Most Americans say they avoid political discussions online and are divided on whether they believe politicians, including the president, should use social media to communicate with voters.
In a national survey of 1,000 eligible voters, researchers at FIU’s Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs and the University of South Florida found that an overwhelming majority of voters (83 percent) said they “occasionally post” or “never post” about politics on their personal social media platforms.
They also held strong opinions about others who do, according to the poll, conducted in January by FIU political science doctoral candidate Bethany Bowra and Stephen Neely, an associate professor at USF’s School of Public Affairs.
A majority reported “unfriending” or “unfollowing” someone within the last six months for posting political content he or she disagreed with (57 percent), and an overwhelming majority said they had “unfriended” or “unfollowed” someone for posting political ideas that they found morally objectionable (80 percent) or untrue (81 percent).
Regarding politicians’ use of social media, Americans were more divided, the survey found.
A slight majority (55 percent) said it was an “effective tool” for the president to communicate with the public. However, 54 percent said they were “uncomfortable” with members of Congress communicating with constituents through online platforms, and an even larger majority (65 percent) were uncomfortable with legislators communicating with other elected officials through social media.
“As social media continues to infiltrate virtually every aspect of society, politicians are using it more frequently; but this survey shows that most Americans are not thrilled by this change and would prefer that politicians do not communicate through social media,’’ said Bowra, whose research covers the presidency, Congress and political communication in the digital age.
“This challenges many current perceptions of effective political communication and opens the door to further questions about the role of social media in politics moving forward,’’ she added. “As midterms approach, politicians and parties are working to win voters. Information about voters’ communication preferences could play a significant role in November's election outcomes and beyond.”
The questions related to social media were part of a broader survey that addressed public opinion on policy issues including the pandemic and presidential job approval, election reform and attitudes toward political parties.
Among other key findings:
- Most Americans feel unrepresented by the major political parties. More than half of voters surveyed said they believe their views are not represented by either the Democratic or the Republican parties and many held negative views toward political parties overall.
- Roughly a third of Americans say they are satisfied with the ideologies of each party. Thirty percent said the Democratic Party was “appropriately liberal” and 33 percent indicated the Republican Party was “appropriately conservative.” However, they disagreed on the appropriate direction of each party moving forward.
- Voters are split on traits they attribute to members of the two major political parties but they view members of both parties as hypocritical. Qualities such as honesty, generosity and morality were attributed to Democrats and Republicans fairly evenly among voters in both parties. However, 58 percent of Americans viewed voters in both parties as being hypocritical.
- Most Americans don’t follow elected officials on social media. A large majority said they do not follow the president (87 percent), their governor (88 percent) or their members of Congress (90 percent) on any social media platform.
FIU Professor Kevin Evans, who heads the graduate program in political science at FIU, said he was pleased to see Bowra apply tools learned in class to shed light on issues relevant to contemporary political life.
“In many ways, social media represents a new public sphere where politicians and everyday people can directly interact,’’ said Evans, who is Bowra’s doctoral dissertation advisor. “Bethany is helping us better understand the possibility and peril of online political communication."
The FIU/USF survey was conducted using a representative sample of 1,000 eligible U.S. voters adjusted for age, gender, race, ethnicity, education and political affiliation. The results are reported with a 95 percent confidence level and a margin of error +/- 3.1.