Obamacare, Ann Curry, and Facebook: Does Social Media Affect the Way We Think and Act?

On the morning of June 28, news broke about the Supreme Court’s ruling on Obamacare. When CNN and Fox News first announced the Court’s verdict, they flubbed. They initially reported that the Court ruled the health care mandate unconstitutional. Gary He called this reporting gaffe the “Dewey Defeats Truman” of our generation, and created a meme that went viral:

Image Courtesy of Gary He

For those of you who are a little rusty on your American history, the original image is a photograph of Harry Truman. Truman is pictured holding up the Chicago Daily Tribune, which jumped the gun and prematurely reported that Thomas Dewey had beaten Truman in the 1948 presidential election. The Tribune got it wrong; Truman won the election and held up this blunder of a headline for the world to see.

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He’s meme spread faster that the speed at which the PR staff at CNN and Fox News tried to do damage control. He told Poynter, a non-profit school for journalism in St. Petersburg, Florida, that it all started when he was monitoring the conversation around the Supreme Court ruling on Twitter. After creating the meme, he uploaded it to his Twitter account—and the rest is social media history.

June 28, 2012: A Meme and a Morning Show

The fact that the popularity of He’s meme can be traced to Twitter proves just how powerful social media has become as a propagator of information. Twitter and Facebook break news, spread news, and spark conversations surrounding news. What do people do when a story breaks or when a network posts something newsworthy? A large number of people take to social networking sites to broadcast their opinions. This shift in our society from Truman’s newspaper to Obama’s iPad isn’t just a shift from print to digital media. It’s a move from reading solely the facts about a specific story or event to reading the facts plus other people’s opinions. The online world opens people up to the opinions of others because virtually all articles, blog posts, and Facebook statuses generate comments. Reading a newspaper article is a solitary activity, but in the comment section under a blog post or Facebook status, people convene to voice their views and debate with one another. In many cases, comment sections take on a forum-like quality.

Consider the recent events surrounding Ann Curry. Curry left the Today show on June 28 (the same day the Supreme Court handed down their ruling on health care.) This is what the Today show posted on their Facebook page the day that Ann Curry gave a tearful, emotional goodbye, marking the end of a 15-year run on the morning show:

I follow the Today show on Facebook, and I know that most posts get easily over a few hundred comments. The most comments I’ve seen on a post are the 3,823 on the picture of Sarah Palin as guest co-host in early April. (I went back through Today’s Facebook timeline all the way to early January 2012, and this is in fact the post that generated the most comments—until the one about Ann Curry.) Compare these 3,800 comments to the 17,289 comments Ann Curry’s post generated within 24 hours. I read through the first 161 comments and 97% of these comments were negative responses to NBC’s decision to let Curry go. People expressed a variety of negative emotions: disappointment, disgust, anger, hostility at NBC, and sympathy for Curry, to name a few. Countless people announced their plans to switch from Today to Good Morning America, which may seem insignificant, but in the battle for viewers that is morning television, this is an action of Benedict Arnold proportions.

I was completely against NBC’s decision to let Curry go, especially when her 15-year career ended with a five-minute farewell. But, as I read through these comments, I found myself becoming angrier and angrier at NBC. These Facebook comments were riling me up. I decided that I was going to jump aboard the GMA ship as well, even though I’ve been watching Today for over five years.

Here’s where my thoughts went after my Facebook-fueled reaction: I was emotionally influenced by the Curry post on Facebook.. Am I an anomaly, or are other people influenced by social media sites too? Can social media change the way in which people view certain events? Can social media inspire people to take action?

Why So Ambiguous?

“Influence” is an ambiguous term, and people like to throw around the term “influencer,” especially in the context of social media. There are several articles about “social media power influencers.” There is also an entire website, Klout, devoted to measuring people’s social media influence. Complex algorithms and measures that assess influence are nice, but I think of an influencer as someone who inspires people to take action. Because of the popularity of He’s meme and the fact that the Supreme Court ruling seems to be what everyone is talking about, I’m in a political mindset, so in the context of this article, I view influence and action in political terms. I want to try to find out if social media sites can influence people’s political views and, ultimately, inspire them to vote one way or another.

