In a new paper, a team of researchers looks at the effect of Twitter on the 2015 election in Great Britain. Overall, the news is good: “Twitter use led to higher levels of knowledge about politics and public affairs, as information from news media improved knowledge of politically relevant facts, and messages sent by political parties increased knowledge of party platforms.” But I have to rate this as one of the most unintentionally funny sentences I’ve ever read in a research abstract:
But in a troubling demonstration of campaigns’ ability to manipulate knowledge, messages from the parties also shifted voters’ assessments of the economy and immigration in directions favorable to the parties’ platforms, leaving some voters with beliefs further from the truth at the end of the campaign than they were at its beginning.
Apparently, political parties stretched the truth in an effort to gain votes. Sacre bleu! Politics will never be the same again.
Jokes aside, this paper looks at evidence from 2015, which might as well be the Stone Age in social media terms. For that reason, it’s probably not very relevant to anything going on now. Still, it’s similar to more recent research, which tends to find that social media has a fairly limited effect despite the outsize attention it receives. For the most part, crackpot social media in the US seems to act primarily as an R&D arm of Fox News and conservative talk radio. Stuff swirls around the fringes of Twitter and Parler and Reddit and so forth, and mostly stays there unless one of the big guns picks it up. When that happens, it can take off. But it’s still the big guns that are the gatekeepers of this stuff.