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Five Takeaways on Social Media and the Youth Vote in 2018

Because of their immense reach and potential to reach a broad range of young people, social media played a crucial role in the 2018 midterm elections cycle.

According to our estimates, youth political engagement in the 2018 midterm elections was among the highest in recent decades. An estimated 31% turned out to vote, compared to 21% in 2014. In addition, beyond the ballot box, our pre-election survey of youth suggests that youth activism is on the rise, with the percentage of youth who have participated in a protest tripling in just the last two years. Our youth poll also revealed that engaging in activism using social media and other online tools translated to offline activism, an important finding given that social media use is nearly ubiquitous among youth: almost 90% of young people aged 18-29 use at least one social media site.

In this post, we analyze how young people use social media platforms and the unique impact they have had on youth civic and political engagement—particularly in the 2018 midterm cycle. While social media companies have supported voter registration and engagement in the past, this year many of them expanded their efforts to provide accurate information about voting and the election in an accessible way, and to attempt to encourage young people to vote. For instance, Instagram ran a campaign to encourage users to register to vote before the midterm elections. Snapchat ran a similar campaign and reminded users to vote on Election Day—along with providing a map to help users get to their polling place. These digital initiatives are a valuable contribution to the collective work of voter education that other groups do both online and in person, because they can provide information easily and at scale even when a potential voter is not actively looking for election-related information or is not connected to an organization that would provide it.

Here are five takeaways on the role social media is playing in youth political engagement:

1. Social media platforms have extraordinary reach: Forty-seven percent—or roughly 14 million—18 to 24-year-olds heard about the 2018 elections from at least one of the four most commonly used social media platforms: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. This massive reach is further amplified by the fact that, by their very nature, social media platforms allow users to connect and communicate with their peers. In other words, social media can potentially integrate voting and election information into people’s social lives, thereby normalizing electoral participation and promoting a culture of political engagement. For instance, Facebook shows users profile pictures of their friends who have already voted along with an “I Voted” button that, when clicked, shares this information with other friends. Voting, then, becomes social—an experience young people can use to encourage others to do the same.

2. Social media platforms are reaching youth not engaged by candidates and campaigns: 28% percent of the youth (ages 18-24) in our survey heard or read about the election on social media platforms but were not reached by traditional outreach groups such as political parties and campaigns. Thus, social media do not merely duplicate “traditional” voter education and outreach work driven by campaigns and candidates, which is essential but often relies on registered voter lists that may leave out youth who have not previously participated. Instead, social media platforms that share registration and voting information may be serving as a crucial complement, reaching youth that other efforts do not. Importantly, social media were a particularly important source of information for first-time voters, who, according to the Exit Polls, made up 68% of the 18 to 29-year-olds who actually voted in the 2018 midterms. In our pre-election poll, first-time voters were far less likely to be reached by traditional means (43%, vs. 23% for those who had voted previously), and first-time voters were more likely to encounter election-related information on social media (29%) than from candidates’ campaigns and political parties (23%). Similarly, social media played a slightly more important role for young people living outside of metro areas, where traditional outreach groups may not reach them as easily.

3. Social media reach a broad range of youth: Overall, the young people who heard about the election on social media (from here on, we’ll call them the “Social Media Group”) were more likely to have gone to college (63% in the Social Media Group, 49% among the rest of youth in our survey), and more likely to identify as Democrats (47%) than the overall youth population (35%). More than half of the Social Media Group (55%) reported voting in 2016, compared to 39% among the other youth in our poll. Youth in the Social Media Group also closely matches the overall racial and ethnic makeup of this age group, but were slightly more likely to be female (55%).

4. Youth who get election information are more likely to vote: Research consistently shows that one of the best way to promote youth voting is to reach out to young people and personally ask them to vote. Although online contact may not initially seem to fit that traditional mold of “personal” outreach, our research finds that social media are just as effective in mobilizing youth. According to our survey,  young people who heard about the election on at least one of the top-four social media platforms were more likely to say they intended to vote. As the graph below shows, only 22% of youth who neither heard about the election on social media nor through traditional outreach efforts said they were “extremely likely” to vote, while 54% of those who heard about the election both online and offline said the same. And, whether or not they also received traditional outreach, hearing about elections on social media was associated with a significant increase in likelihood to vote.

5. Social media alone do not create “civic attitudes”—but probably help cement them: Our findings do not suggest that social media platforms are singularly responsible for young people developing the inclinations and mindset that lead to civic and political engagement. It’s far more likely that young people who already have an interest in elections and/or political issues seek election information on social media, and use these platforms to deepen their engagement by connecting with peers, organizations, and candidates. Therefore, social media can potentially help move young people from “intent” to “action” by helping them feel more confident that they have accurate information about how and where to vote, and that they have educated themselves further on candidates and issues. This is important, as another recent survey we conducted found that lack of confidence in their knowledge or preparedness can be a factor that keeps young people from voting.

Indeed, our findings support the idea that politically interested young people are using social media to connect to organizations, causes, and campaigns. Compared to those who did not hear about elections on these platforms, those who did are more likely to participate in other forms of online political engagement. For instance, 35% follow candidates or campaigns online (compared to 12% among those who didn’t hear about elections on social media), and 57% have signed a petition—which now happens almost exclusively online (compared to 39% among others). They are also more likely to be engaged in at least one form of offline activism (31% vs. 14%), and those who are engaged in offline activism were more likely to say they intended to vote.

What’s Next

Our analysis clearly shows that social media platforms reached a very large segment of young people, many of whom were potential first-time voters, and that youth benefited from hearing about the election on their social media feeds. It is likely that intentional efforts by social media companies to promote non-partisan voter engagement in 2018 likely had a positive effect on youth voter turnout, especially for those youth who lacked election information and outreach from other sources.  Our research has found that even if they want to vote, young people often lack very basic information about how and where to do so. Some of the biggest social media platforms seem to have understood and embraced this challenge, using research-based knowledge about key information gaps and voter mobilization strategies to provide  information to potential voters in a timely and personalized manner (i.e., deadlines based on where voters live, or directions to a voter’s polling place). These efforts should continue so that social media play an increasingly positive role in promoting voter engagement for users of all political inclinations, especially in places where traditional groups may not reach young voters.

In addition, because reliance on social media information is especially notable among first-time voters, these platforms have the potential to play an important role in the “civic socialization” of young people who have never voted or signed up to be part of political groups. However, a dependence on social media platforms for election information also highlights existing gaps in civic education and in the infrastructure for youth voter engagement. Precisely because civic education is often lacking, there is a risk of young people who are turning to social media as primary sources of civic knowledge being exposed to political misinformation and disinformation, which many of these platforms are still struggling to combat, and  which youth they may be ill-prepared to recognize and filter out. It is essential that we bolster civic education, especially as it relates to media literacy, so that young people can obtain the skills necessary to to critically evaluate information, online and offline, and effectively use social media platforms as tools to bolster their civic participation.