Using Social Media During Presidential Debates Hampers Learning About Candidates

With the first presidential debate of 2016 slated for Monday, Sept. 26, viewers who actually want to learn about the two major candidates would do well to just watch the debate rather than follow social media during the event.

According to new research from the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania, people watching presidential debates on television learn less about the candidates if they are simultaneously following social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, than debate viewers who aren’t using social media at the same time.

According to researchers, during the 2012 president debates, viewers who were simultaneously “following others’ reactions or issuing their own on social media networks learned at a lower rate.”

The study, published in Political Communication, was based on three waves of a six-wave survey of U.S. adults conducted in 2012. Two waves in the study followed the second and third debates between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney and the third took place post-election. Each involved 1,216 or more interviews, according to the researchers.

“As young viewers increasingly get news and political information through social media, it is important to understand how this form of exposure affects what they know about the candidates and their stands on the issues,” said Annenberg Public Policy Center Director Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

“Overall, debates are still an incredibly powerful forum in which people can learn about the candidates,” said Jeffrey A. Gottfried, Ph.D., lead author of the Annenberg study, who is now a research associate at Pew Research Center.

“But social media seem to be distracting viewers from learning.”

Surprisingly, the use of social media tended especially to distract TV debate viewers from learning information that is favorable to the candidate they prefer, Gottfried noted.

“Those who favored Obama tended to learn less about Obama, and those who favored Romney tended to learn less about Romney than the candidates’ supporters who were watching the debate but not following social media,” he said.

Even with the distraction during the debates, the study also found that — after controlling for traditional media use, Internet use, and other factors — social-media users generally “were significantly more knowledgeable than non-users about candidate stances and background facts of the 2012 presidential election.”

The study reports that more than one in five people who watched at least some of the 2012 debates reported simultaneously following people’s reactions on social media. Responses varied by age. For instance, 44 percent of 18- to 29-year-old viewers of the third presidential debate used social media at the same time, while only 10 percent of those ages 50 and up did.

“While watching a debate with or without simultaneous social media engagement is better than not viewing a debate at all, the effect of debate viewing is dulled when simultaneously engaging in social media multitasking,” the researchers said.

“Were social media use during debates to become more pervasive in subsequent election cycles, this phenomenon could erode the positive effects of debate viewing.”

Source: Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania