Is social media diversifying public agendas?

Agenda-setting (telling people ‘what to think about‘, in McCombs’ and Shaw’s terms) is a key role played by the mainstream media. As the public continues to consume an increasing amount of its news through alternative channels, such as social media, it raises the interesting question how agenda-setting in these channels differs from that in traditional sources. We might hypothesize that agendas are set in social media in a more diverse and democratized manner.

To explore whether social media is diversifying the agendas of public discourse, we conducted a study aimed at comparing content discussed over Twitter during the Korean 2012 general election period with that being discussed over that in the mainstream news media.

First, we found that stories circulated in social media tended to concentrate on a smaller number and narrower range of topics.

  • Three or four news stories received more than 70% of the tweets each day
  • The topical category of these stories were mostly limited to ‘politics and government’ while salient agendas of a mainstream outlet ranged over ‘environment/food’, ‘foreign policy’, ‘welfare’, etc.
Bar Chart - # topics discussed by media

This chart shows the number of identified topics discussed in each medium on each day. The diversity of topics discussed in social media was less than that of traditional outlets.

We further observed that attention in social media tended to skew to a few famous political figures and national issues. To better understand this skew in discussion, we looked into how content was disseminated, observing that:

  • The imbalance of circulation begins from the start (the stories that ultimately become popular are imported to Twitter much more frequently than others).
  • The circulation further narrows down to a few items due to the strong retweet tendency toward popular topics.
  • People who show this tendency have a strong impact in deciding the salient topics not only because they have better sense of potential popular items but also maintain relationships through retweeting others.

On the other hand, we also observed some possibility of diversification through an analysis of individual users.

  • There is a small segment of people who circulate a broad range of topics.
  • These people also share some interest and maintains relationship with the majority.

For more, see our full paper, Agenda Diversity in Social Media Discourse: A Study of the 2012 Korean General Election.

Souneil Park, Univ. of Michigan
Minsam Ko, Jaeung Lee, Junehwa Song, KAIST

2 thoughts on “Is social media diversifying public agendas?

  1. Hi, thanks for the interesting post. Did you also look at the different user types sharing the information? Actually it would be interesting to know if the “small segment of people (near 4%) who circulate many articles of different topics” are mostly individual users or if those are official orgnizations like news magazines.

    • Thanks for the question!
      We did look at some of them. The number of the “small segment of people” is 1,168 and we suspect that a significant portion of them are individuals. Even for the top 10, who (re)tweeted about 200 stories, two of them were news outlets, three were community-based account, and five were individuals (according to their profile description). We don’t have an accurate number for the rest, but I think the proportion of individuals will increase if we look at the accounts who tweeted less than the top 10.

Comments are closed.