A functioning democracy depends on an informed population. Yet people understandably struggle to retain much of the information they are deluged with each day. A study of the 2016 presidential debates suggests Twitter can help. Not reading it, but tweeting it, since people who live-tweet about what they witness remember more afterward.
"Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, we were particularly interested in exploring the influence of social media, including Twitter, on voters' political attitudes and behaviors," said Professor Mitchell McKinney of the University of Missouri in a statement. “We wanted to assess if those following and tweeting during the debates actually learned anything about political issues."
McKinney had participants watch the primary debates and divided them into randomized groups. One set were instructed to tweet their support for their preferred candidate, while another were asked to play the role of independent commentators, trying to be as accurate as possible in summarizing the candidates' points.
All that tweeting might have been expected to prove a distraction, causing people to miss important statements while they were typing their comments about the last one, but McKinney reported the opposite in American Behavioral Scientist. When given license to be partisan, people tweeted a lot more and, said McKinney, “those who tweeted more frequently during the debate scored higher on post-debate knowledge questions.” Tweeting about the issues candidates discussed was, unsurprisingly, better for learning than discussing a candidate's style or image.
The authors intend to continue their research on the interaction between social media and politics. A follow-up study is to be published in a book of essays on media and the 2016 campaign.
US presidential elections have been heavily studied in the past to learn how voters make their decisions. Nevertheless, 2016 was probably unprecedented in the urgency of the research, particularly with regard to the way fake news spread through social media and concerns about increased polarization.
Many assumptions on this topic have yet to be adequately tested, however. Social media has been blamed for increased polarization, with more and more people only listening to those they agree with. However, one study found that, rather than being responsible for polarization, social media users were actually less polarized than their contemporaries.
The study could also have implications outside politics. Academics have ruefully joked for decades that lectures are a method for transferring information from the lecturer's notes to those of the students without passing through the mind of either. Of course, the problem is not that the information doesn't pass through, but that it often doesn't stick. Perhaps having students live-tweet their classes will increase the chance they hold onto some of the knowledge they’re supposed to be gaining.