U-M experts discuss social media's role in politics, Capitol riot

Thursday, January 21, 2021 - 3:24pm

University of Michigan social media experts are studying the influence of social media over politics, particularly through the rapid spread of misinformation and increased access.

University of Michigan social media experts are studying the influence of social media over politics, particularly through the rapid spread of misinformation and increased access. Buy this photo
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University of Michigan social media experts are studying the influence of social media over politics, particularly through the rapid spread of misinformation and increased access. According to these experts, social media played a pivotal role in the riot at the U.S. Capitol last week.

Sarita Schoenebeck, a School of Information associate professor, said former President Donald Trump’s presidency fueled the sharing of misinformation on social media by exploiting algorithms designed to reward content that’s popular, even if it’s fake or wrong.

“Clearly the election of President Trump increased divisiveness in the U.S., and that kind of alignment increased social media use and misinformation, so these things can’t be disentangled,” Schoenebeck said.

She said the future impact of large social media organizations banning Trump’s accounts is that more sites might take a second look at posts and filter out harassment. Following the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, multiple social media platforms — including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook — announced they were banning the former president’s accounts to prevent the further incitement of violence.

“I think the banning of President Trump was a reactive decision, it was too little too late,” Schoenebeck said. “But, it was the right decision given the violence and I think going forward sites need to consider people and the content they share in the broader context.” 

Josh Pasek, an associate professor of communication and media, said social media provides an opportunity to meet people with similar ideologies, resulting in incidences like  joining together to attack the Capitol building.

“It makes it easier to do good things, and it makes it easier to do bad things,” Pasek said. “One clear role that social media had (in the riots) was in helping a group of people that might not otherwise find each other easily get more coordinated.” 

Because politicians and elected officials have more prominent platforms, Pasek said their endorsement of falsehoods helps further spread untrue information on social media. 

“In addition, you have an elite situation where a number of elites — in particular, the president — have not been particularly devoted to ensuring that the official information coming out was accurate,” Pasek said. “So the willingness of elites at various different levels to buy into the big lie that the election was stolen and that there was fraud and irregularities gives that claim more power and makes it far more pervasive.” 

Pasek also acknowledged the effects of the pandemic, saying it has led to many people wanting to take action at a time when they feel out of control and more dissociated from society than usual. 

LSA freshman Anna Wilentz, an attendee of the event, said she feels social media influences young voters’ opinions before they are able to fully process monumental political events in the country, such as the 2020 election and the Capitol riot.

“Social media has caused individuals to take their peers’ point of views on political issues, which prohibits them from forming their own educated opinions,” Wilentz said. “This is one factor that has led America to become more polarized, and has led to Americans speaking freely on social media and expressing extreme political beliefs and attitudes.”

With the constant evolution of social media, Cliff Lampe, a School of Information professor, discussed the major increase in the number of users on platforms over the past years. 

“I think the biggest change over time has been the number of types of people who have started using social media,” Lampe said. “As the population of use has grown, so has the role of social media in society. It’s easy to spread misinformation on social media because there are fewer gatekeepers.”

Historically, Lampe said the general population received their information from established news organizations, which have strict fact-checking procedures. With the rise of social media, Lampe said the media landscape is less regulated, which has resulted in quick and easy access to spreading false information.

“In a traditional mass media environment, there would be editors, and there was 100 years of development of professional journalistic practices that determined how you could tell if (information) was true or not,” Lampe said. “Social media does not have the same kind of gatekeepers and same kind of history that mass media does, so anybody can share anything. Social media also tends to flatten hierarchies, so there’s no such thing as expertise anymore.”

To fight misinformation and harassment online, Schoenebeck suggested social media sites carefully monitor a user’s collection of posts instead of evaluating posts individually. According to Schoenebeck, they should consider the information in the context of the person’s past history and the history of people who are targeted by the post. 

Pasek said he has debated whether social media is a completely negative influence in our society. While it has caused many problems, he said he believes it also has many positive effects.

“What’s become increasingly clear this year is that we’re still working on figuring out the right norms for how to deal with social media,” Pasek said. “The way it interacts with our psychology is something that makes that a particularly pressing question, because (we tend to believe) information is more credible when you hear it from friends than when you hear it from somebody who you don’t particularly know.”

Looking ahead, Lampe said it is a vital and monumental time for social media in our society because… . 

“It’s an interesting time for social media right now, especially as we see the platforms’ converging power,” Lampe said.

Daily Staff Reporter Kaitlyn Luckoff can be reached at kluckoff@umich.edu.


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