Health Care: Digital King for a Day

News breaks just as fast on social media sites as it does on television. Case in point: the topic of Obamacare, which overtook Facebook on June 28 and 29.

Many major news sources posted multiple times on the Court’s ruling:

With all this digital chatter, seeing a remark or comment on the health care mandate was virtually unavoidable. Social media is a force to be reckoned with, so it would seem intuitive that it has the power to sway people. But does this intuition correspond with reality?

The Research on Reach

We talk a lot about swing states when it comes to politics, but what about swing social media users? If Obama posts a video, link, or image, will that mobilize people to vote for him? If Romney tweets a call to action, will people be inspired to take action? If he tells people why they need to get out and vote for him on Election Day in November, will they view these reasons as valid and subsequently vote? I found several studies that support the idea of social media influence:

  • One study says that mass media use and social media use are positively correlated with an individual’s voting behavior: the more someone uses mass media and social media to gain information, the more likely that person is to vote.
  • Another study by researchers Sinan Aril and Dylan Walker looked at 1.3 million Facebook users and found that certain segments of the population are more prone to social media influence: younger users are more susceptible than older users; women influence men more than they influence other women; men are more influential than women; and married individuals are the least susceptible to influence.
  • A study by Digitas presented 2,361 U.S. adults aged 18 years and older the following statement: “Information found on social media is as impactful to me in making a decision as traditional media (ex. TV news, newspapers).” 38% of social media users agreed with this statement. Most of the people who agreed were between 18-34 years old.

Measuring influence is tricky, and the study by Aril and Walker suggests that demographic of followers is more important than the number of “likes” or tweets a post gets. But, I think there is a caveat when it comes to social media influence.

Throwing a Wrench in the Media Machine

I’m going to complicate the idea of social media influence. Consider this: in order for a post by Barack Obama to show up on my Facebook newsfeed or Twitter timeline, I have to either “like” Barack Obama’s Facebook page or follow his Twitter account (with one exception: when an ad or sponsored story shows up). So, if I’m following Obama, I presumably support him. I wouldn’t want my Twitter timeline filled with tweets from a politician whom I don’t support. Therefore, how useful can social media really be as an influencer? Aren’t the people who read those call-to-actions from a politician already planning on voting for that politician? Isn’t Barack Obama (or Mitt Romney) urging people to act in a certain way akin to preaching to the choir?

Political Biases 101

Jonathan Haidt is a moral psychologist whose book The Righteous Mind touches on what I’m getting at. Haidt says that politics is an expression of our underlying moral psychology, and here’s how moral psychology works: people feel something, and they then come up with reasons to justify why they feel the way they do after the fact. Haidt argues that reasoning is “post-hoc and justificatory,” meaning that people don’t want to change deep-rooted beliefs, so they seek out only that information that aligns with their point of view. They become blind to evidence and arguments that challenge their assumptions.

Haidt is talking about the psychological concept known as the confirmation bias, which is the tendency of people to seek out information that confirms their existing beliefs. Here’s an example: I watch a presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. If I’m an Obama supporter, I will look for moments in the debate where Romney blunders or makes a mistake. I will zero in on these moments and use them to confirm what I already believe: Obama is a better candidate.

How does this relate to social media? Sites like Facebook and Twitter make it extremely easy for us to enact this bias. If I want to (and I would argue that most people do), I can chose to “like” or follow only those people/brands/news sources that align with my beliefs. If I am a liberal, I can like The Huffington Post on Facebook and follow it on Twitter, and I will be presented with an array of news stories that slant left and that convince me that my political beliefs are the right ones. Therefore, social media isn’t really politically influencing me; it’s simply validating my preexisting beliefs.

There’s another psychological phenomenon that relates to the confirmation bias: the backfire effect, a termed coined by researchers Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. Nyhan and Reifler conducted a study in which they took people who were misinformed about a particular topic (the Iraq War) and presented them with the correct facts. According to the confirmation bias, people will be reluctant to change their established beliefs even when they’re confronted with evidence that proves they’re wrong. Nyhan and Reifler found this to be true—but they also found something else. Presenting someone with the corrected facts backfires. It doesn’t cause people to change their minds; in several cases, it actually causes them to become more entrenched in their beliefs. It strengthens misperceptions.

