When it comes to politics, can social media really get young people involved?

Posted May 2, 2017


For young people today, specifically those 18 to 30 years old, social media have been a part of their lives for as long as they can remember.

The more social media evolve, the more they allow people to share their views on everything from food, fashion, lifestyle and even politics.

When one of the Kardashians posts a picture of him or her eating a new avocado diet, suddenly avocadoes are flying off the shelves at supermarkets. Or if Jennifer Lopez posts her love for a new shoe boutique website, those business owners hit a jackpot.

But when it comes to politics, can social media really get young people involved?

Donald Trump’s unfiltered tweet about Obama (Screen capture courtesy of Twitter).

The impact of social media politically has both positive and negative effects.

Social media made not only elected officials, but candidates as well, easily accessible and accountable to voters. Politicians have direct contact with voters using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and more.

President Donald Trump was an avid user of social media, particularly Twitter, in his 2016 campaign and still uses it on a daily basis as president. He recently wrote on Twitter, talking about his opinion on social media, that “I like it because I can get also my point of view out there, and my point of view is very important to a lot of people that are looking at me.”

Direct access to voters also can get politicians in serious trouble with voters. Public relations professionals often manage a politician’s image because unfiltered tweets and Facebook posts have landed many politicians in hot water and seriously embarrassing situations before.

Embarrassing front page headlining “Tip of the Weiner” about former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner from New York (Photo courtesy of the Daily News).

Former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner from New York is one of the leading examples.

Weiner sent explicit sexual material that got leaked to the public, ultimately leading to his resignation from Congress in what became known as the “Weinergate” scandal.

Trump has faced backlash many times for his tweets. In February 2016, a month before major primary elections, Trump tweeted “Interesting how President Obama so haltingly said I, ‘would never be president’ – This from perhaps the worst president in U.S. history!”

Headlining stories like those are what captures the attention of young adults. They hear about something that happened and want to find out for themselves. But they don’t go to a branded news organization online, they go to their favorite social media site to see what the trending topic is all about.

Dewayne Washington II, a freshman at the University of Miami is such a social media user.

“I stay on top of the latest in politics through social media. I actually follow news outlets such as CNN. Usually when I see something trending about politics or Donald Trump or something I’ll go to the social media page instead of turning on the news to find out the story,” he explained.

CNN’s Twitter account (Photo courtesy of CNN and Twitter).

Yu Liu, an assistant professor in the Advertising Department at Florida International University, said “while using social media could facilitate public deliberation and promote civic and political participation, there is also research showing that use of social media might prevent people from expressing their political views due to the belief that their minority viewpoints might not be accepted by their social networks online.”

Washington agreed.

“I guess she is right in a sense because I don’t feel comfortable sharing my political views on social media, even though I consider myself involved and aware,” he stated.

Casey Klofstad, an associate professor in political science at the University of Miami, said social media can improve political awareness under certain circumstances.

“Social media can make people more aware of politics, but only if they use it for that purpose,” he said.

Jan Boehmer, an assistant professor of journalism at Penn State University, said he thinks students are more aware of national politics because of social media.

“Yes and no,” he said. “I think social media alone does not make young people more aware of national politics. It always depends on who an individual follow. Social media is very selective and many students use it primarily for entertainment purposes. So, if somebody only follows athletes or other celebrities, then they are not better informed about politics.”

Boehmer added that a broad range of sources helps.

“if, however, students choose to follow a wide variety of news outlets and other information leaders, then social media certainly has the potential to raise awareness for current political developments,” Boehmer added. “And even when individuals follow politics, they often might only do so from a very specific angle, increasing the danger of getting caught up in their own little filter bubble. Overall, social media as a technology can only provide the platform, it is always up to the individual to use it in a beneficial way.”

The hope is that the more social media influence the young people the more they will get involved beyond social media.

Boehmer believes “the 2016 election has certainly motivated many individuals to engage in the ongoing protests and led to more politically motivated activism on both sides of the spectrum. If that, however, can be sustained over the next couple of years remains to be seen. Still, political strategists will get even better in utilizing the power of social media and the underlying data for the activation of potential voters.”

This goes along with Klofstad, who said, “every generation gets more civically active as they age.”

Social media do have effects on politics but, in regards to the social lives of young people, the effect is not as large as one would think. This is due to the fact that social media accounts are personalized to each individual’s interests. For young girls that love beauty and lifestyle and celebrities, that is all that comes up on their timelines and explore pages.

The explore page is full of filtered posts that is personalized to one’s interest based on posts they have liked before. If young people are not interested in politics it won’t be prominent on their account.

However, if there is a political subject or politician that they choose to see, the access to learn more and build an interest is available because of social media.  The problem is that awareness among young people does not always correlate to activism.

The 2016 campaign was prominent on social media because some of the outrageous things that were said and revealed, particularly when it comes to Trump. If you ask young people who Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are, nine out of 10 people will know. However, if you ask that same group of people who voted in the fall 2016 election, that percentage goes down by a large amount.

Young people may know more about politics because they use social media, but that does not mean they are going out of their way to be active by registering to vote and then voting.