Politics on Social Media: Variance in User Impact

Introduction and identification of the research area

This research examines the way UK users of Social Media engage with political information on this platform. Social Media is a rapidly growing part of the media ecosystem, and it is important to understand how the users themselves are viewing political material disseminated through Social Media, particularly given scare stories of recent times and a potential moral panic. By interviewing users of Social Media, it will be possible to understand the users behind the statistics, and to examine how much of a part Social Media is informing poltical views. This can be compared to previous research on more traditional media entities.
Broadly, the study focuses on how political content on Social Media informs its users, and whether this affects their views. The study will examine users with varying levels of poltiical engagement, and of digital residency. With a greater understanding of people’s views of poltics on social media, it would allow the government and opposistion parties to better interact over this channel of communication or even why people do not wish to use social media for poltical discussion. The research will explore whether content on Social Media is taken at face value, or whether it is activitly decoded and critically analysed by its users. This will test the “echo chamber” theory of poltics on Social Media.

Review of the literature

When looking at the evolution of the web, the evolution and growth of Social Media has played a large part. Social Media are defined as online services that allow users to create an individual profile, connect with other users – usually people known offline – and navigate through this network of contact (Boyd and Ellison, 2007). Working with this definition it is possible to chart the growth of Social Media as new a media form across the world (Paslawsky, 2011) and to conclude that by 2014 Social Media sites were the most popuilar part of the web (Margetts et. al, 2016). When Pew Research Centre first began examining Social Media in 2005 only 5% of population of America used it, and in a recent study in January 2017, this had risen to 69% (Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, 2017). In the UK, the Office of National Statistics found that 8 in every 10 people used the internet everyday in 2016, and that social networking was one of the most popular ways to use the web (Ons.gov.uk, 2016). This growth has not only created a new media space, but has also had a big impact on the more traditional media. It is a widely held belief now that consumers choose how they receive news in the future, and there are specifc examples of the impact of this (Newman, 2009).
Alongside this significant growth of Social Media runs an increase in political engagement, and by extension conversation, on Social Media sites. All three have been changed by the rise of Social Media. For this piece of research, Norris’ definition and framework for political engagement is used (Norris, 2000). It is interpreted by Perez mean that “a person who is engaged in politics is someone who keeps up with the news on public affairs, participates in politics by (at least) casting a vote in the periodic elections, and trusts the political system to provide solutions for collective problems” (Pérez, 2008) and this is the view taken for this piece of research. It is noted the Social Media provides a radically different way of discussing politics than was previously available to citizens through connecting the private sphere of political identity to a multitude of political spaces (Papacharissi, 2010). This has led to Social Media becoming not only a huge part of political conversation, but also of campaigning. Indeed, even a selection of very recent news articles document the use of Social Media in politics; the British Labour Party are working on a Social Media Policy for the 2017 General Election (Stewart, 2017), the use of Social Media by those with money in politics to influence the election (MacDonald, 2017), and examples of politicians themselves using Social Media poorly (Murphy, 2015). There are therefore positives and negatives of politicians engaging with politics on Social Media, just as there is with individuals using Social Media.
