Arguing Politics on Facebook

“In modern politics, even the leader of the free world needs help from the sultan of Facebookistan.” ― Rebecca MacKinnon

Rebecca A. Hayes, Andrew Smock, and Caleb T. Carr published, “Face[book] Management: Self-Presentation of Political Views on Social Media” in the 66th volume of Communication Studies, November-December 2015.

Why the study? During the 2008 U.S. Presidential election, SNS (social network sites) had little if any effect on political communication or the election outcome. However, by 2012’s election cycle, SNS political communication was firmly embedded in the process, both promoting political discussion and increasing participation. The authors argue that the frequent tension between political disclosure on Facebook and maintaining friends on the site leads many users to employ face management.

“The management of political communication warrants study as it results in selective political exposure, potentially homogenizing an otherwise politically heterogeneous environment. The popularity and growing diversity of Facebook, combined with the availability of tools allowing users to filter the content they are exposed to and to limit which members of their network may view their shared content, make it an ideal setting to study self-censorship and the management of political communication.”

Research questions that guide the study:

How are users managing their disclosure of and exposure to political activity on Facebook?

What personal characteristics distinguish someone highly engaged in political Facebook management behavior?

What did the study find?

Managing Political Interaction: Only 17.9% of study participants reported that they hold strong political beliefs, while only 14.5% reported limiting or hiding content with which they disagree. Of these participants, those with high levels of political interest, participation, trust, and internal efficacy (belief they can personally understand and influence political processes) are more likely to disclose politically on FB, while also limiting their exposure to opposing viewpoints. However, those higher in external efficacy (belief that the government will respond to demands from citizens) were less likely to do so. Those who consider themselves to be opinion leaders do not politically disclose any more than others.

Managing Personal Image: Nearly half–42%–of study participants believe that FB is an appropriate setting for personal political expression, and they feel comfortable posting political content as a form of self-presentation. A Facebook users’ network size influenced political disclosures, and having more friends increased the likelihood of political discussion, which supports earlier research about SNS and increased discourse and participation. However, users with large social networks also are more likely to hide and unfriend network members with whom they disagree or limit exposure to content they find objectionable.

Quick summary of method? The authors developed a unique measurement tool, the Political Facebook Management Behavior scale (PFMB), to gather data: “Informed by self-presentation and cognitive dissonance theory, an initial group of 20 Likert-type questions were generated regarding engaging in Facebook political discussions, limiting friend’s access to posts, and hiding or defriending people because of their political statements. An outside expert reviewer helped determine these items demonstrated content validity.”

Participants in the study were chosen because of their heavy use of FB and because they are often the most targeted by political content: “A nationally representative sample of 18- to 29-year-old participants (N 1⁄4 352) was recruited with the assistance of, and compensated according to their agreement with, the Qualtrics research firm.” In total, 176 females and 176 males completed online surveys after the 2012 Presidential election, and they were not asked to disclose ethnicity.

Take-aways?

  • The political diversity of users’ networks may decrease as they become larger.
  • Those who believe government is responsive to citizens may choose to limit political disclosure on FB.
  • Those who believe they understand and can influence politics may choose to disclose political views more often on FB, while they also may limit their exposure to opposing viewpoints.
  • Those who believe they are opinion leaders tend not to disclose any more than others on FB.
  • Self-presentation online differs from  face-to-face presentation because individuals carefully craft a desirable image before sharing and are much more selective about disclosing.
  • Context-collapse–when social spheres collide and converge–means self-presentation may be self-censored because users often imagine they have an audience that could be offended or is sensitive.

    Rebecca A. Hayes (PhD, Michigan State University) is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Illinois State University. Her research interests lie in the political and brand uses of social media, focusing on how political campaigns and brands are using social media platforms to connect with voters and consumers, and how voters and consumers respond to these efforts. Correspondence to: Rebecca A. Hayes, Illinois State University, School of Communication, Campus Box 4480, Normal, IL 61790, USA. E-mail: rahayes@ilstu.edu

    Andrew Smock (PhD, Michigan State University) is an Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. His research focuses on the social impli- cations of new media, with an emphasis on issues concerning the behavior of social media users.

    Caleb T. Carr (PhD, Michigan State University) is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Illinois State University. His research addresses how new media alter communicative processes, including how social media are used for organizational uncertainty reduction, in group collaborations, and to create and maintain identity online.

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