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People in Spain who get their news on Facebook are less worried about unemployment and corruption

  Foto: Unsplash/John Schnobrich

Foto: Unsplash/John Schnobrich

A pioneering study reveals that politics, immigration, nationalism and R&D spending are the top concerns for social media news consumers

The likelihood of individuals citing unemployment and corruption as the principal problems faced by society in Spain is significantly reduced if they source their news through Facebook. That is one of the main conclusions to come out of the study entitled “Is Facebook Eroding the Public Agenda?”, a joint project involving researchers from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), Universitat Autnoma de Barcelona (UAB) and the University of Oxford

The three authors of the study, Ana Sofa Cardenal (UOC), Carol Galais (UAB) and Slvia Maj-Vzquez (University of Oxford), were interested in discovering whether the consumption of news through social media networks such as Facebook would have any impact on the priorities that individuals place on the issues set by the public agenda. In Spain, these issues are defined through various surveys carried out each month by the Centro de Investigaciones Sociolgicas (Sociological Research Centre, CIS). In recent years, this agenda has been topped by two main issues: in first place, unemployment; and, second, corruption

This study is ground-breaking, the first of its kind to conduct research into the way social media shapes individual agendas (in other words, individuals’ perceptions of important issues), revealing that citizens who source their news via Facebook are interested in a more diverse array of issues than those who do so through traditional media. They are, therefore, less likely to cite unemployment and corruption among their main concerns, but add others to list instead. The study found that politics, immigration, nationalism and R&D spending are among the principal concerns expressed by Facebook news consumers.

The results of the study demonstrate that individuals who do not access news through Facebook have a 47% chance of citing the two top problems (unemployment and corruption) among their concerns. That figure drops to 35% if the individual has accessed news through Facebook 17 times, and to 9% if they have done so a total of 73 times. Thus, the study concludes that “the more an individual uses Facebook as a platform to access news, the less likely they are to mention the main problems facing the Spanish population”. Conversely, those who source their information through more traditional channels, such as television, are more likely to end up mentioning unemployment and corruption when asked to list the major problems in Spain.


The sample

These results are based on data collected from a sample of 408 Spaniards aged 18 to 74 in a process that combined surveys and the tracking of internet browser histories over a period of three months, between 27 January and 27 April 2015. Fifty-seven percent of the participants in the study were university degree holders.


Facebook, the most popular social media network

The study, published in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, focuses on the most popular social media network: Facebook. It is estimated that Facebook is used by 73% of the Spanish population, 47% of which use it to source news. However, another study, coordinated by researcher Seth Flaxman, also highlights that only one in every 300 clicks made to links posted on Facebook lead to important news articles and that the vast majority bring individuals to videos or photos.


Enrichment or impoverishment of the public agenda?

What might cause the differences between those who consume news through social media and those who do not? UOC researcher and Law and Political Science professor Ana Sofia Cardenal proposes two hypotheses. On the one hand, it could be that the consumption of information through Facebook exposes citizens to a broader range of subjects and opinions. Alternatively, these people may also end up limiting their pool of information and only looking at problems that are important to their circle of contacts and friends with whom they have shared interests.

In other words, the issues which concern individuals who get their information through Facebook may be more superficial in nature and unrelated to the problems of society; or, alternatively, they may have a more diverse range of interests and are looking to introduce new issues onto the public agenda. “Agendas can expand and enrich matters of public interest and help to update the public agenda”, the study claims.

Cardenal goes on to stress that the analysis “is unable to conclude whether this enriches or impoverishes the public agenda”. In fact, the researchers are now carrying out more in-depth studies to look at whether the consumption of news through social media dissociates users from public concerns or, conversely, helps to establish new priorities.


The benefits of setting a common public agenda

The fact that certain groups of people have different priorities than those of society as a whole can, according to Cardenal, have a negative impact on the Government of Catalonia’s ability to make decisions. The authors of the study point to preservation of a common public agenda as a key factor in terms of social integration, collective decision-making and democratic stability. “If the public agenda (that is, the problems that people care about) becomes fragmented as a result of different groups of people prioritizing different topics, the Government may find it harder to set common goals and make decisions”, says Cardenal. Fragmentation and diversification of the issues that concern people can also have some positive effects, however, such as the amplification of the public agenda.

If individuals develop a wider array of concerns, what repercussions might this have? Cardenal explains that impacts on the public agenda will depend on the degree of knowledge, engagement and participation of those who source their news through Facebook, adding that, if consuming news through Facebook increases individuals’ knowledge of politics and level of engagement, it is more likely that having a wider and more fragmented range of concerns will help to enrich the public agenda. “If, conversely, sourcing news through Facebook reduces knowledge of politics and level of engagement and promotes personal interests, that fragmentation in terms of issues is more likely to undermine and erode the public agenda”, she concludes.


Photograph of Ana Sofa Cardenal Izquierdo

Ana Sofa Cardenal Izquierdo

Expert in: Comparative politics; public opinion; social media; voting behaviour.

Knowledge area: Comparative politics and political behaviour.

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Carolina Galais Gonzlez

Expert in: Political participation, voting, public opinion, and political socialization.

Knowledge area: Political science.

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