A cautious approach to the power of Social Media to facilitate more participatory political conversation is recommended by some, which challenges the some of the earlier ideas behind its power. Some believe a utopian viewpoint is unhelpful and inaccurate (Loader and Merca, 2011). This is echoed by other, more specific studies, and Fenton and Barassi conclude that Social Media constitutes more of a threat to political discourse than an opportunity (Fenton and Barassi, 2011). However, Loader and Merca do also recognise the power of Social Media to be disruptive in challenging traditional interests and modes of communicative power (Loader and Merca, 2011). A lot of the optimism comes from the political participation of young people on Social Media. Xenos, Vromen and Loader have a cautiously optimistic outlook about the potential of Social Media to “reverse the trend of political inequality” which exists between young people and the rest of the population, particularly in Western democracies (Xenos, Vromen and Loader, 2014). Sloam corroborates this view, suggesting that Social Media is a “mouthpiece for indignation for young people”, though he is dubious about how this directly links to political engagement (Sloam, 2014). This becomes particularly clear in times of protest, and work has been done in this area by several academics (Bennett and Segerberg, 2012) (Shirkey, 2011).
A study similar was conducted in 2013, and found that the key indicators for driving political participation in young people was connection to a “political actor” and “shared political material” (Tang and Lee, 2013). Whilst these findings are notable, it is now outdated and does not explore the reasons why, something there is scope for research in to. Thorson conducted two in-depth interviews into Facebook and political engagement. Although again this remained focused on young people, it found differing perceptions as to whether Facebook was good for political engagement, or “talking politics on the site is a high-risk endeavour” (Thorson, 2013). A further study of limited utility is Hedman and Djerf-Pierre’s 2012 work into the perceptions of journalists on Social Media (Hedman and Djerf-Pierre, 2012). As well as the small number of similar studies, it is useful to examine the latest news articles and other survey data. In 2015, the Guardian reported that a third of young people expected to have their vote influenced by what they see on Social Media (Sedghi, 2015). This is a large proportion of this demographic, and shows the potential of political material on Social Media, and it would therefore be interesting to see a breakdown of the potential to influence over further demographics, rather than continuing to focus on young people. Another recent news report is on the phenomenon of “Fake News”, and the impact in the recent US election (Solon, 2016). Little research has been conducted into this area, although there are some sparse examples (Morden and Tew, 2007) (Marchi, 2012) and it is highly likely work is being done at the date of this piece of research being produced. Rather than focusing on the content itself, this piece of research will examine the approach of the users of social media to fake news, and their feelings surrounding it. Another recent opinion piece claims politics is trivialised by Social Media, and cites the example of the “#millifandom” from the 2015 UK General Election (Parkinson and McElvoy, 2015). This article is a debate between one person who believes Social Media is trivialising, and one who opposes this view. This debate is interesting, and of ever-increasing importance, and this piece of research aims to build on the debate through qualitative research across different demographics.
In conclusion, the literature shows that Social Media is undoubtedly becoming a powerful force of new media. This therefore explains why it is seen an important emerging sphere for political debate, although there is some debate over this. Work has been done into political discussion and material on Social Media, although occasionally the utility can be limited by conflicting definitions and terminology. Conclusions are drawn by various authors supporting both sides of the debate, showing more work can, and should, be done. There is a mixture between qualitative and quantitative research, but very few studies examine why users perceive political material online the way they do, or why they behave the way they do, something this piece of research would aim to address. A lot of work conducted is also into young people, and this research hopes to move beyond that debate. To do this, the work will look at differences between users with high and low levels of political interest, as well as users who consider themselves either digital residents, or digital visitors (Jisc, 2014). No other research into this area has made this distinction, which could represent a new way of understanding how differing demographics react to political material online.

