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Social Networking Breeds Better Citizens? LOL!

Facebook friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your earbuds. But don’t ask me to name the Speaker of the House.
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Remember those reports that social networking Web sites are transforming American politics, changing the way voters get information and drawing previously disengaged young people into the system?

A new study suggests such stories shouldn’t be taken at face(book) value.

In the February issue of the journal Social Science Computer Review, East Carolina University political scientists Jody Baumgartner and Jonathan Morris — authors of a much-discussed 2006 study suggesting The Daily Show’s campaign coverage on Comedy Central breeds cynicism — conclude idealistic visions of a knowledgeable, activist cyber-citizenry are, at best, premature.

The researchers analyzed a survey of more than 3,500 18- to 24-year-olds conducted just before the 2008 Iowa caucuses. Participants were asked to name their news sources (including comedy shows) and quizzed on both their general political knowledge (which party has a majority in the House and Senate?) and their awareness of the presidential candidates (who is a practicing Mormon?).

Eighty-eight percent reported they had created a personal profile on a social networking site such as Facebook or MySpace; 48 percent said they get news from such sites at least once a week. But all that online interaction did not mean they were particularly well-informed.

“Although social network Web site users were slightly more knowledgeable about the field of presidential candidates than nonusers, their knowledge did not appear to extend to the political world in general,” Baumgartner and Morris write. “Social network Web site news consumers follow news about public affairs, but to a limited extent relative to other types of news, and are not particularly interested in pursuing diverse sources of news and/or ideas.”

Rather, “Users of these sites tend to seek out views that correspond with their own,” the researchers add — a disappointing finding that suggests social networking Web sites may be the online equivalent of cable news networks.

They add that “although social network news users were more likely to engage in Internet-based political activity (blogging, forwarding a political e-mail), they were not more likely to participate in more conventional activities such as voting.”

Oh, that.

Social networking is a relatively new phenomenon, of course, and the Web can evolve quickly. But Baumgartner and Morris conclude that as of now, “the hyperbole surrounding new Web developments as they relate to citizenship may be just that — hype.”