Through the Grapevine

Socially Transmitted Information and Distorted Democracy

An enlightening examination of what it means when Americans rely on family and friends to stay on top of politics.

Taylor Carlson (Photo: Washington University)

Accurate information is at the heart of democratic functioning. For decades, researchers interested in how information is disseminated have focused on mass media, but the reality is that many Americans today do not learn about politics from direct engagement with the news. Rather, about one-third of Americans learn chiefly from information shared by their peers in conversation or on social media. How does this socially transmitted information differ from that communicated by traditional media? What are the consequences for political attitudes and behavior?

Drawing on evidence from experiments, surveys, and social media, Taylor N. Carlson finds that, as information flows first from the media then person to person, it becomes sparse, more biased, less accurate, and more mobilizing. The result is what Carlson calls distorted democracy. Although socially transmitted information does not necessarily render democracy dysfunctional, “Through the Grapevine” shows how it contributes to a public that is at once underinformed, polarized, and engaged.

About the author

Taylor Carlson is associate professor of political science in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. She is also director of survey research in the Weidenbaum Center in Arts & Sciences. Her research explores the intersection of information consumption and social interactions about politics, as well as the content, process, and consequences of interpersonal political communication. Her previous books include “Talking Politics” and “What Goes Without Saying.”