Academic research on the relationship between social media and democracy is fast-moving and spans multiple disciplines; this makes it difficult for any one researcher to stay on top of developments in this emerging field of study. While scholarly convenings on questions related to social media and democracy have been frequent in the last couple of years, it has been harder to find gatherings that encourage a holistic, bird’s-eye look at the field across disciplines.
It was in this context that the Social Science Research Council’s Media & Democracy program convened a conference on April 19–20, 2018, on “Social Media and Democracy: Assessing the State of the Field and Identifying Unexplored Questions.” Today, we are proud to release a report based on discussions that took place at the conference, with a special emphasis on outstanding research questions.“Scholars at the conference discussed what researchers know, don’t know, and should know about the complicated relationship between social media use and how democracy functions.”
Scholars at the conference1Participants in this conference included: Jonathan Albright, Columbia University; Matthew Baum, Harvard University; Susan Benesch, Harvard University; Adam J. Berinsky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Damon Centola, University of Pennsylvania; Renée DiResta, Data for Democracy; Annie Franco, Facebook; Kelly Garrett, Ohio State University; Matthew Gentzkow, Stanford University; Bryan Gervais, University of Texas at San Antonio; Shanto Iyengar, Stanford University; Nina Jankowicz, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Linda Kinstler, University of California, Berkeley; Jennifer Pan, Stanford University; David Rand, Yale University; Jaime Settle, College of William and Mary; Monica Stephens, State University of New York at Buffalo; Emily Thorson, Syracuse University; and Joshua Tucker, New York University. The conference chairs were Nathaniel Persily, Stanford University, and Diana Mutz, University of Pennsylvania. discussed what researchers know, don’t know, and should know about the complicated relationship between social media use and how democracy functions. Their topics included the causes of incivility online, the differences between online and offline political conversations, echo chambers, the spread of fake news, the correction of false beliefs, and the uses of social media by hostile foreign actors.
Across these topics, the discussion repeatedly returned to three key issues: the need for more research on all forms of political communication (not only that which takes place online); the need to improve our understanding of the role that identity and community play in determining political behaviors and beliefs; and the need for research that uses data from a variety of platforms, taking into account people’s whole media diet. Below, we summarize some highlights from the discussion; for more detail, you can access the full report here.
Highlights from the discussion
Echo chambers on- and offline. The narrative that online ideological echo chambers contribute to incivility in our political discourse is common. However, the gathered scholars emphasized that in order to find out whether this narrative is true, we need to know more about offline ideological echo chambers and political discourse. How often do citizens talk about politics across partisan divides in their offline and online lives? How often do such conversations turn uncivil? We need a solid base of research on these questions before we can draw conclusions about online echo chambers. These questions matter because it is possible that a relative lack of ideological echo chambers is what actually causes uncivil political discourse online. If, say, we are unaccustomed to dealing with cross-partisan exchanges offline but suddenly start having more of them online, then it is easy to imagine how this could spark incivility. In other words, more research is needed before we can make informed assessments of the net effects that social media has on political incivility.
Impact of false information. The need to address both online and offline behavior was emphasized again during a panel about the spread of false information. In order to better understand the consequences of false information online, we need more research that also includes false information offline. What are offline sources of false information? How frequently are people exposed to false information online? Research that tracks media consumption across platforms and sources, thus taking into account a person’s entire media diet, would be particularly valuable for understanding the spread of (false) information through society. Research along these lines could even help us start disentangling the consequences of different types of exposure, such as scrolling past a news item on a feed, interacting with it in various ways, or seeing the same piece of information several times or on different platforms.
More on Media & Democracy“By raising questions and highlighting gaps in knowledge, this report aims to provide stimulating reading for scholars, practitioners, and interested members of the public alike.”
These are just a few highlights from a wide-ranging discussion at the conference. Held at Stanford University, the conference was led by Nathaniel Persily and Diana Mutz and featured five panels held over the course of two days. We hope the full report will serve as a valuable resource for anyone who is contemplating—or already producing—research on the relationship between social media and democracy. By raising questions and highlighting gaps in knowledge, this report aims to provide stimulating reading for scholars, practitioners, and interested members of the public alike.
The Media & Democracy program will continue to produce events on themes related to media and democracy; in the last month, we also held a discussion with Safiya Noble and Meredith Broussard at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York City and hosted a half-day convening on the consequences of misinformation at the Brookings Institution. If you are interested in staying up to date on news, opinion, and analysis on all things related to media and democracy, make sure to also follow our new website, the Media & Democracy Network (@SSRCmdn). If there is one thing we have learned in this program, it is that plenty more needs to be done to understand how social media may impact democracy.