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Young People Turn to Online Political Engagement During COVID-19

Young people report benefits of participating in political activism on social media, but not all youth engage and benefit equally.

As the COVID-19 pandemic made social distancing the norm across the country, much of civic life—from political campaigning to voter registration drives—has shifted to virtual environments. This renewed emphasis on online civic spaces could increase engagement among young people, both through outreach from political parties and campaigns and through youth-led media creation. Already, youth were hearing about elections more on social media than directly from campaigns, so this shift toward online engagement may better reach young voters, especially those who are new or first-time voters who campaigns might not otherwise contact.

Young people are increasingly turning to online social media platforms to learn about, engage with, and share information about COVID-19, politics, and social movements like Black Lives Matter. This can provide entry points into civic engagement which may not be limited to the online sphere: past CIRCLE research found that online activism among young people is associated with offline forms of civic and political activism, giving youth multiple pathways to engage with issues they care about and build a political identity.

Our analysis finds:

  • Young people are turning to social media to both consume and produce political content more than ever: 70% of young people had gotten information about the 2020 election on social media and 36% reported posting political content in the week prior.  
  • Over 60% of youth said that creating social media content helped them feel more informed, represented, and heard, although differences in these benefits exist across gender and race/ethnicity.
  • Unfortunately, 37% of youth don’t feel qualified to voice their political opinions online; the proportions are even higher for White women (45%) and men of color (43%).

About the Poll: The first wave of the CIRCLE/Tisch College 2020 Youth Survey was fielded from May 20 to June 18, 2020. The survey covered adults between the ages of 18 and 29 who will be eligible to vote in the United Stated by the 2020 General Election. The sample was drawn from the Gallup Panel, a probability-based panel that is representative of the U.S. adult population, and from the Dynata Panel, a non-probability panel. A total of 2,232 eligible adults completed the survey, which includes oversamples of 18- to 21-year-olds (N=671), Asian American youth (N=306), Black youth (N=473), Latino youth (N=559) and young Republicans (N=373). Of the total completes, 1,019 were from the Gallup Panel and 1,238 were from the Dynata Panel. Unless stated otherwise, ‘youth’ refers to those ages 18- to 29-years-old. The margin of error for the poll, taking into account the design effect from weighting, is +/- 4.1 percentage points. Margins of error for racial and ethnic subgroups range from +/-8.1 to 11.0 percentage points.

How Youth Are Engaging with Social Media

Young people’s political engagement on social media has been on the rise at a time when the 2020 election, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter movement are major topics of conversation and action. Seven in ten young people say they’ve seen information about the 2020 election on at least one social media source. Half of young people (ages 18-24) got information about the election from Instagram (51%), Twitter (48%) and Facebook (47%). These three platforms were also the “top three” in 2018, but the percentage of young people who say they’ve seen election information on them in 2020 is, on average, 25 percentage points higher than it was in 2018. Since 2020 is a presidential election year, an increase is to be expected, but the size of the increase is noteworthy. The average increase across all other sources of information in our survey (news websites, teachers, etc.) was only 14 percentage points, highlighting a real jump when it comes to finding election information on social media. Even the least frequently cited social media platform, TikTok, had far more young people getting 2020 election news from it as Twitter did in 2018.

In addition to getting more election-related content from social media, young people are using it more to share opinions and information about social and political issues. In September 2018, 18% of young people (ages 18-24) reported posting content they created on social media about politics in the month before being asked. In May 2020, 38% answered that they had posted political content online within the last seven days. The fact that the rate has more than doubled is remarkable for two reasons: the 2018 poll asked about actions in one month, not one week, and it was fielded much later in the election cycle.

However, the personalized nature of social media means that there are disparities among who produces and sees political youth-created media on their timelines. Young men (ages 18-29) are more likely to submit political content they create to a media outlet or post it on their social media account, but young women comment and share more often than young men. Young women tend to see youth-created political content relevant to them at a similar frequency regardless of their race/ethnicity; among young men, there are notable differences by race/ethnicity. Even though young Black and White men create and post content about issues they care about at similar rates, young White men are more likely than Black men to frequently see content created by other young people about an issue they care about.

