USF survey shows Floridians' use of social media during election and its polarizing effects

Posted at 6:15 PM, Oct 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-28 18:15:15-04

TAMPA, Fla. — If you’ve scrolled through your social media feeds lately, you’ve probably found a lot of political posts.

USF researchers released results of a statewide survey on Floridians’ use of Facebook to engage with the presidential election, as well as how they feel about the political information they come across online.

“Floridians and Americans, in general, are turning to social media more and more to follow politics, to follow news and information, to stay informed, and to engage with public life,” said Stephen Neely, an Associate Professor at the University of South Florida School of Public Affairs. “But at the same time, they’re pretty distrustful of the information that they see there.”

In fact, the results found more than half, about 58%, of people surveyed said they’ve relied on Facebook at least “a little” to stay informed about the presidential election. Despite that, the survey also found nearly two-thirds of Floridians surveyed at about 63% said they are “not very confident” or “not at all confident” in the accuracy of the political information they find on Facebook.

The survey results showed more than a quarter of those surveyed unfriended or unfollowed someone on Facebook in the past three months over political posts. Neely explained that can lead to an echo chamber on your feed.

“An echo chamber is just a social network that is kind of closed off to competing points of view and to alternative ideas and so you see the same ideas repeated over and over in those networks and social circles, and they start to become accepted as fact without being challenged by external sources or other points of view," said Neely.

We asked our ABC Action News political analyst Susan MacManus to weigh in on social media use during elections. MacManus said the deepening divide among Americans and Floridians is troubling to many people who think polarization is harmful to the future of democracy.

“It certainly does make people more polarized. It’s very much like cable television, you can tell someone’s politics by what social media networks that they talk about or communicate with their friends through,” said MacManus. “It’s not getting any better, nor is polarization in this country. It’s everywhere, it’s in parties, it’s in issues, it’s in friendship circles.”

However, to solve the polarization problem, some experts explain that social media might not be the key.

“It’s more likely that community and face to face engagements and interactions and kind of learning to see things from other people’s perspective in real life is going to be the better means of overcoming some of that polarization,” said Neely.