people.

8. Participating more in political discussion online doesn't necessarily increase political knowledge.

In a study published this year in Computers in Human Behavoir, Occidental Colleges's Meredith Conroy looked at how participation in political Facebook groups correlated to offline engagement. That part of her study, alas, only examined undergrads at a single college -- which makes its findings of rather limited use -- but it also contained a whole second part, which analyzed the content of a wider swath of political Facebook groups.

Conroy's team wrote:

Our content analysis indicates that political Facebook group users, in general, often do not share much new information and the information they do share tends to be somewhat inaccurate, incoherent, or not very well supported with evidence. As a forum for people to easily engage and share their opinions, online political groups are beneficial; however, as a forum to learn new political information online political groups are ineffective due in part to low quality wall discussion.

That's more than semi-obvious, right? (Cf. Reddit, as reported by Gawker's Adrian Chen.) But it builds toward a central point:

9. The huge effect social media have in elections, then, is that they allow nonelites to frame and distribute content made by elites. For better or for worse.

This shows up across the board, in study after study. In Dylko's YouTube study of 2008, power came from ordinary people posting and distributing professionally-made videos. The study of Sweden 2010 noted the same. And in this election, the Pew study found that candidate-issued tweets fell or rose based on whether people retweeted them.

The biggest change that can occur, then, is that framing by social media can shift how the professional media itself frames stories. Social media feeds the loop of news judgement. A study of a media scandal in India, written by Maryland professor Kalyani Chadha, found Internet distribution of certain primary sources helped make the corruption they documented into a story in the professional media. And Lei Guo's study of Chinese citizen media in the same journal distilled a number of elements. Citizen media could frame and affect state-controlled media if it created a "turning-point" that could no longer be ignored. Citizen media, in other words, framed the media's telling of a story, which refracted back onto how the media told the story. But in that refraction, elements got lost: a major theme in the Chinese citizen media was individual vs governmnet, and state media didn't convey this.

* * *

Reviewing these few points, I don't have huge answers, but I want to add a few closing thoughts.

The first: Yes, I'm assuming there are certain norms that stretch across the world, that Swedish Twitter use is usefully generalizable to American Twitter use. I do so tripping and bounding over philosophers who think about this stuff full-time, including those who worry that American or Western ethics about society and privacy are coming to dominate "home-grown" ethics in other societies. But I think, given the conclusions above, Sweden is useful enough.

The second is that I keep thinking back to this quote, from Conroy's inquiry into Facebook. It asserts a particularly demanding definition of the term healthy democracy:

The fundamentals of democracy assume a knowledgeable public, one that is capable of representing its own self-interest effectively. A healthy democracy, then, should see tandem movement between political knowledge and political participation. Here we find that while online political group membership is correlated with offline political participation, we do not see an equally significant correlation with levels of political knowledge.

I'm not sure any democracy in history has been that "healthy" or seen participation and knowledge bloom together. But I think that quote's worth meditating on.

Why? Because all these points drive to a question that, for me, seems to be at the heart of how we talk about new media -- or democracy, or politics, or even the Constitution. It's:

How does speech, in some form, affect what happens in the world? 

For a media critic or new media tech-writer, this, I think, is the question. Every inquiry flows from this.

And perhaps (finally) here's an answer -- in the form, of course, of a specific instance. Reviewing all these points, I kept thinking back to the Occupy movement. It was held (sometimes too perfectly) as the pristine embodiment of what social media looked like in the offline world. My editor, Alexis Madrigal, even wrote an algorithmic version of it. The camps have since disbanded, but still, nearly a year after it began, Occupy's shift of how we frame economic issues has remained. Debates about the country's economy mention its inequality in addition to its debt. 

Long after the media and the immediate movement have faded, the frame lives on.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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