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Social media can influence political opinion, study reports

According to a new study by Pew Internet, users who are deeply engaged in political issues on social media sites tend to change their minds more than most. 


Curt Hopkins


Posted on Sep 5, 2012   Updated on Jun 2, 2021, 11:37 am CDT

The Web is often considered a cathedral for intellectual plainsong, where people with opinions assemble a chorus to sing in unison with. That may not really be true—at least on social networking sites.

According to Aaron Smith, lead researcher of a new study by the Pew Internet and American Life project, those of us who post a great deal of political material on social media sites, or with online friends who do, are in turn more likely than most to change our minds or alter the direction of our thinking or actions, based on materials we discover on these sites.

Published on political website TechPresident, the study, “Politics on Social Networking Sites,” was conducted from Jan. 20 to Feb. 19 and based on conversations with 2,523 respondents over the age of 18.

Predictably, the study states that “(a) portion of social networking site users say the sites are important for some of their political activities and the way they decide how to engage with campaigns and issues. At the same time, most users of the sites say they do not use the sites for political purposes or debates.”

So, those deeply engaged tend to change their minds more than most, and most of those using social media sites do not use them to research, discuss, or express political issues.

Here are some of the reports central findings.

  • 36 percent of social networking site (SNS) users said the sites are “very important” or “somewhat important” to them in keeping up with political news.
  • Roughly one-fourth of the respondents said the sites are “very important” or “somewhat important” to them in recruiting people to get involved in political issues that matter to them, for debating or discussing political issues with others, and for finding other people who share their views about important political issues.

Of those who have changed their minds, the study outlines the nature of that change.

  • 25 percent said they have become more active in a political issue after discussing it or reading posts about it on the sites.
  • 16 percent added that they have changed their views about a political issue after discussing it or reading posts about it on the sites, and roughly 9 percent reported becoming less involved in a political issue after discussing it or reading posts about it on the sites.

Interestingly, the study finds Democrats are more likely than Republicans or Independents to say that the sites they use are important. Additionally, black users are more likely than white, and young more likely than old, to find the sites they frequent important to their political life.

Why do these groups in particular put such emphasis on their online interactions?

“Younger adults are disproportionately Democratic and disproportionately likely to use social networking,” Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project told Daily Dot. They are also “disproportionally likely to do many of the activities on SNS, including using the sites for political purposes.”

He describes a “networking enhancement” effect online. “The more you use the sites for promoting or debating or recruiting, the more likely you are to get others’ promotions, invitations to debate, and recruiting appeals.”

“When it comes to African-Americans,” he added, “it is clear in our data that something important happened in the last 18-24 months in their adoption of social media and their eagerness to do lots of things with social media, including political activity. It is quite likely that this is tied to some extent with the rise of mobile connectivity, which is disproportionately embraced by blacks and used by blacks (again, for all kinds of purposes).”

Photo by Bradley Gordon/Flickr

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*First Published: Sep 5, 2012, 4:15 pm CDT