Social media platforms, particularly Twitter, are often used as an arena to voice political opinions. The huge volume of posts made in reaction to political events has led some to consider social media as a ‘public sphere 2.0’: a place where democracy thrives in its ability to rapidly share ideas and debate the merits of policy.
Given this wealth of opinion sharing and the current financial and time pressures that journalists are currently experiencing, more and more are turning to Twitter as a source for opinions from ordinary people. Such tweets fulfil the role of the traditional ‘vox pop’ or ‘man-on-the-street’ type interview whereby journalists present the views of ordinary people who are not directly connected to the issue at hand and are apparently chosen for inclusion at random.
There are great advantages of including social posts as vox pops. Especially the usually public nature of Twitter users’ privacy norms and the resulting enormity of easily searchable opinions. This allows journalists to embed their choice of posts within news articles in a matter of minutes, without ever having to leave their desk.
Academic content analysis shows that such advantages are being reflected journalists habits. There has been a rapid increase in the amount of tweets included within news articles and they are particularly relevant in political reporting. Indeed, research by Broersma and Graham (2012) found that vox pop tweets were the predominantly cited type of tweets in news articles during the 2010 UK general election, comfortably outnumbering those from politicians and experts across both popular and quality newspapers.
Pic by Nicole Honeyill on Unsplash.
My co-author, Delia Dumitrescu (University of East Anglia), and I were curious to see if this increasingly prevalent practice of embedding tweets as vox pops had an impact on news consumers.
To investigate, we turned to the ‘media effects’ tradition: an element of communications research that applies the methods of psychological investigation to the questions of media influence. Drawing inspiration from studies of man-on-the-street interviews in traditional media, we devised an experiment to test the perceptual of impact tweets in online news.
Taking the government policies of a new highway, as well as the integration of NHS healthcare with local authority social care as our article topics, we found that exposing participants to a balanced news article followed by a selection of tweets could significantly impact their perceptions of public opinion.
More precisely, if participants were shown a balanced news article with the addition of five embedded vox pop tweets where four tweets were supportive and one was disapproving, it resulted in readers perceiving wider public opinion as considerably more supportive of the policy compared to readers who only read the balanced article without any tweets being included.
The same was true, although in reverse, when participants read articles that contained more disapproving tweets than supportive ones. People exposed to this condition perceived the general public to be considerably less approving of the government policy than readers exposed to the balanced article without any tweets. In both cases, and for both policy topics, the effect sizes seen were considerable.
These results are striking when one considers that the only thing that differed between the articles were inclusion and ratio of positive to negative vox pop tweets.
The findings thus demonstrate a manner in which social media posts can have a significant, measurable and replicable impact on audience’s perceptions. As such, employing tweets in this manner could be a powerful tool of influence.
However, the scope for intentional and unintentional manipulation of on people’s perceptions, on the basis of something as easy and unsuspecting as selecting a few tweets, is something worthy of consideration.
There have been recent examples where journalists have mistakenly selected and distrubuted tweets for inclusion in vox pops that were later proven to be malicious disinformation.
To find out more about our study you can see our article published in New Media and Society, here. If you are unable to access it through those means or would like more information, then please get in touch via email@example.com.
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