Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Twitter May Not Make Us Stupid, But ...

There is of course a silly argument semi-raging online about whether Twitter makes us stupid.  Of course it doesn't.  Making us dumber is the job of reality television, especially Jersey Shore.

But this does raise the question of whether exposure to Twitter is associated with greater political knowledge.

The answer?  No one knows.

Few if any studies directly examine the micro-blogging site Twitter and any potential political learning.  A number of studies have examined the motivations for reading blogs or Internet use among the young and participation or even the troubling consequeces of online rumors, which leads to misperceptions rather than knowledge.  So far I haven't seen any solid, systematic attempts to explore whether Twitter leads to greater knowledge.  They may be out there, but I haven't found them.

And so, like any good blogging academic, I'm gonna make stuff up. 

Or rather, I'll extrapolate what we know about media consumption and political knowledge to answer the question of whether Twitter makes us politically smarter, politically dumber, or (to not bury the lede) probably makes no difference at all.

The Dumber Argument

Twitter as social media automatically gets frowned on, just as television news did as it emerged to overtake print news consumption, and not without good reason.  TV news does suffer from delusions of adequacy, but we know now that watching news on TV actually leads to greater knowledge -- for those who have little prior knowledge, or who are less educated, or who are less interested in public affairs. 

In other words, TV news works best for those who don't know all that much in the first place. But what about Twitter?  The argument for dumber is based on a large part to the billions of stupid posts that litter the Twittersphere.  Never mind the good posts, the 140 characters-or-less comments and pointers to good journalism.  There is a time-wasting aspect to Twitter, certainly, and the dumber argument rests largely on the combination of stupid posts and time spent on a medium that presents itself in fragmented, oddly phrased posts.  It's not a bad argument, but it's wrong.  There is no data that suggests reading tweets makes you dumber or even shortens your attention span.  It does steal time from more meaningful content, but a counter to that is that many tweets actually point toward compelling content a reader may have missed otherwise.

The Smarter Argument

There is little data to support this argument either.  Some correlational data may suggest greater political knowledge is associated with using Twitter, but that's a function of the kind of people who choose to tweet or read tweets -- people who happen to already be news junkies.  Even statistical controls for various demographics may not capture all the factors that better explain what people know than would using Twitter. 

For the chattering class and those who follow the chattering class, no doubt Twitter is a boon.  But does it lead to greater knowledge? No.  For those folks, they're probably learning no more than they already know, which is probably a lot based on traditional tests of political knowledge.  Twitter is another tool, but it's not making anyone like to use it any smarter.  There's a ceiling effect here.  But what about Twitter users who are not news junkies?  Odds are they're not any smarter, politically, from the medium and indeed their social use of tweets would probably drive down the political knowledge scores of overall Twitter users.  Which leads us to the next category ...

Twitter Makes No Difference

This argument rests largely on the lack of data, the discussion above of how the news junkies have a ceiling effect on knowledge and social users might offset any high scores Twitter users get on tests of political knowledge, and an appreciation for a finely crafted null hypothesis. 

There are strong methodological reasons why exposure to mainstream news sources may actually be unrelated to political knowledge, in part due to measurement error associated with the kinds of exposure questions we ask in surveys.  I don't buy that particular argument, though it's loved by political scientists who tend to shy away from, or explain away, media factors in understanding politics.  The media have a modest but significant relationship with knowledge, but Twitter -- once you control for other factors and due to its unique audience -- will not have enough variance left to explain. 

In other words, Twitter will be found to be unrelated to political knowledge.  It doesn't make you smarter, it doesn't make you dumber.  At least not politically.  People who are drawn to Twitter to escape the news, those folks fled the news long ago.

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