Social Media’s Strength and Weakness at Agenda-setting

The classic Agenda-Setting Theory loses its ground with a critical flaw in its premise in the modern media environment where social media plays a critical role. To produce a positive outcome in interaction with the public, politicians should be aware of two points: social media’s strength, and its weakness.

McCombs and Shaw’s pivotal article of Agenda-Setting theory in 1972 substantiated mass media’s power to set public agenda. The authors argued that media is the determinant of the public agenda based on a public election data. In the study, a key assumption was that the voters had no channels to the political campaigns other than mass media, but it can hardly be true in the current diversified digital media environment. A recent study showed that two-thirds American adults got news from Social Media in 2017.

The change can be an opportunity for politicians. Their campaigners no more have to rely on legacy news to disseminate messages. By listening, engaging, and interacting carefully with audiences in social media, they can influence the public agenda.

However, they should be careful of its downside. Legacy media is not just a gate-keeper who only regulates the messages of campaigners. In its best form, they also play as a safety net to stop propagating wrong messages. “Fake news” is the notable case.

By propagating false news intentionally or unintentionally, politicians can endanger not only its reputation but also the level of public discussion. President Donald Trump is sometimes regarded as such politician who jeopardizes rational public discussion.



McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1972). The agenda-setting function of mass media. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 36(2), 176-187. doi:10.1086/267990

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