Join the Debate: pick up your phone and forget the facts – they are too boring anyway.

With the United States general election coming up again, audiences are once again invited to join the conversation. To “use hash tag #TheDebate on Twitter”, or “vote on facebook”. To “follow the newest developments as they happen right from the source on this cool app, available for free on iOS and Android”, and “if you download it now, you can vote on who you think won the debate!” This increased participation is aimed at binding audiences and getting them involved with the program, but as recent research shows, is also to the detriment of people’s attention causing them to be unable to differentiate fact from fiction. While it seems unlikely the broadcasters are unaware of this negative effect, they increasingly and actively promote media multitasking to their audience.

A recent study by the university of Wisconsin discovered that the growth of digital, social and mobile media enabled audiences to engage in multiple media activities during their news consumption, and becoming more efficient and concurrent than before. This is nothing new nor surprising: technological developments in personal computing have enabled multitasking for decades, and has already been proven to decrease performance in multiple cognitive areas. What is new, though, is that the study finds proof that media multitasking is also detrimental for the factual political knowledge of the recipient. On top of that, their results show that people who multitask while watching political news actually claim to be more politically knowledgeable than people who don’t. Not only do they misinterpret what they see, hear, or read – they are also ignorant about it.

The authors, Weina Ran, Masahiro Yamamoto and Shan Xu, came to these conclusions following a web survey among 508 online panel members. They asked their respondents fifteen questions to determine whether, how often, and in what way they engaged in media multitasking while listening, watching or reading political news. This was complemented by eight multiple choice questions to test the factual knowledge of the respondent. To find knowledge discrepancies, respondents were asked to state their level of agreement with four statements meant to measure subjective political knowledge, such as “I classify myself as an expert in politics”. They went on to measure the respondents’ political interest, party affiliation, and political ideology, each with its own 7-point scale. Finally, both ‘offline media use’, ‘online media use’, and ‘social media use’ were measured in order to determine how much attention the respondent paid to each daily.

The resulting data was then subjected to a total of six ‘ordinary least squares’ (OLS) regression models. This revealed that using other media while consuming political news leads to significantly less factual political knowledge, and that using alternate media more frequently makes this effect worse. Further analysis of the data resulted in them concluding that respondents who often multitasked during their consumption of political news perceived themselves politically knowledgeable but had in fact lower levels of factual knowledge than those who multitasked more infrequently. Using two other forms of media during consumption only made this difference bigger. In total, over fifty per cent of the total variance in subjective political knowledge was explained by media multitasking.




While the results are remarkable and leave little room for interpretation, there are certain detractors to their study. Their sample (created from a nonprobability-based online panel) is not representative of the larger population since it is not truly randomized, making generalizations about their findings difficult. On top of that, true causality instead of mere correlation could not be confirmed due to the cross-sectional nature of the design. Certain unnamed or unmeasured factors might explain these differences better, which coincides with their statement that their measurement scale of media multitasking leaves room for improvement.

A possible explanation for the results found by Ran, Yamamoto and Xu, is proposed by a study from the Psychonomic Society, conducted under the supervision of Melina Uncapher. This study finds that chronic media multitaskers experience lower ‘working memory’ performance, influencing their long-term memory. As such, the study concludes, chronic media multitasking reduces an individual’s ability to accurately recall details and facts.

Broadcasters such as CNN actively promote media multitasking during political news broadcasts.

This effect is, ironically, explained in the following video by CNN’s own Dr. Sanjay Gupta. CNN, one of the most notorious news sources in actively promoting media multitasking, was one of the first media outlets to explore the possibilities of incorporating social media into their broadcast. Nielsen (the US authority on TV-audience ratings) even announced a partnership with CNN and other broadcasters in 2014 to gain access to their Facebook-pages’ demographic information and mine data about social media conversations happening around specific programming, such as political debates. Nielsen’s data has been used for decades to determine ad-pricings based on viewership and demographics. Having data on social media buzz around certain programs means corporations can target their ads at their target audiences better, while the broadcasters can earn more ad revenue due to increased audience off-screen and the added value of an actively engaged known audience.

The current trend of promoting media multitasking by political news broadcasters is, on the surface at least, a harmless attempt to involve audiences in the news-making process, binding them in the process. But, on the other hand, this involvement is then used to a) create more personalized advertisements, and b) earn more money from these advertisements. The media’s owners, such as Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch, must be aware that this also has the negative effects as found by Ran, Yamamoto and Xu. Yet, the promotion of media multitasking is proving to become ever more intrusive with the current presidential election coverage. The amount of data gathered through social media from a single debate is a valuable resource for media and politicians alike. Increasing the likeliness for people to engage on social media increases the volume of data, and makes it even more valuable. When the product is free for the consumer, the consumer is the product. Media apparently don’t care about informing you, or if you remember facts accurately. They care about the money you’ll make them.



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