This underscores the fact that social media spaces do not represent and serve everyone equally, whether because of the personalized social spheres created by who youth follow and engage with on social media, a lack of access to broadband internet, or a lack of relevant content for certain youth. For example, since young Black men are much less likely than young White men to see content about issues they care about, this could explain why young Black men create and post content at higher rates than their White peers in order to fill that gap. They could be motivated to share their perspectives because they don’t see voices on social media that speak to them or their issues.

Creating Digital Media About Politics Can Have Positive Impact

On the other hand, almost two-thirds of youth (64%) say that they never or rarely create content or social media posts about politics, current events, or social issues, and one third of youth cite feeling unqualified to do so as the main reason why they don’t. But of those young people who do create content, nearly two-thirds agree that they experience positive impacts as a result. Creating social media posts or online content about political/social issues that are important to them helps young people feel like their voices matter. An earlier CIRCLE analysis showed that youth who engage in political action online are more likely to feel empowered to engage in person.

But these benefits of creating content about political/social issues are not consistent across all young people. Young men are more likely than young women to agree that they feel more informed as a result of creating content. And, among young women, White women are 20 percentage points more likely than Black women to agree that they feel more informed about politics and civics by creating content on social media.

Interestingly, the reverse is true for feeling empowered: young Black women (61%) are slightly more likely than young White women (54%) to agree that their voice feels more powerful due to creating content. Interestingly, young White men (67%) are more likely than young Black men to agree with the same statement. This highlights that social media platforms are not fully equitable spaces and that different youth have different experiences online.

Unequal Voices on Social Media

While a majority of youth said that they’ve experienced various benefits of creating political posts online, more than a third (37%) agreed or strongly agreed that they feel scared to voice their political opinions online because they don’t feel qualified enough to do so. More young women (40%) reported feeling this way than young men (32%); however, there was a significant disparity across race/ethnicity within both men’s and women’s responses. Only 26% of young Black women and young White men report feeling unqualified; meanwhile, 43% of men of color indicated they felt unqualified to express political opinions online, with Asian and Latino men saying so at the highest rates. Although 45% of young White women expressed hesitation about posting online for this reason—significantly higher than among young White men—the inverse was true for women of color, 34% of whom agreed that they’re not qualified enough.

Many factors could influence these differences by gender, including the misogyny that permeates many online spaces and the higher rates of harassment and cyberbullying experienced by women. In addition, recent events can help to further contextualize the racial/ethnic differences in women’s sense of whether they’re qualified to voice political opinions online. Young women have been taking leadership roles in activist spaces and are more motivated to participate in politics. and our research found that more young women than young men say that the 2020 election will have a significant impact on their community and women. Young Black women, especially, have played a key role in the protests against systemic racism erupting across the country, which are being organized almost entirely over social media. Their leadership in these online activist spaces may also be reflected in higher confidence to be politically vocal on social media.

It’s worth noting that this differs from 2018. In CIRCLE’s pre-election poll that year, there was little difference by race/ethnicity in how young women responded to a question about feeling well-qualified to participate in politics. Although not the exact same question, it seems plausible that the intensified focus on Black Lives Matter and the related online discourse about centering and amplifying Black voices has strengthened young Black women’s sense that they are qualified to participate in political conversations—online and off.

The discourse around young people’s use of social media often takes on a negative and patronizing tone, but the data presented here challenges such notions. Not only is social media a powerful source of information about elections and civic engagement for young people, but it is also a space through which youth can express themselves and see the strength of their own voices. At the same time, online media creation is a promising form of activism that contributes to young people’s expression of their political identity and their development of civic skills like critical thinking, dialogue, debate, and collaboration. However, young people interact with social media in a variety of ways, and the racial/ethnic and gender disparities we’ve identified point to some of the ways in which these dynamics can reflect or perpetuate inequities in who participates and who feels comfortable engaging in online activism. While social media has emerged as an even more salient mode of activism due to COVID-19, we must take care to foster youth engagement in these spaces that is equitable and inclusive.


Authors: Ruby Belle Booth, Emma Tombaugh, Abby Kiesa, Kristian Lundberg, Alison Cohen