March 12, 2012

Social networking sites and politics

It turns out that birds of a feather don’t always flock together on social networking sites when it comes to politics. There is evidence in a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project that on social networking sites (SNS):

  • Friends disagree with friends about political issues and usually let their disagreements pass without comment. Among the SNS users whose friends post political content, 25% always agree or mostly agree with their friends’ political postings; 73% of these SNS users “only sometimes” agree or never agree with their friends’ political postings. When they disagree with others’ posts, 66% of these SNS users say they usually ignore the posts; 28% said they usually respond with comments or posts of their own; and 5% said it depends on the circumstances.
  • Users can be surprised to learn the political leanings of their friends. Some 38% of SNS users have discovered through a friend’s posts that his/her political beliefs were different than the user thought they were.

As a rule, the most active and engaged political participants on SNS sit at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, yet their experiences around political material on SNS are quite similar. Very liberal users and very conservative users are often the most likely to have acted for and against others on SNS. They are also more likely than others to have been surprised by their friends’ political views and to be in networks where they agree with what their friends post. Still, even with them, there is as much frequency of disagreement as there is of agreement.

In a survey completed in February 2012, the Pew Internet Project found that 80% of adults use the internet and 66% of those online Americans use social networking sites. Some 75% of SNS users say their friends post at least some content related to politics and 37% of SNS users post political material at least occasionally.

The survey suggests that those SNS users are like other Americans in that many are not particularly passionate about politics. It also shows that many friendships are not centered on political discussion and that many networks are not built with ideological compatibility as a core organizing principle.

The survey did find that a portion of SNS users have assessed some relationships based on political material that is posted on the sites. Some 18% of social networking site users have blocked, unfriended, or hidden someone for at least one of the following reasons:

  • 10% of SNS users have blocked, unfriended, or hidden someone because that person posted too frequently about political subjects
  • 9% of SNS users have blocked, unfriended, or hidden someone because they posted something about politics or issues that they disagreed with or found offensive
  • 8% of SNS users have blocked, unfriended, or hidden someone because they argued about political issues on the site with the user or someone the user knows
  • 5% of SNS users have blocked, unfriended, or hidden someone because they posted something about politics that the user worried would offend other friends
  • 4% of SNS users have blocked, unfriended, or hidden someone because they disagreed with something the user posted about politics

When they shun others based on political content, it is most often a distant friend or acquaintance, rather than a close friend or family member. But roughly a third of those who have ended contact on SNS say a family member or close friend was involved.

At the other end of the scale, 16% of SNS users have friended or followed someone because that person shared the user’s political views. In addition:

  • 47% of SNS users have hit the “like” button in response to political comments or material posted by someone else.
  • 38% have posted positive comments in response to a political post or status update from someone else.

About the survey

These are the findings from a survey conducted from January 20-February 19, 2012 among 2,253 adults age 18 and over, including 901 cell phone interviews. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Cite this publication: Lee Rainie and Aaron Smith. “Social networking sites and politics.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (March 12, 2012) http://www.pewinternet.org/2012/03/12/social-networking-sites-and-politics/, accessed on July 22, 2014.