Opinion Change and Learning in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election: Evidence from a Panel Survey Combined with Direct Observation of Social Media Activity

What is the impact of the media and the communication from elites on the opinion of voters? To answer this question, we conduct a multi-wave survey and track Twitter users’ change in opinion over time to issues salient during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.


The role of the media in influencing people’s attitudes and opinions is difficult to demonstrate because media consumption by survey respondents is usually unobserved in datasets containing information on attitudes and vote choice. This paper leverages behavioral data combined with responses from a multi-wave panel to test whether Democrats who see more stories from liberal news sources on Twitter develop more liberal positions over time and, conversely, whether Republicans are more likely to revise their views in a conservative direction if they are exposed to more news on Twitter from conservative media sources. We find evidence that exposure to ideologically framed information and arguments changes voters’ own positions, but has a limited impact on perceptions of where the candidates stand on the issues.


How does the media and communication from elites influence political opinions? During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, much political conversation occurred online, with many politicians communicating with voters directly, rather than through traditional media outlets. It's widely believed that what political parties say and do in policy debates influences citizens' policy views, yet there is little empirical work explaining how messages from parties and candidates reach voters, and how endorsements translate into opinion change. We test whether exposure to news sources influences opinion change, and the role of ideology of each news source.


To answer our research question, we use a multi-wave panel survey, combined with data on the social media activity from respondents to test whether information exposure influenced political opinion over the course of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. We also test whether the change in voters' positions on policy issues can be explained by online news consumption, or whether outside sources were the explanation. After classifying the Twitter accounts in our panel, we ask respondents about their own views on a wide set of political issues throughout the different waves of the survey. We examine 10 different issues specific to the 2016 election (e.g. immigation, health care, and a Muslim ban) and document the effects of information on respondents' political views about those issues.


We find that voters with Twitter feeds containing more stories from conservative media sources became significantly more likely over the course of the campaign to support building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and increase support for a repeal of Obamacare. Conversely, respondents who encountered a large number of news stories from liberal sources, either about immigration or Obamacare, moved to the left over the course of the campaign. These respondents became more strongly opposed to the deportations of illegal immigrants and more strongly convinced that Obamacare should be expanded. Our evidence suggests that both online and offline media have the ability to influence voter opinion.