WHAT'S IN A "LIKE"? INFLUENCE OF NEWS AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT ON THE DELIBERATION OF PUBLIC OPINION IN THE DIGITAL PUBLIC SPHERE.
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This dissertation is a mixed methods study of the influence of the "like" feature on how people discuss and understand online news. Habermas's notion of the public sphere was that an inclusive, all-accessible and non-discriminating forum enables participants to deliberate on topics of concern. With increased interactivity and connectivity introduced by new media, commenting features have been heralded as a means to expand and accommodate discussions from audiences. In particular, by allowing people to provide feedback to each other's ideas via "up-voting" and indicating popular "top" comments, the "like" button shows promise to be a quick and convenient way to increase participation and represent public opinion. This dissertation, however, questions whether this is true. It raises concerns about the new media landscape, asking whether the resulting digital culture helps in the proper functioning of the public sphere. To address these questions, this dissertation adopts a mixed methods approach consisting of the following: 1) Framing analysis of "top" comments and sub-comments that were posted in response to articles about recent presidential elections, examining how audiences' framing of issues influences discussions and what strategies were used to increase "likable" traits; 2) ranking analysis of chronological order, testing whether chronological order of comments is a significant factor for number of "likes," regardless of content; 3) controlled experiment, testing assumptions about cognitive and behavioral responses from individuals regarding the "like" feature and how they perceive public opinion; and 4) focus group sessions with college student news audiences and interviews with media professionals, making in-depth inquiry about people's attitudes and perceptions of "likes." Furthermore, this dissertation paid attention to cultural differences, and compared the U.S. to Korea, with its advanced information technologies and highly utilized online commenting forums. Findings from each of the four methods as well as triangulation of the results showed that "likes" and "top" comments influence people's perceptions of public opinion. The problem was that these "top" comments were "liked" due to certain "likability" factors that had nothing to do with substantive issues and contributed little to the discussion. Also, avid commenters and "likers" tended to hold more extreme viewpoints, therefore promoting skewed perspectives. Moreover, the "top" comments may suggest priority of the ideas promoted in those top comments over others, thus hindering a full deliberation on topics in the public sphere. Across the findings, intercultural differences in both perspectives and behaviors were observed between U.S. and Korean data. Specifically, Korean participants showed higher susceptibility to "likes" and various characteristics regarding "likable" factors as well as "top" comments. The ideals of the public sphere can and will be important for how public opinion can be garnered in the digital setting. Nonetheless, this dissertation posits that the public sphere functions differently in the digital environment and thus its parameters and concepts need to be rethought. Because the public sphere is an abstract ideal, it lacks practicality and adaptability; it requires additional theorization based on cultural differences, various contexts under which audiences' new engagement take place, and rapidly changing technologies and modes of usage within digital culture.