Research questions/objectives

• Are UK Social Media users “active” consumers of political information (crtically analysing, decoding, testing) or passive receivers (face-value acceptance)?
• Are UK Social Media aware of the “echo chamber” theory? If so, do they believe they operate in an echo chamber, or do they believe they are exposed to all views?
• Does the impact of political information seen on Social Media vary by political engagement, or by digital competancy, or is impact more consistant?

To answer the research questions above, I will use mainly qualitative methadology, but there will be a mixutre of methods within the research.
Firstly, I will conduct Qualitative and Quantitative analysis of questionnaire responses from users of Social Media from the UK public. These questionnaires will require informal access to the population, and will be propagated by hand, or by electronic means. There are no gatekeepers to the population that need to be identified or passed here, due to the informal access required and also due to a snowballing sampling stratergy. It is hoped that this way there will be an equal distribution between digital “residents” and “vistors” (as explained by JISC), and between high or low levels of political engagement. These are key variables in the sampling. When each participant recieves the survey, they will be asked to pass it on to someone else who they believe utilises social media in the same way they do, and has the same level of political engagment. Due to the differing nature of the questions in the questionnaire, both quantitative and qualitative analysis will be used. Quantitative analysis will involve creating statistics from multiple choice, or yes/no questions on the questionnaire. Additionally, Qualitative analysis will be thematically conducted using a grounded theory (or inductive) approach. The thinking behind this idea is that through conducting this analysis, the interview questions will be allowed to be much more specific, targeted and relevant since I will know what areas are most important to the public. The analysis will reveal any differences between digital “visitors” and “residents” assuring that the interview questions allow for expression of all ideas from both sides, and removing any personal bias that I might have. No incentives will be given for participation in the questionnaire.
Once the questionnaires and analysis is completed, I will conduct semi-structured qualitative interviews. The participants for these interviews will be requested from those who completed the questionnaires. This is important for a number of resasons. Firstly, it will allow for the categorisation of respondants of the survey into 4 demographics, which will be very important in the anaylsis for comparison. The demographics are as follows:
• Digital Resident and keen interest in politics
• Digital Resident and low interest in politics
• Digital Visitor and keen interest in politics
• Digital Visitor and low interest in politics
The access here remains informal, and all participants will be known to me in some sense (given their completiton of the questionnaire) before the interview, which maintains both mine and their safety, as per ethical consideration. There are potentiall methodological disadvantages by only including people known to me (for example their perception of the process may be altered by their view of me as a researcher), and although the impact of this is likely to be insignificant it must be acknowledged. There are no gatekeepers to access either, and in actual fact access will have already been established from the questionniare. To allow people to opt out of the interview, the last page of the questionnaire will be a request for their details if I need to contact them to conduct an interview, or the option to not be contacted or give any details. The sampling of the questionnaire participants to choose who to interview will therefore be purposive, as I need to ensure there is representation across all demographics, this time with Digital Residency and level of interest in politics being key variables. The interviews themselves will be semi-structured, allowing me to ask key questions to all participants but also allowing me to deeper explore any areas that appear which may not be covered by the main questions. They will be transcribed verbatim, and then thematically analysed using a deductive approach, with a pre-determined coding frame based on the findings from the analysis of the questionnaire. The codes will then be cross-referenced and conclusions drawn from the analysis as a whole. No incentives will be given for participation in the interviews.
Once this analysis has been completed, and the qualitative findings across both methods synthesised, with differences between specific demographics being noted. Aftert this, I will conduct documentary analysis of a small number of sources. In doing this, I hope to examine how political parties and the UK Government have used social media to help persuade and engage, and critically exmaine this in light of my findings. Here, I will look at how effective and meaningful social media engagement is, why it might be failing, and how to improve it. Additionally, within this documentary research section, I am able to focus on specifc events, including general elections and referendums, and examine whether they fit the general trend of public perception from my earlier analysis, or whether they differ. All documents will be qualitiatively analysed using a deductive coding approach, allowing me to accurately compare what I find the interviews with these documents. This further research will allow me to identify any anamolies from the quesitonnaires and interviews, and will provide a good method of examining what further work may be carried out.
Given the continual nature of political events in the UK, there is scope for further research to be conducted through month-long diary studies from a selection of participants in this study, or additional participants.

Anticipated problems and Ethics
The anticipated ethical problems of the research are minimal, but attention still should be given to them. The first thing to note is that the study will involve human participants, both in responding to the questionnaire, and in being interviewed. For both methods of data collection all participants will have the opportunity to read the ethics form, and they will have to sign a document to give explicit consent. It will also be made clear to the participants that they will have a freedom to withdraw from the study at any time.
The ethics form in Appendix 1 details all the risks and ethical issues that are not present in the piece of research. A potential issue however is the discussion of sensitive topics. Sensitive topics here would be the political views of the participants. Whilst some may be open about their political views and opinions, others may not be. To deal with this issue, all participants in the questionnaire will be able to select “I prefer not to answer this question”, and all participants in the interview will have the right to decline to answer a question. This will ensure that if any participant feels uncomfortable about a question, but does not want to withdraw from the study in full, they will have the ability to do this.
If someone does withdraw from the study, either in the interview or questionnaire, the results collected from the person up until the point they withdraw will be discounted, to ensure their wishes are respected, and confidentiality is maintained.

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