Agenda Setting through Social Media: The Importance of Incidental News Exposure and Social Filtering in the Digital Era

Published date01 June 2018
Date01 June 2018
AuthorJessica T. Feezell
DOI10.1177/1065912917744895
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18Gndqv9RW0X5P/input 744895PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917744895Political Research QuarterlyFeezell
research-article2017
Article
Political Research Quarterly
2018, Vol. 71(2) 482 –494
Agenda Setting through Social Media:
© 2017 University of Utah
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The Importance of Incidental News
https://doi.org/10.1177/1065912917744895
DOI: 10.1177/1065912917744895
journals.sagepub.com/home/prq
Exposure and Social Filtering in the
Digital Era
Jessica T. Feezell1
Abstract
Conventional models of agenda setting hold that mainstream media influence the public agenda by leading audience
attention, and perceived importance, to certain issues. However, increased selectivity and audience fragmentation
in today’s digital media environment threaten the traditional agenda-setting power of the mass media. An important
development to consider in light of this change is the growing use of social media for entertainment and information.
This study investigates whether mainstream media can influence the public agenda when channeled through social
media. By leveraging an original, longitudinal experiment, I test whether being exposed to political information
through Facebook yields an agenda-setting effect by raising participants’ perceived importance of certain policy issues.
Findings show that participants exposed to political information on Facebook exhibit increased levels of issue salience
consistent with the issues shared compared with participants who were not shown political information; these effects
are strongest among those with low political interest.
Keywords
agenda setting, social media, Facebook, two-step flow of communication, incidental exposure
During the broadcast era, there were relatively few media
increased ability of those with low levels of political
outlets. Their programming was able to reach broad
interest to avoid the news agenda altogether (Prior 2007),
audiences, and, therefore, that programming held signifi-
call into question the continuing ability of the mass
cant influence over the public agenda. In the present
media to reach and inform the general public and, there-
media environment, however, there are far more media
fore, foster consensus on the important issues of the day
sources, allowing for the tailoring of media consumption
(Chaffee and Wilson 1977; McCombs and Zhu 1995;
to suit individual audience members’ interests, and thus
Tan and Weaver 2013).
threatening the long-held ability of the mass media to
As the audience for mass media contracts, the number
shape the public agenda (Chaffee and Metzger 2001;
of people who report getting their news through social
McCombs 2005; Prior 2007; Williams and Delli Carpini
media is growing (Gottfried and Shearer 2016). Social
2011). This shift from mass broadcasting to large audi-
media may engender an agenda-setting effect through the
ences toward niche media reaching more narrowly tar-
social sharing of political news and, relatedly, through
geted and attentive audiences is commonly referred to as
increased incidental exposure to political information
audience fragmentation and is widely believed to be a
among those who might otherwise choose to avoid it.
source of change in political behavior and public opin-
This study asks the following question: can social media
ion. McCombs (2005, 545) points out that the heteroge-
convey an agenda-setting effect in an environment
neous media available on the Internet, for example, can
marked by abundant media choice and increased individ-
lead to diverse agendas among the public, a “situation
ual selectivity? Despite the potential for social media to
that would spell the demise of agenda setting as we have
known it.” Subsequently, a public that does not share a
1University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, USA
common agenda may find it impossible to come together
and engage in collective action because its members dis-
Corresponding Author:
Jessica T. Feezell, University of New Mexico, 1 University of New
agree on what is important to society (Chaffee and
Mexico, MCS05 3070, Albuquerque, NM 87131-0001, USA.
Metzger 2001). The fragmentation of audiences, and the
Email: jfeezell@unm.edu

Feezell
483
shape the public agenda in the contemporary media envi-
group exposed to political information with a control
ronment, significant challenges to the study of these
group who were not, and tests whether the treatment
effects have left this question unanswered.
group exhibits agenda-setting effects consistent with the
One way in which the mass media agenda is able to
information shared. This design improves external valid-
reach an audience beyond its direct receivers is through
ity by exposing participants to a realistic treatment
the social filtering of information. This filtering phenom-
through their own Facebook News Feed administered
enon was dubbed the “two-step flow of communication”
over the course of nearly three months. The panel data
by Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955) who described the process
derived from the longitudinal design not only allow for
wherein political information is filtered to receivers
more precise measurement of individual-level change
through the opinion leaders in their personal network.
resulting from the treatment (Bartels 2006), but also
The two-step flow of communication imparts greater per-
account for the influence of moderators, such as political
sonal relevance to political information, which helps to
interest, on this effect. Overall, the findings show that
extend the audience for any given media outlet or story
agenda setting can occur through social media platforms
and, in doing so, to influence otherwise inattentive citi-
via incidental exposure to political information and that
zens. The social sharing of information through social
this effect is strongest among the least politically inter-
media might help to offset some of the consequences of
ested. These findings have important implications for the
audience fragmentation, and informational selectivity in
study of agenda-setting effects and for our understanding
particular, and therefore help to distribute the mass media
of how social media can enable more diversified agendas
agenda to the broader public.
through incidental exposure to political information.
The social sharing of the media agenda can help infor-
mation reach a larger audience through incidental expo-
A Fragmented Audience and Agenda
sure. The term “incidental political information” is used
Setting
to describe exposure to political information that results
as a second-order effect of first-order entertainment seek-
Audience fragmentation, specifically along lines of polit-
ing. However, recent technological developments, such
ical interest, raises concerns about the distribution of
as user-curated content and news feeds, make it easy for
political information within society. During the broadcast
receivers to customize their media consumption, result-
era, even the most politically averse were exposed to
ing in less exposure to incidental political information in
some political information—often inadvertently or
the digital media environment. The overall reduction of
through their social networks. Prior (2007) demonstrates
incidental exposure to political information not only
that public exposure to political information is lower
leads to lower levels of political knowledge and partici-
today than during previous decades not only because peo-
pation (Prior 2007), but also poses an additional threat to
ple are choosing entertainment over news, but also
the traditional agenda-setting power of the mass media in
because people are less likely to be inadvertently exposed
the form of personalized political agendas (Chaffee and
to political information due to greater selectivity. For
Metzger 2001; McCombs 2005).
example, on-demand TV viewing allows people to see
In this article, I argue that social media can serve an
only what they want and to more easily avoid incidental
agenda-setting function by providing users with inciden-
information such as plugs for the nightly news that air
tal political information as filtered through the process of
before their desired program. Therefore, as fewer people
two-step communication flow within their networks.
tune in to watch the news, and fewer still encounter inci-
Furthermore, I expect that this agenda-setting effect will
dental exposure as a result of more efficient technology,
be strongest for politically uninterested individuals as
the ability of the mass media to reach the masses declines.
they are known to experience a higher level of uncer-
Inadvertent exposure to political information helps to
tainty about political affairs (Delli Carpini and Keeter
maintain a moderate level of political knowledge among
1996). Uncertainty, coupled with socially imparted issue
the politically uninterested, but without it, the divide
relevance through the networked sharing of information,
between the information-rich and -poor may endure and
makes this population most susceptible to agenda-setting
even widen (Norris 2001).
effects conveyed through social media (Matthes 2006;
Mass media agenda setting and the public agenda have
McCombs 2004; McCombs, Shaw, and Weaver 2014).
important consequences for policy making and represen-
Many studies of agenda-setting effects are limited in
tational accountability. The policy...

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