How Smartphones Contributed to the Election of Donald TrumpPhoto by Theo Stroomer/Getty Politics Features Smartphone
A 2016 study published in PLoS ONE found that the more someone relies on their smartphone for information, the less likely they are to trust “neighbors, strangers, and people from other religions or nationalities.” In contrast, obtaining information through any other method—including TV, radio, newspapers, and even the Internet more broadly—predicted higher trust in those groups, according to the authors of the study.
We’ve heard a great deal about the impact that social media and the internet more generally has had on the US election, from the Economist reporting that Facebook more accurately predicted a variety of swing states than polling, to the numerous reports on voters consumption of fake news and the echo chambers of the internet that have created a fiercely polarized electorate.
However, as this study highlights, less attention has been paid to how we physically consume this information and what impact that might have.
Compared to the 1980’s, Americans were consuming about five times more information by 2007, according to a 2011 paper in Science. However, the majority of that still came from traditional mediums such as TV, radio, and the newspaper.
That dynamic has begun to shift since then.
In April, of 2015, the Pew Research Center released its “State of the News Media 2015” report, which began with the following headline finding:
“Call it a mobile majority. At the start of 2015, 39 of the top 50 digital news websites have more traffic to their sites and associated applications coming from mobile devices than from desktop computers.”
This finding corresponds to a rise in the use of smartphones in America. According to Statista, which amalgamates statistics and studies from over 18,000 sources, almost two-thirds of Americans are predicted to own a smartphone by 2017, which would be more than a threefold increase from 2010.
When accessing information from our smartphones, we get information from relatively few sources when compared to when we are on a desktop or even a tablet. The “Digital News Report 2015,” from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, found that “on average people use a small number of trusted news sources on the mobile phone. The average across all countries is 1.52 per person, significantly fewer than on a tablet or computer.”
Keeping this in mind, the Pew Research Center has documented a variety of ways that Trump voters distrust people of other nationalities or religions. For example, fewer than half of Trump supporters (40 percent) agreed with the statement that “increasing number of people of different races, ethnic groups, and nationalities makes the U.S. a better place to live.” In another instance, a majority (57 percent) of Trump supporters said that “the government should subject Muslims living in the U.S. to additional scrutiny.”
The authors of the smartphone study theorized that “mobile information erodes trust in strangers by interfering with casual opportunities to talk with strangers and by obviating the need to rely on others.” Essentially, in the past when we might have asked a stranger for directions or struck up a casual conversation while waiting for a train, we are now on our smartphones, often consuming information from relatively few sources, and ignoring those around us.
That being said, they did recognize the possibility that “people who trust others less might be more likely to use their mobile phones for information.”
Yet it’s been found that even minimal social interactions lead to a sense of belonging and have a positive effect on how we view strangers, one we now may be losing out on with the rise of smartphones. As the authors note, “by forgoing casual social interactions, people may also be forgoing opportunities to cultivate the weak social bonds that hold society together.”
Regardless, the way we consume information and interact with others in the digital and physical world bears further scrutiny as we continue to examine the results of the 2016 election.