The rapid growth of social media in recent years means people are exposed to an abundance of information every day, but there is little research on the effects such exposure has on political interest and engagement. The two most popular social media outlets, Facebook and Twitter, provide vast amounts of political information, from news on politics to political campaigns, and young people, as heavy social media users, are the most exposed to this information.
This post looks at the results of a research project that investigated the effect of social media on youth political interest. The undertaken research demonstrated that social media is a major source of political knowledge and that it indirectly affects the political interest of youth and has the potential to increase it. The main data was collected through focus groups and interviews where students at the University of Nottingham, aged between 18 and 24, with supplementary data from the Belgian Political Panel Study.
Previous research has shown that aspects of one’s life can influence that person’s political interest, political cognition and attitudes. This process is called political socialization and it takes place during the impressionable years, specifically between 17 and 25 years. Traditional agents of political socialization are:
- Socioeconomic background
- Traditional media (i.e. television, radio).
Even though social media has not been previously discussed as an agent of political socialization, our research found that it can be more powerful than traditional media. Social media provides similar features in terms of exposure to information but has the additional benefits of global reach, better quality and greater speed, while also being an interactive platform for political discussion. Chaffee has demonstrated that media plays an important role in the formation of political knowledge, labelling it an important agent of political socialization. Because previous research has shown that political interest and political knowledge are interlinked, enquiring into the political knowledge of youth also examines their political interest.
Youth today frequently get their political information from social media rather than traditional media. The information given is more interactive, user-centered, briefer, easier to process and visually attractive. People are increasingly posting online their views concerning politics and social issues, sharing news articles, ‘following’ political figures, watching videos connected to politics and ‘tweeting’ about politics. Use of social media can mean more exposure to information and also a higher interest in politics, but first the audience’s attention must be won. Therefore, it can be concluded that social media is suitable to spread knowledge among the youth and implicitly increase their political interest.
In the data provided by the Belgian Political Panel Study, we found a strong positive correlation between political interest and news and a moderate correlation between political interest and content viewed online. Online content consisted of chatting online, writing emails, viewing websites and online news, blogging, and participating in social networks. All of these variables are connected to social media in some respect, providing different dimensions of social media. However, we found no relation between political interest and time spent online. Therefore, it is clear political interest is influenced by following the news and political content online.
In the focus groups, during discussions of the factors that triggered political interest, family was most commonly cited. However, when the discussion developed, media — especially Twitter and Facebook — surfaced as valuable sources of political information. Participants acknowledged the importance of social media in the acquisition of political information. Moreover, even when online news and newspapers were mentioned, the participants noted that those sources were found on social media through pages or people they ‘followed’. Participants showed a clear preference for getting their political information from social media, as it is more accessible, up-to-date, and provides opportunities for political discussion through seeing other people’s opinions. Our research found that the predominance of social media as the preferred mode of acquisition of political information by young people is indisputable, and their political knowledge is positively influenced by it.
Participants showed some sophistication in their engagement with the information on social media either by sharing it or being critical of it, discussing it or testing its validity. Discussing the information provided on social media can in itself increase interest in the issue. According to the findings, most participants admitted that they enjoy discussing issues online. They also affirmed that if their friends shared an article, they were more likely to read it and get interested in the topic, giving evidence of peer effects in socialization. Additionally, most participants acknowledged they constantly keep track of their newsfeed on Twitter and Facebook, bringing continuous passive exposure to information and up-to-date awareness of what is happening in politics. Some even acknowledged that social media subconsciously influences them and their interests. However, most participants seemed unaware of the impact the exposure provided by social media has on them, even though they spoke at length about social media in relation to their acquisition of political information.
Our research clearly concluded that social media positively influences political interest due to the constant exposure to concise, accurate, global information; and use of social media has the potential to increase political interest. These findings could have real impact because of the evidence that social media can be used to increase the political interest of youth and their political knowledge. This is a finding for politicians to ignore at their peril.
Florentina-Alina Vasile is a student in the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham. She researched and wrote this piece as part of her work for the Designing Political Research module.