Are voters educated or misled on social media during a political election? To answer this question, we look to Twitter during the 2015 UK general election and find that contrary to worst fears, social media users became more informed about politics during the campaign.
Munger, Kevin, Patrick J. Egan, Jonathan Nagler, Jonathan Ronen, and Joshua A. Tucker. “Political Knowledge and Misinformation in the Era of Social Media: Evidence from the 2015 UK Election.” British Journal of Political Science 52, no. 1 (2022): 107-27. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0007123420000198
Dec 22, 2020
Area of Study
Does social media educate voters, or mislead them? This study measures changes in political knowledge among a panel of voters surveyed during the 2015 UK general election campaign while monitoring the political information to which they were exposed on the Twitter social media platform. The study's panel design permits identification of the effect of information exposure on changes in political knowledge. 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 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.
What type of information do campaigns provide voters? Do they give them information to make choices that align with their interests and values, or do they actually mislead them? As the media landscape continues to change, the question of what information voters are exposed to about public affairs is increasingly important. Nearly three-quarters of all adult internet users across the developed world use social media, and the reliance on social media is particularly strong among young voters. Social media allows parties and candidates news ways to interact with voters, often side-stepping the traditional news media. During the 2015 general election in the UK, the party’s system was in flux, making it a particularly good case for understanding political lean and the effect of social media on voter knowledge. As the Labour party shifted left on economic and social welfare policies, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) shifted right on immigration and the EU.
To better understand whether social media educates, or misleads voters, we design an analysis that combines the content of individuals’ social media feed and panel survey data to measure changes in political knowledge among voters during the 2015 UK general election. In conjunction with YouGov, we monitor the political information voters were exposed to on Twitter and create a panel survey in four waves – beginning a year before the election and concluding shortly after. For each panelist, we obtain access to the full text of every tweet that appeared on their Twitter timeline, allowing us to see everything that could have been seen by the panelist during the campaign. We then asked our panelists a series of questions relating to either issue-relevant facts or relative party placements to determine the accuracy of their understanding in relation to the information they were exposed to over time.
Our findings are two-fold. First, on issue-relevant facts (i.e., basic facts about timely and important political topics) and then on relative party placements (i.e., being able to place political parties in relation to one another on a scale regarding important political topics), we find that Twitter users became more informed over the course of the campaign. The exposure to tweets from news media sources resulted in an increased knowledge about issue-relevant facts, while exposure to tweets from political parties increased awareness of relative party placements. However, discouragingly, there was little improvement in overall knowledge. We also find that exposure to partisan messages increases the accuracy of voters’ beliefs about some topics, but decreases their accuracy for others. These changes were consistent with the parties’ strategic interests. Meaning, that a substantial amount of voters became misinformed over the course of the campaign due to their use of social media.