5 Ways To Stay an Informed Voter in Today’s Media Environment

It doesn’t take long for political discussions on social media to turn negative. From vitriolic remarks, to hyperbolic statements, to name-calling, online political conversations tend to turn into a tit-for-tat verbal slug fest.

One accusation in particular is common in YouTube comment sections, Facebook threads, Twitter, and other online forums, and that is one person accusing someone they disagree with of being a “low information voter” — or more crassly, calling the person an idiot or stupid.

Yet, it is important to understand that being an informed voter is not easy. It can even be a daunting process.

Being truly informed requires time that many Americans don’t have in their busy lives. People are always on the move and professional and personal obligations often take precedence over keeping up with all the varieties and versions of news stories on any given topic.

There are so many hurdles that go into being up-to-date on the times, and ironically, it seems like there’s no time for it. The barrage of information, opinions, and data from different news sources and social medias create an intimidating wave of soundbites and hollow memes, leaving the consumer in an array of confusion on what to follow or who to believe.

So how can one become a truly informed voter, without simply giving in to external pressures? Here are 5 things to keep in mind:

1. Know Thyself

Find a political guru and follow him on a journey of political self-discovery, or take some time for self-reflection. What are important parts of society? How should the government act? What’s a citizen’s role in determining the fate of a nation? 

In addition, there are lots of online tests to determine where one falls on a political spectrum. The Political Compass Test and “Best” Political Quiz are quick and easy, and will plot personal ideology visibly on a chart.

ISideWith.com is a great resource for seeing how ideology stacks up between the participant and political candidates. It takes a little longer to complete, but is still fun and informative. It is especially useful because it asks a broad array of questions on several political topics. It also evaluates just how much users have in common with Republicans, Democrats, and third parties, rather than simply confining the user to a single party or candidate.

Take a few and compare them, as no one quiz is perfect.

2. Know “The System”

Do you know who your U.S. Representative is? How many of the justices on the Supreme Court can you name off the top of your head and what does the Supreme Court actually do? Do you know the type of electoral system your state uses to elect the people who represent you?

The United States has the most unique (and at times complicated) political structure in the world. Yet, many people cannot fully navigate the ins and outs of it. And chances are, the more local the politics, the less likely people are going to pay attention, even though decisions made at the local level affect voters more directly than at the national level.

It is important to know the nuances of the U.S.’s vast system, divided by three branches of government, each with their own authority, combined with the fact that there are then 50 states with their own rules and regulations and hundreds of thousands of sovereign local jurisdictions.

Here’s where Google — and Schoolhouse Rock — come in handy.

Ballopedia and Wikipedia are both solid sources for personal research, and explain “the system” in a way that’s generally pretty easy to understand. Five-minute Google sessions can be a real help when trying to understand the nuances of government and elections.

3. Know The Candidates

Often times, when a person identifies with a party, they will vote based on the party rather than the candidate. However, this would limit them to agreeing with every attribute about the party, wouldn’t it?

So, in the steps to finding the right candidate in congruence with their beliefs, “The League of Women Voters in the Cincinnati Area” have listed 7 steps to lead people in the right direction:

  • Decide what you are looking for in a candidate
  • Find out about the candidates
  • Gather materials about the candidates
  • Evaluate candidates’ stands on issues
  • Learn about the candidates’ leadership abilities
  • Learn how other people view the candidate
  • Sorting it all out

By learning about the possible candidates, voters are able create the opportunity to connect with them. Connecting with candidates make a person’s next vote an educated one. 

4. Know Your Sources

Fox News junkies aren’t the best people to go to in order to get a comprehensive look at an issue. But then again, neither are people who just read Salon.

People are pretty quick to slam the American “corporate media” because each company has an agenda they push. However, this means that by following just a few diverse sources, one can get four or five very disparate opinions on the same events. Take a look at the Wall Street Journal’s “Blue Feed, Red Feed” project to see what this looks like. It’s shocking.

No source is perfect and completely truthful, but just about every source has some truth to it. So follow a variety of media outlets to get multiple views of the same issue. Subscribing to sources on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter is a great way to stay abreast of current events.

Even look into international resources: BBC is known for its politically moderate news broadcasting and can give an honest glimpse into how other nations view American subjects. Al Jazeera can give good insight toward subjects in the Middle East and other parts of the developing world. Every source has value, if used correctly, and each can educate the voter on different issues.

 5. Click Past the Headline!

Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and other social media networks have become major sources for aggregated news. A Pew Research study found in May that 6 in 10 Americans get their daily news consumption from social media.

However, while a majority of Americans are turning to social media to get their news, many are only taking away what is provided in the newsfeed, which is generally a headline and an excerpt designed to catch people’s attention. According to a study in 2014, a sizable percentage of Americans don’t click past the headline and most who do don’t finish the article.

Some news sites have even pranked and tested their audience to see how many people actually click past the headline of a social media post. On April 1, 2014, NPR ran the headline “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” If a person clicked on the headline, they were taken to an article that read:

“Congratulations, genuine readers, and happy April Fools’ Day!

We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven’t actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let’s see what people have to say about this ‘story.'”

Additionally, in March 2014, TIME Magazine reported that “55% [of people] spent fewer than 15 seconds actively on a page.”

The startling statistics about how many people do not get past the headline has led to the growing trend of “clickbait journalism.” The only problem is that in order to stand out and compete in social media, news outlets have to incorporate methods that cross over into the extremely sensational.

On July 11, a Facebook post from Yackler made its rounds in several news feeds with the headline, “Scientists say giant asteroid could hit earth next week, causing mass devastation.” Again, the point of the article is that study after study shows most people don’t actually read articles posted and will often take to the comment section to react to the headline.

And no, an asteroid is not headed to Earth.

Chances are news stories that go viral did so explicitly because of the headline. According to the study quoted by Yackler, “People are more willing to share an article than read it. This is typical of modern information consumption. People form an opinion based on a summary, or a summary of summaries, without making the effort to go deeper.”

This can be the result of confirmation bias, meaning the headlines affirmed a person’s pre-conceived opinion or view of an issue or topic. This prevents people from seeing alternative views on any given issue or truly examining the facts and statistics that are relevant to staying informed on the topic.

So if you want to be informed, beat the statistics. Read the article!

Editor’s note: This article was written with assistance from IVN intern Griffin Edwards.

Photo Credit: Syda / shutterstock.com