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What you need to know about the 2020 elections across the greater Tampa Bay region.

Don't Trust Social Media To Inform Your Election Decisions, Survey Shows

Facebook and Twitter on a mobile screen

A USF School of Public Affairs survey asked 600 people about how they use social media for news during this election season.

A survey conducted by the University of South Florida finds that while people are increasingly reliant on social media for election-related news, they're also becoming increasingly skeptical of what they're seeing.

It found many Floridians rely on Facebook to remain up-to-date about the election, although over 63% report they don’t trust social media as an accurate form of news.

Thirty-three percent of those polled say they are "not very confident" in the accuracy, while 30% are "not at all confident."

The statewide survey of 600 Floridians asked them about their feelings and opinions about social media in politics.

One thing is for certain, according to survey organizers, nearly all Floridians agree this election is arguably one of the most important to date. However, it's also one of the most stressful.

“We found over 55% of Floridians saying that the election is a considerable source of stress for them,” said Stephen Neely, Associate Professor in the USF School of Public Affairs. “(That) is a really compelling statistic, especially in the face of a pandemic and economic downturn.”

The data argued that for many, social media has become a toxic and untrustworthy place. Participants often used words like “frustrating,” “hateful,” and “offensive” when asked to describe it.

But Neely said, "social media in politics is here to stay.”

“So there's a really interesting paradox with social media that we increasingly rely on it for news and information,” said Neely.

Facebook especially has allowed for the development of what Neely referred to as "echo chambers:” virtual spaces where like-minded individuals sharing similar content can post with minimal opposition or rebuttal, allowing personal opinions to intensify.

Neely blames a behavior called “selective avoidance,” where users choose to block out opposition. Selective avoidance could also be blamed for the alarming numbers surrounding “unfriending” and “unfollowing” on Facebook, a trend seeming to increase.

“We found that 29%, almost a third of Floridians, have unfriended or unfollowed someone on social media due to their political posts,” said Neely, “In some cases, that was because someone posted about politics too often. In other cases, it's because they simply posted things that were disagreeable or offensive.”

Neely added these "echo chambers" can become shelters for misinformation, with users tending to put more trust in the feed since it's curated especially for them.

While social media is centered around such personalization, disregarding alternative viewpoints could prove to be detrimental.

“You're putting yourself in a situation where you have political beliefs and ideas that go unchallenged," Neely explained. "You don't have reasonable debate and discourse with counterpoints of view and you create the environment not only in which polarization can flourish, but also in which misinformation can flourish.”

Some users are beginning to blame Facebook’s algorithm for contributing to these "echo chambers."

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the U.S. Senate Wednesday to defend against the allegation that major tech companies are biased against conservatives.

“(Facebook) trains the algorithms that social media platforms use, so that they keep making recommendations that are more narrowly defined by your political interests,” said Neely.

“This can build an environment in which people are talking about the same things, but talking about them with different groups of people in different terms, and never really sharing or debating ideas in a constructive way.”

The Trump administration uses social media more than any other presidential candidate in the past, which could be why 42% of Republicans polled rely on Facebook for their political news. That compares to 29% of Democrats and 19% of independents.

“Republicans might be a little more likely to say, yeah, we trust what we see on social media, because that's where Trump talks to us,” said Neely.

On the other side, “we see folks who were just telling us that, ‘yeah, I don't really trust the information there, but it's hard to look away,'” Neely said.

He presumes Democrats may be more hesitant or disenchanted by politics in social media because of its association with Trump.

“The greatest power of the presidency...is the power to set the agenda, the power to kind of dictate the conversation, and platforms like Twitter are a perfect tool for that,” said Neely.

Besides setting the agenda, the increasing use of social media in politics will help set the tone for elections to come.

“I think that some of the challenges that we see with echo chambers, and with polarization kind of being fueled by social media use, are real problems that we're going to have to look at and address over the coming years," said Neely.

"They really do have a major effect on the political climate in the United States.”

The survey was conducted online among 600 individuals from October 10-17. The results are reported with a 95% confidence level and an associated margin of error at +/- 4.

Deanna Lampasona Colon is a WUSF/USF Zimmerman School digital news intern for fall 2020.