March 17, 2011

The Internet and Campaign 2010

54% of voting-age Americans used the internet for political purposes during the 2010 midterm elections and the internet continues to grow as a source of political news

Americans feel that the internet makes it easier to meet others with similar political views and find a wider range of viewpoints, but also increases political extremism and makes it difficult to separate good political information from bad.

Some 73% of adult internet users went online in 2010 for news or information about the midterm elections or to communicate with others about the campaigns. This represents 54% of all voting-age adults, and marks the second consecutive election—and first ever mid-term race—in which the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found more than half of all adults using the internet for political activism and information-seeking. This 73% of online adults includes anyone who did one or more of the following in the months leading up to the 2010 elections:

  • 58% of online adults looked online for news about politics or the 2010 campaigns, with 32% of online adults getting most of their 2010 campaign news from online sources. For Americans under the age of 50, the internet ranks ahead of newspapers as a source of campaign news.
  • 53% of online adults went online to take part in specific campaign-related activities, such as watch political videos, share election-related content or “fact check” political claims. The audience for online political videos has grown substantially since the most recent midterm election—31% of adult internet users watched online political videos in the months leading up to the 2010 elections, compared with 19% of such users in 2006.
  • One in five online adults used Twitter or social networking sites for political purposes in 2010.

“As the internet has developed as a tool for political engagement and information-seeking, the audience for online political content has also changed,” said Aaron Smith, Pew Internet Senior Research Specialist and author of the report. “These online spaces are a meeting place where politically engaged Americans of all stripes—young and old, conservative and liberal—can come to catch up on the latest events, share their thoughts on the political news of the day, and see what their friends have to say about the issues that are important to them.”

Even as the internet continues to grow in importance as a source of political news, Americans hold a diverse range of views—both positive and negative—about the impact of digital technologies on the political debate:

  • A total of 54% of online adults say that the internet makes it easier to connect with others who share their views politically. Those internet users who take part in politically-related activities on social networking sites are especially likely to say that the internet helps them connect with others around political issues.
  • At the same time, 55% of all internet users feel that the internet increases the influence of those with extreme political views, compared with 30% who say that the internet reduces the influence of those with extreme views by giving ordinary citizens a chance to be heard.

They also express positive attitudes—along with some important reservations—about the quality of information they find online relative to other information sources:

  • 61% of online adults agree with the statement that the internet exposes people to a wider range of political views than they can get in the traditional news media. Young adults and political social networkers are more likely than average to view the internet as a source of information they can’t find elsewhere.
  • At the same time, 56% of internet users say that it is usually difficult for them to tell what is true from what is not true when it comes to the political information they find online.

Despite some of these challenges, 22% of online political users who voted say that they were encouraged to do so by material they found online during the 2010 campaign, and 42% say that political information they saw or read online encouraged them to vote for or against a specific candidate. An additional one in five online adults (20%) used the internet to learn about interesting election races in other parts of the country in 2010.

“When it comes to online political engagement and information-seeking, Americans view the internet with an appreciation for its benefits but also with some apprehension towards its broader societal impacts,” said Smith. “Even as they use online tools to connect with fellow activists around the country and track down interesting nuggets of political information, they tend to worry about the influence of extreme points of view and the overall accuracy of the political debate.”

As was true in 2008, a plurality of online political users gravitate towards news that shares their own political point of view: 34% of such individuals said that most of the political news and information they get online comes from sites that share their point of view—compared with 30% who typically get news from sites that don’t have a point of view, and 21% who get news from sites that differ from their own point of view. This was particularly true of those with strong political leanings, as both Republicans and Democrats were more likely than political independents to say that they typically get online political news from sources that share their political point of view.


About the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project is one of seven projects that make up the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. The Project produces reports exploring the impact of the internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care, and civic and political life. The Project aims to be an authoritative source on the evolution of the internet through surveys that examine how Americans use the internet and how their activities affect their lives. [Contact]