Americans are using social media for politics less than they used to
When a major political event occurs, it’s not unusual to see individuals respond or express their opinion on social media, via tweet, Instagram story or reel, or Facebook meme (like this one of former speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy). It’s also entirely plausible that someone first learned that the Republican Party ousted Speaker McCarthy via a post circulating on social media. While it’s widely acknowledged that social media plays a role in shaping our political environment, ongoing debates persist regarding its impact on politics, and whether or not social media is good for politics. Social media is often seen as a powerful tool if it facilitates increased political participation among those who otherwise would not be interested in politics, or if it helps young people to tune in to and participate in politics. Conversely, some may say that social media platforms are breeding grounds for conspiracy theories and misinformation and thus social media is bad for politics, or even worse, bad for democracy.
The discussion surrounding whether or not social media is good for politics, presumes that social media for political purposes is something that is becoming more and more popular in society, especially among younger generations. However, recent data from the Cooperative Election Study (CES) shows that this is not the case. Contrary to popular belief, CES data shows that both young and old people are actually using social media for politics less than they were in 2016, 2018 and 2020.
CES surveys from 2016, 2018, 2020 and 2022 asked around 60,000 American adults each year to select whether they had posted, commented, read, followed or shared information about politics on social media within the past 24 hours. If respondents had done any one of these things in the past 24 hours, I considered them to be a user of social media for political purposes.
While Democrats are more likely in each of the four years to have used social media for political purposes, both parties see a downward trend from 2016 to 2022. In 2016, over 60% of Democrats reported using social media for politics while 56% of Republicans did the same. In 2020, those numbers dropped to 51% and 41%, respectively. It is important to note that Republicans see a bigger drop in social media usage for politics than Democrats do, over the 6-year span. One possible explanation for this is that Republicans are increasingly likely to believe that social media platforms favor the views of liberals, and censor viewpoints they find objectionable. Perhaps Donald Trump’s twitter ban alienated some Republicans from using Twitter, and other mainstream platforms, for political news.
Many have reported that the rise in social media usage for political purposes has been due to younger populations, specifically GenZ (~ age 24 and under) getting the majority of their political news from social media. Studies report a shift toward online political engagement for younger populations, especially for first time voters. A survey by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts found that the percentage of youth who said they had seen information about the election on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook rose by 25% from 2018 to 2020 (they did acknowledge that 2020 is a presidential election year, so an increase is to be expected). But despite numerous surveys, and what seems to be a national narrative that youth are turning to social media for politics more than ever, I find that even among young people, social media for politics is less popular than it was in previous years. It is true that younger adults (aged 18–25) are overall more likely than older people to use social media for politics. But, in 2016, about 75% of young people had used social media for politics in the past 24 hours, and in 2020 that number is lower than 60%. Among older adults, 55% used social media for politics in 2016, and only 44% did so in 2022.
It isn’t just social media that is seeing a decline in people using its platforms for political engagement. After examining trends in cable TV news (local and national) and newspaper use, I find that a similar downward trend is present, where less people are utilizing those sources for political news in 2022 than they were in 2020, 2018, 2016, and 2014. A recent survey by Pew Research Center, finds that indeed, Americans are following the news less closely than they used to. In 2016, they found that 51% of U.S adults said they followed the news all or most of the time, with that number falling to 38% in 2022. I find similar results, when looking at the percentage of individuals who say they “hardly” or “only now and then” follow the news. While the number of people saying they hardly or rarely follow the news is lowest in presidential election years (people tend to follow the news more during presidential election years), the number of people who hardly or only now and then follow the news is the highest in 2022 compared to any other year. This trend has held up for both younger and older adults. A decline in new interest over the past few years may be due to an overall decline in trust in the media, or high levels of news fatigue. In 2020, Pew reported that “most Americans feel worn out by the amount of news there is these days.” Perhaps news fatigue has only grown over the past several years and is to blame for a decline in Americans following the news.
Looking ahead to the 2024 election, it will be interesting to see if even fewer people are turning to social media for politics than in 2022. One might predict that this trend will only continue, as the prevalence of misinformation on social media rises. Twitter, in particular, has become a “sewer of disinformation” since Elon Musk took over last year and implemented several changes to the platform, all which have led to a surge in misinformation, hate speech, and propaganda. While Americans turn to social media for political purposes less than they used to, there is also little evidence suggesting that people are returning to more traditional news sources like TV or newspapers. In fact, traditional news sources are also seeing a decline in usage. This raises an important question: If people no longer turn to social media to engage in politics, where else will they turn?