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Jacob Groshek on Social Media Use and Populist Support

By Kenny Oravetz

[A NULab and Shorenstein Center Event on #fakenews]

Jacob Groshek, Professor of Communications at Boston University, presented at Northeastern University “Helping Populism Win? Social media use, filter bubbles, and support for populist presidential candidates in the 2016 US election campaign,” a talk investigating how social media use correlated with support for certain political candidates and ideologies during the aforementioned campaign. Focusing largely on populism, Groshek’s presentation, a collaborative effort with Karolina Koc-Michalska, revealed that some assumptions both academics and the general public had about how social media use influences politics may be incorrect.

Groshek began his talk by discussing how many people have an idealized view of the politics of social media and the internet in general, believing these online systems provide opportunities for disempowered and marginalized voices to be heard and empowered. From this perspective, the internet could serve as a space for citizen journalists to dismantle media hierarchies, and present stories that might otherwise be slanted or suppressed. However, Groshek declared, this idealized system is not the reality. In social media, everyone can speak, but few are heard; information shared from person to person and prioritized based on popularity makes it so that some are heard, but others are not.

Groshek then moved to a specific discussion of the 2016 election. In the election, consumed often by populist rhetoric from the likes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, social media seemed to play a key role in connecting candidates to voter bases, especially for those populist candidates. Groshek defined populism as not aligned left or right, but as an anti-elite, nationalist, disapproving, us vs. them ideology, with its adherents feeling that they belong to a deprived subset of society. Many believe that social media “clustering,” the creation of “filter bubbles” in which one only sees content from people they agree with, led to increased support for these populist candidates in the election. The reasoning behind this claim is that, once in these self-selected “filter bubbles,” citizens are unable to see conflicting perspectives, and even resist seeing them, to such a degree that they vote for (populist) candidates the “bubble” supports, even if that candidate is not truly in their best interest.

However, Groshek found that this belief was not entirely true. In his research, those who used social media more were in fact less polarized than those who used it less, as they were more often exposed to different perspectives. Furthermore, he found that the much-trumpeted impact of “fake news” in the election was also inaccurate, as the audience for fake news was small, and often read traditional, established news sites as well. “Fake news,” per his analysis of Twitter mentions, didn’t really take off as a concept until after the election.

Surprisingly, Groshek found that, broadly speaking, TV viewers, not social media users, preferred Clinton and Trump to Sanders and Cruz. He concluded that many Trump supporters weren’t actually on Twitter, but saw his incendiary and influential tweets on traditional news outlets, legitimizing them. On the other hand, active social media users were less likely to support Clinton and Trump. That said, passive and uncivil social media users, the latter defined as those who sought arguments or insulted those with different views than theirs, were more likely to support Trump than other candidates. However, Groshek declared overall that filter bubbles did not help Trump win, as increased social media use led neither to increased filter bubbles, nor an increased chance of supporting Donald Trump, or Republican populism in general.

For further questions or for more information, please contact Kenneth Oravetz at oravetz[dot]k[at]husky[dot]neu[dot]edu

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