Information Hubs or Drains?: The Role of Online Sources in Campaign Learning

Information Hubs or Drains?: The Role of Online Sources in Campaign Learning

Terri L. Towner
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 23
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1828-1.ch007
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This chapter investigates the link between young adults' attention to campaign information on offline and online media and their knowledge about political facts and candidate issues. The findings, based on a unique, three-wave panel survey conducted during the 2012 U.S. presidential election, show that attention to campaign information on offline sources, such as television, hard-copy newspapers, and radio, was not significantly related to political knowledge. Instead, young adults' attention to online sources played a more important role. Specifically, political knowledge levels were significantly and positively linked to attention to campaign information in online newspapers and television campaign websites. In contrast, attention to campaign information on social media, particularly Facebook and Google+, was negatively related to political knowledge levels during the fall campaign period. Therefore, this study suggests that certain forms of online media serve as a drain on political knowledge whereas attention to other digital outlets can serve as hubs of information.
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Many political pundits and observers dubbed the 2008 U.S. presidential election as “the Facebook” election or “the social media election”, as Barack Obama’s campaign employed online outlets, such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, and blogs, to reach voters, raise money, build a grassroots network, and ultimately win the White House. Few would dispute, however, that the 2008 campaign was just the beginning, as the 2012 presidential elections truly saw the expansion of online tools in political campaigns. Along with traditional media, the Obama and Romney campaigns used microblogs, wikis, social networks, photo-sharing websites, mobile apps, and video-sharing websites to reach the electorate. According to the Pew Research Center (2012a), both campaigns strongly embraced social media tools and the Internet, indicating that online tools are now necessary to reach voters as well as mobilize and inform them. Given the latter, the 2012 presidential election offers the best opportunity to examine the influence of attention to campaign information in traditional and online media on political attitudes.

This research’s goal is to examine the influence of attention to campaign information in various online media sources on political knowledge, specifically factual political information (or differentiated knowledge) and candidate issue stances (or integrated knowledge). Presently, it is unclear if online sources serve as information hubs during a political campaign, aiding in knowledge about issues and candidates, or drains, providing little to no information about the political arena. Previous research examining traditional media’s role in informing the electorate have generally confirmed some positive associations between television and hard-copy newspapers and political knowledge (e.g., Drew & Weaver, 2006; Druckman, 2005; Robinson & Levy, 1986; Sotirovic & McLeod, 2004; Weaver & Drew, 2001; Zhao & Chaffee, 1995). More recently, scholarly attention has shifted to the effects of online sources on political attitudes. Surprisingly, however, evidence regarding online sources’ contribution in creating a more informed electorate remains elusive. On one hand, recent studies suggest that the influence of certain online sources, particularly social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, in creating an informed citizenry is minimal (Baumgartner & Morris, 2010; Dimitrova, Shehata, Stromback, & Nord, 2014; Groshek & Dimitrova, 2011; Kaufhold, Valenzuela, & Gil de Zuniga, 2010; Pasek, More, & Romer, 2009; Towner & Dulio, 2011a) whereas as others find evidence that attention to some online outlets, principally online newspapers, can increase political knowledge levels (Dalrymple & Scheufele, 2007). Clearly, then, the influence of attention to campaign information in various online sources on political learning requires further examination.

This research examines attention to campaign information in online and offline media using a three-wave panel survey of college students during the 2012 presidential campaign. The survey focuses on measuring young adults’ attention to campaign information on various online sources, particularly online newspapers, television network websites, presidential candidate websites, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr, and political blogs. In addition, respondents’ level of political knowledge is measured, such as knowledge of political facts and candidate issues. The goal is to determine if there is significant relationship between attention paid to campaign information on different media outlets and political knowledge throughout the 2012 campaign period.

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