Social media is thought to have become increasingly important for elections. According to one recent study, as many as 82% of potential voters get at least some of their information about politics online. The Obama campaign seems well positioned to attract these voters, outspending all Republican candidates combined in a recent six month period, paying over half a million dollars on online advertising.
Come November, however, NC State students might not be a good demographic to target. Our survey finds that most undergraduates report only limited use of social media to learn about politics. For example, just 33% of students reported connecting with political figures via social media at all. Likewise, only 15% of students report having engaged with political figures by tweeting or posting on their social media page.
Yet, we also find that students those who are engaging politically on social media sites are more secure in their political opinions. While they are more likely to engage with like-minded people, they are more likely to hold political opinions on the issues of the day and to not shy away from debate when they encounter different perspectives. Perhaps the money being spent by candidates on social media campaigns is having the side effect of creating more informed and confident student voters.
Those who most use social media for politics more are also self-segregated into camps with like-minded friends. State students appear relatively unengaged with contrary political views on social media sites. That is, most students (52%) say their “friends” and “followers” share their own personal political beliefs (29% of less active users reported having contact mainly with friends who share their political ideas).
The lack of exposure to conflicting viewpoints, political scientists warn, is a sign that students are failing to learn what different groups think about political issues. Self-segregation poses problems in the political arena by making it harder for young voters, who know and care less about politics to begin with, to make the informed and independent decision. The other potential problem is that students using social media don’t get exposed to any political ideas at all. In this case, we find that 37% of active social media users said their friends do not express any personal political beliefs at all.
This problem is more apparent among the less well-connected students. Those who reported not being well connected to political figures on social media sites tend to have friends who do not express personal political beliefs (59%).
Active users are willing to engage
While self-segregation into political camps is potentially limiting, those who are more active on social media sites also say they are more willing in principle to engage politically when confronted with conflicting opinions. The majority of students who are politically engaged on social media sites say that either they will challenge the conflicting viewpoint with their own viewpoint (39%) or try to find some truth in the conflicting viewpoint (48%).
In contrast, 34% less frequent social media users say they just ignore the challenging viewpoint all together.
Active users have more opinions
The majority of State students may not have an overwhelming interest in politics while checking their news feed on Facebook or the latest tweets on their Twitter account, but those who are engaged politically have firmer preferences about the presidential candidates. Only 4% of students who reported connecting with political candidates are unsure of which presidential candidate they will vote (Barack Obama versus Mitt Romney). On the other hand, 27% of students who reported not connecting with candidates online don’t know whom they will vote for between the two.
Active users also have more opinions about politics in general, such as whether they approve or disapprove of the way President Barack Obama is doing his job. In this case, 86% of politically connected social media users reported holding an opinion. Conversely, just 70% of politically inactive social media users reported having an opinion.
Party ID & Social Media
who identify with the Democratic Party say they are connected to political figures online, 32% of Republicans are equally connected. Those least connected to political figures online are those who think of themselves as unattached to either of the two major parties, with only 24% of this group indicating they are “friends” with or “follow” and political figure on social media sites.
The survey finds similar results for tweeting or posting on politicians’ social media sites. While 18% of self-identified Democrats reporting this kind of activity, just 12% of Republicans and unaffiliated students said they tweeted to or posted on a politician’s media site.
Gender does not greatly affect the rate at which students were connecting on social media. The majority of both male and females are not connected to political figures nor do they engage with political figures on social media sites. Their political participation on social media sites is nearly identical, as 35% of males and 33% of females said they are “friends” with or “follow” political figures. On the other hand, when asked if they engage with those political figures by posting on their wall or tweeting with them, 19% of males indicated they did while only 13% of females indicated they did.
Year in school
Freshman students are the least politically connected through social media sites with 73% indicating they are not “friends” with or “follow” any political figures on social media sites. Sophomores, juniors and seniors all responded more similarly: 64% of sophomores, 65% of juniors and 64% of seniors reported not being “friends” with or “following” political figures on social media sites. Freshmen were also less likely to report having tweeted to or posted to a political figure’s social media site: just 11% said they did this compared to 18% of seniors who did.