Social Data Research Fellowship


Exposure to high-quality political information on social media is unequally distributed across populations of internet users. Some people experience social news feeds that contain substantial amounts of high-quality information, while others are exposed to very little political information—or even to substantial quantities of low-quality or harmful content. Under these conditions, we lack a conceptual framework to understand who is most vulnerable to harmful effects of misinformation on social media, and to explain why. The goal of this project is to identify social media users who should be considered vulnerable populations in terms of their exposure to political information online. The first specific aim of this project is to develop a typology of political information vulnerabilities that takes into account: (1) the quantity of political information to which a social media user is exposed, (2) the quality of that information, and (3) users’ attitudes toward the media (e.g., media trust). The second aim of the project is to examine how social media information vulnerabilities are related to traditional categories of inequality (socioeconomic status, race, and gender). To do so, we propose a qualitative research design: 60 interviews with social media users with an emphasis on populations traditionally underserved by news (low income, low education, BIPOC), combined with social media profile data donation. The expected outcomes of this project are to advance our theoretical understanding of the causes and consequences of political information inequalities on social media, and to propose a reinvigorated public agenda for research on information vulnerabilities.

Principal Investigator

Kjerstin Thorson

Associate Professor, Michigan State University

Kjerstin Thorson is an associate professor in the College of Communication Arts & Sciences at Michigan State University. Her research explores how people use digital and social media to learn about and participate in politics, especially youth and young adults. Her current projects investigate how social media platforms are reshaping the visibility of news and politics—especially in local communities—and the democratic consequences of information inequality. Her work has appeared in top academic journals, including Political Communication, Information, Communication & Society, New Media & Society, and Communication Theory. She loves big ideas and believes that great social science research can change the world. Dr. Thorson received her MA from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and her PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.