Like the confirmation bias, the backfire effect complicates the idea of social media influence. In the most ideologically-grounded people (i.e. the die-hard conservatives and liberals), the chances of social media inspiring them to do something that they had not already planned on doing in the first place is slim to none. Say I have a misconception surrounding Obama’s health care legislation. I will stay misinformed even if I encounter evidence to the contrary. In fact, my misconceptions will become even stronger if people try to correct my views. And social media makes it very easy to stay misinformed. News sources don’t always report the correct facts (see Gary He’s meme), and many news sources lean either left or right. Social media lets us use Facebook and Twitter filters: we can follow sources that align with our beliefs and tune out the sources that don’t. Conservatives can follow Fox, and liberals can follow The Huffington Post; their vantage points will not change. Yes, tweets sent out by Fox might inspire conservatives to vote for Romney, and The Huffington Post Facebook posts might inspire liberals to vote for Obama, but wouldn’t they have done that anyway?

April 24, 2012: A Hashtag and a Host of Tweets

Because of the theories described by Haidt, the confirmation bias, and the backfire effect, I think that the power of social media to change someone’s political mind is virtually nonexistent. That’s not to say social media cannot influence people politically, because it can. It can inspire people to take action. On April, 24, 2012, Obama became the first president to use the word “hashtag” in a speech; he urged students to use the hashtag #dontdoublemyrate to put pressure on Congress and prevent them from passing an increase in student loan interest rates. The hashtag trended worldwide and received 17,938 mentions in one day.

Clearly, Obama engaged and motivated the Twittersphere. However, when it comes to swaying people’s votes, I think that influence is limited. Romney might prompt people to vote by posting on Facebook and Twitter, but I would argue that those voters were primed to vote for him anyways. If these people see his post, they’re following Romney, which means they are most likely already in his camp. (The same would go for Obama.)

Here’s Lookin’ at You, Social Media

Answering the question, “can social media politically influence people?” is tricky. I don’t think the question can be answered with a simple yes or no. Even when it comes to the influence the Today show’s post on Ann Curry had on me, if I think about it, I was already emotionally primed before reading the post. Prior to reading it, I was angry at NBC; the post simply added fuel to my emotional fire. Maybe social media can only influence people if they’re willing to be influenced.

A Way with Words

Or, maybe someone can influence others if that person is a skilled orator and has a way with words. I wonder if anyone thought of Patrick Gaspard, the executive director of the Democratic National Committee, as an articulate politician after he tweeted his thoughts on the Supreme Court ruling. Gaspard has this to say:

Patrick Gaspard: most eloquent politician on Twitter, perhaps? You stay classy, Democrats.

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Comments: 5

  • joy316 says:

    Your “wrench” is not quite that simple. I follow one candidate my preferred candidate on Twitter. But I get re-tweets from my followers who prefer the other candidate. I find myself spending more time reading the articles or doing a search to determine if the source is correct etc. And, indeed, I have found that I was wrong (on occasion) and had to revise my belief.

    Question: Do you think that President Obama’s “bombshell” announcement on gay marriage helped by social media?

    • Olivia Roat says:

      This is a very good point, that we see retweets from followers who have different political beliefs than we do. But, I would argue that you are in the minority when it comes to revising your preexisting beliefs (and I think research would support me). There are a wealth of studies on the confirmation bias- a review by Raymond Nickerson, a study by Martin Jones and Robert Sugden, a study by Carolyn O’Reilly to name a few. (There’s also the backfire effect which I mention above.)
      As far as Obama’s announcement, I think social media certainly helped the reach of his message. I know my Twitter timeline was filled with commentary on Obama’s support for gay marriage and also tweets from people reacting to Obama.There’s actually an article on Mashable about how a GIF Tumblr called “When Obama Endorsed” was created minutes after Obama’s announcement and subsequently went viral.

  • RC says:

    Yes to those regular users and more easily influenced would certainly say would have an effect, less so with those using more traditional / old fashioned forms of communication.

  • I find that those who are shouting the loudest on twitter, are losing. This happened for the London Mayor elections recently. #sackboris hashtag was much stronger than #backboris, despite this – he did win.

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