People using social media while viewing political debates learn less about candidates

A study published in Political Communication has found that knowledge of candidates gained by watching televised debates is compromised by simultaneous use of social media.

The study was based on three waves of a six-wave Annenberg Public Policy Center survey, each including at least 1,216 interviews with U.S. adults. Two waves were based on debates between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, and the third took place post-election.

More than one in five people who watched at least some of the 2012 presidential election debates reported simultaneously following reactions on social media. Debate viewing-social media multitaskers actually learned less about the candidates, particularly their preferred candidate. “Overall,” said lead author Jeffrey Gottfried, “debates are still an incredibly powerful forum in which people can learn about the candidates. But social media seem to be distracting viewers from learning.”

Social media’s popularity as a news source is growing exponentially, especially among younger demographics – 44 percent of 18 to 29-year-old respondents used social media while watching the third presidential debate, compared to only ten percent of those ages 50 and up.

The findings suggest that watching a debate with or without simultaneous social media use is more informative than not watching a debate at all, and social media use correlates overall with increased knowledge of campaign issues and facts. Still, the increasing prevalence of social media use over subsequent election cycles carries the potential to diminish positive effects of debate viewing.

“If you want to learn as much as you can about the candidates’ stands,” advised co-author Bruce Hardy, “don’t simultaneously use social media.”