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How Public Figures use Social Media to Shape Public Belief and Attitudes

How Public Figures use Social Media to Shape Public Belief and Attitudes

Social media is increasingly shaping public belief. Influential figures, such as politicians, religious leaders, and corporate companies, have resorted to social media to influence the public perception of a certain matter or situation (Mavrodiev, Schweitzer, & Tessone, 2013). Social influence as defined by Moussaid Kammer, Analytis, and Neth (2013) “is the process by which individuals adapt their opinion, revise their beliefs, or change their behavior as a result of social interactions with other people.” Research studies have discovered that in case a person is undecided about a particular issue, for example, whether to support gay marriage or not or whether to vote for Clinton or Trump, many will consider the information on social media to form their opinion (Moussaid et al., 2013). Currently, social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, have the widest audiences as compared to other mass media, which involve radio and TV (Thomas, 2015). According to a report by Quinn Thomas on social media usage, 80% of the population from Washington State is currently using social network sites with 90% of the respondents frequently spending their time on Facebook (Thomas, 2015). In this regard, social media has become a platform for a “battleground” for ideological confrontations, with many opinion shapers heavily relying on Facebook and Twitter to influence their readership. In general, social media is a virtual space where people express their opinion by commenting on a certain topic and discussing a particular idea. Xiong and Liu (2014) noted that the process of opinion formation on social networks is more complex than in the traditional sources of information, such as newspapers. Xiong and Liu (2014) argue that the feature of anonymity on social media platforms makes it easy for any individual to express his or her views without fear of being ostracized. According to Xiong and Liu (2014), this opportunity opens a new channel for the formation of public opinion.

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There have been inconsistent research findings on whether public figures effectively shape public beliefs and attitudes using social media. Happer & Philo (2013) examined the effect of social media in terms of the formation of public opinion. In his study, the author argues that although high-profile figures tend to employ social media to shape the population’s perception, there is little evidence that people who already hold a particular opinion can come under the influence of other individuals with an opposite standpoint, regardless of whether he or she is a public figure (Happer & Philo, 2013). For instance, politicians have often failed to change the opinion of those who advocate an opposing political party. However, Hellweg (2011) states that public figures that use social media exert a strong social influence on their followers. He conducted a study to determine the impact that various social networks used by politicians have on how their followers perceive them. Subsequently, Hellweg established that most people view the politicians who actively post manipulative messages on social media sites more positively and, thus, are likely to share their opinions (Hellweg, 2011).

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While supporting the idea that public figures have effectively used social media to shape public belief, Moussaid et al. (2013) outline the two primary tactics that tend to alter people’s opinions. To illustrate, one of such techniques is what the author calls the expert effect, which simply presupposes the presence of a public figure or an influential person in a particular group. Additionally, the second method is the majority effect, which refers to a majority of lay people who share a particular standpoint. Thus, according to Moussaid et al. (2013), public belief can develop as a result of expert or/and majority effects. Thomas (2015), however, claims that social media has drastically changed people’s views on public opinion about gay marriage or racial discrimination over a long period. Similarly, Happer and Philo (2013) and Grossauer (2017) argue that when people are exposed to a flow of repeated messages with the same gist on social media, they are likely to change their views on a particular subject. Considering the abovementioned findings, this paper examines how public figures use social media platforms to shape public beliefs and attitudes.

Research Question

· Do social media help influential figures shape public beliefs and attitudes to produce a desirable outcome?

Methodology

The paper applies a qualitative research method.

Data Collection

Participant observation enabled the collection of qualitative data. The given research technique is a method of collecting qualitative data whereby the researcher becomes involved in the activities of the group to which he or she belongs. First, Facebook was selected as the social media platform for the study because of its popularity marked by the highest number of users. Second, the research focuses on Jimmy Kimmel’s Facebook profile. Jimmy Kimmel is a public figure with a strong presence on Facebook, which has helped him garner many followers. This high-profile person is also rated as one of the most influential social figures in the U.S. The next stage of the study presupposed participant observation that in its turn involved selecting one of the Facebook posts of Jimmy Kimmel. Since the primary focus of the research was public opinion, it was logical to use the comments and online discussion of the post on diabetes that Kimmel wrote on his Facebook page as the primary data.

Analysis

The post by Jimmy Kimmel underwent an examination to determine the main message of the post. Then, the analysis involved reading the comments that were directly related to the post to understand the thinking patterns of the users who partook in the discussion. Additionally, two of the processed comments were used in the analysis phase: content analysis and thematic analysis.

During the content analysis, the post and the comments underwent an evaluation to identify the main topic, underline the keywords related to the post, distinguish the pattern, and eventually interpret the intended meaning.

Results and Discussion

The research question was to examine whether social media help influential figures shape public belief and attitudes to produce a desirable outcome. Jimmy Kimmel’s post on Facebook was analyzed based on its content and theme. According to the findings of the content analysis, the topic of Jimmy Kimmel’s post was: “Sugary diet increases the risk of diabetes”. Jimmy Kimmel wrote, “Thank you for the cookies – you are sweeter than diabetes” (see appendix). The analysis of the comments defined two patterns: “positive responses – sugary diet increases risk of diabetes” and “negative responses – sugary diet does not increase the risk of diabetes”.

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Considering the findings of the study, it is evident that Jimmy Kimmel, a public figure, initiated a debate about whether a sugary diet, which includes cookies and other pastry products, increases the chances of developing diabetes. The findings revealed that many people found this topic divisive and, therefore, commented on the post, starting a heated discussion on diabetes. The findings also demonstrated that the majority opposed the position of Jimmy Kimmel that sugary foods increase the risk of diabetes. In particular, one comment read “Type 1 Diabetes (an autoimmune disease NOT caused by “eating too many sweets”) (see appendix). The analysis of the comments agrees with some of the existing literature on the disease, while, at the same time, the substantial proportion of answers to the post contradicts the well-established opinion on the given issue. Accordingly, the result shows that public belief is not necessarily shaped by influential figures as some existing literature has noted (Hellweg, 2011) that the position of the majority also plays a critical role in shaping public belief. Moreover, the study enhances the findings of Moussaid et al. (2013) demonstrating that public belief can be shaped by either the expert effect or the majority effect. The study has determined that the majority of the followers rejected Jimmy Kimmel’s belief that sugary food increases the risk for type 1 diabetes. The results of the research also support the findings by Happer et al. (2013) that influential figures do not necessarily change public belief, especially in matters that require expertise evaluation. Moreover, the study revealed that the majority of Jimmy Kimmel’s followers did not agree with him, and neither did they change their position. This result contradicts the findings of the study by Hellweg (2011) who states that public figures using social media have higher credibility among their followers. According to the findings of this study, the majority of people did not support Jimmy Kimmel’s position on diabetes and sugary food.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the study aims to examine whether social media help public figures to shape societal beliefs and attitudes effectively. It discovered that public figures tend to use social media to effectively engage the public in the discussion of a particular topic and influence their opinion. However, about the result of such manipulations, the study has established that high-profile figures do not always manage to shape public belief and attitude toward a particular topic, especially if it concerns matters that require expert knowledge.

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