Expert cautions social media influence on public opinion during an election
October 16, 2020
Social media is a powerful vehicle for shaping public opinion, and is one reason why there is concern about the role it can play during electoral processes, says Virginia Tech expert Mike Horning.
While research doesn’t show that social media has a lot of influence over voter behavior, Horning says it does show that it can shape public opinion.
“If misinformation were put out that suggested electoral processes were unfair, this could have an impact on how the public feels about the entire election process and undermine our belief in democracy.”
In a recent study, Horning looked at how audiences are dealing with misinformation on social media. Results found that people were concerned about fake news, and this was having an impact on their desire to share any news on social media.
Horning says that social media companies have taken a variety of approaches, but it remains to be seen whether they will be effective in combating misinformation. “Some companies are banning paid political advertising while other companies are fact-checking information and providing visible flags that show the information is false.”
“Misinformation spreads more quickly on social media than it can be checked,” says Horning. “There’s also the added challenge that misinformation can originate from any number of sources including private citizens, political interest groups or foreign interests.”
“Social media companies have to weigh the public’s interest in free-speech with a need to monitor the flows of misinformation. This is a balancing act on their part that is difficult to get right.”
Mike Horning is an associate professor of multimedia journalism in the Virginia Tech School of Communication and director of social informatics research in the Center for Human Computer Interaction at Virginia Tech. His research examines how communication technologies impact social attitudes and behaviors, with a current focus on the impact of “fake news” and misinformation on our democratic processes. His expertise has been featured in The Hill, on Sinclair Broadcast Group, and in a number of other media outlets.
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