If you've been on social media even the tiniest skosh in the past six months or so, you know that you can't swing a stick these days without hitting a political post. And if you've found yourself in the center of any recent online debates involving presidential candidates, it might not feel like these conversations are particularly conducive to changes in perspective. However, a new study suggests social media can change people's minds, specifically when it comes to political views. Which is great news — political discourse should be a forum for sharing knowledge and expanding your ideas, not something you dread every.single.time you log on.
In the study, which was recently published in the Journal of Social Media Studies (yep, that's a thing), Dr. Jayeon Lee of Lehigh University and Dr. Teresa A. Meyers of George Mason University studied data from the Pew Research Center to determine the effect of social networking sites (or SNS) on changing opinions. The data was compiled by people self-reporting their Internet habits and chronicling whether or not online interactions led to any significant altering of their own perspectives. What Lee and Meyers found was that a considerable number of those polled — 684, to be precise — had been "exposed to a political opinion they did not agree with." Which, to be honest, seems low if we're going by my social media feed this month.
As far as the likelihood of said opposing opinions to change the viewer's mind, the researchers discovered it actually is quite possible, depending on factors such as how much value the person placed on keeping up with political information through social networking sites like Facebook:
If the person stumbles into a cross-cutting political discussion while using SNS, he or she has a high possibility of experiencing political view change or increased issue involvement. Likewise, even without cross-cutting discussion, if an SNS user is motivated for information, he or she is likely to experience political view change or issue involvement.
This sounds about right to me — I feel like even if I don't agree with the opposing opinions of someone politically, engaging in conversation with them or simply seeing their viewpoint makes me want to become more versed in both my point of view and theirs. That counts as increased issue involvement, right? What the study also determined was that people who do frequent social media for political information are "less exposed to diverse views." This also makes sense, given that normally your social media connections are people from similar walks of life as you or from similar regions of political thought. For example, I come from a historically Republican and conservative state, and therefore many of the people in my social-networking feeds have views that align accordingly. This makes it more difficult for someone like myself, who is neither of those things, to find a differing political discourse that aligns more with my own beliefs.
Ultimately, though, the researchers assert that homogeneity of ideology or not, engaging in any kind of cross-cutting political discussion does have a strong deliberation effect and can spur a change in views or involvement. So bottom line? Next time you find come across a political debate in your social media feed, don't just double down on your own beliefs — hear the other person out. The mind you change might be your own.
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