October 21, 2014

Political Polarization & Media Habits

Section 2: Social Media, Political News and Ideology

Facebook a Top Source of Political News Among Web UsersThe advent of social media has opened up new ways for people with similar interests to find, share and talk about news – including news about politics – with friends and colleagues.

Facebook is now a widely-used source for news about government and politics. Nearly half (48%) of the panelists say they accessed news about politics and government on Facebook in the past week, about as many as got news about these topics from local TV (49%). (Note that this survey is representative of the 89% of Americans who have access to the internet. Based on the full population, somewhat fewer—39%—get news from Facebook in a typical week.)

As a platform that links to content from many different sources, Facebook draws about twice as many political news consumers among web users as the aggregation sites Yahoo News (24% in the past week) or Google News (22%). And Facebook far surpasses other social media sites, such as YouTube and Twitter, as a source for news about politics and government. Just 14% say they got political news in the past week from YouTube, 9% from Twitter, 6% from Google Plus and 3% from LinkedIn.

Facebook Has Much Broader Reach Than Other Social Media SitesIn part, this stems from Facebook’s broad reach; it is by far the largest social media platform. Fully 77% of web panelists use Facebook. That compares with 63% who use YouTube and much smaller shares who use Twitter (21%), Google Plus (24%) or LinkedIn (25%).

But even holding its more widespread use constant, a greater portion of Facebook’s audience gets political news there than is true for other social networks – 62%. That compares with 40% of all Twitter users, about a quarter of those on YouTube (22%) or Google Plus (25%) and just 12% of LinkedIn users .

As Pew Research found in a 2013 study of the role of news on Facebook,  not all of these users are specifically seeking out political news when they log on to the site, but they nonetheless come across it in the mix of posts shared by those in their feed.

One unique feature of social media is how the political news you see is impacted by your choice of friends and your past behavior on the site. Each individual sees a different mix of content, depending on who is in his or her feed, as well as the kinds of posts he or she has responded to in the past. So when it comes to politics, a common question to ask is the degree to which people create circles of friends that reflect their own ideological views. The evidence suggests that while nearly all users get a mix of views, those with stronger ideological tendencies are more likely to surround themselves with like-minded opinions.

More Consistent Liberals Than Consistent Conservatives Get Political News on Twitter, Somewhat More on FacebookOverall, consistent conservatives are somewhat less likely than consistent liberals to get government and political news on Facebook or Twitter, primarily because they are somewhat less likely to use the sites in the first place. About half (49%) of consistent liberals (and a similar share of those with mixed ideological views) say they got news about government and politics in the past week from Facebook, compared with 40% of consistent conservatives. And while 13% of consistent liberals say they got political news on Twitter in the past week, just 5% of consistent conservatives (and 8% of groups in between) say the same.

The data also find that those who use social networking sites for news about government and politics are also getting this news through other channels at the same time. Respondents who got political news on at least one social networking site in the past week got such news from an average of 4.8 other news sources as well (out of the list of 37 asked about), similar to their peers who don’t learn about politics through social networks. (For further evidence of this phenomenon, see 2013 Facebook and News report.)

Looking Deeper at Facebook Habits by Ideology

Consistent Liberals, Conservatives Pay Most Attention to Political PostsAt the same time that consistent conservatives are less likely to use Facebook than other groups, those who do use it are highly engaged with political news.1 Two-thirds of consistent conservatives who see political posts on Facebook pay “a lot” of (19%) or “some” attention (47%) to those posts. Similarly, six-in-ten consistent liberals who see political posts on Facebook pay “a lot” of (14%) or “some” (46%) attention.

But as with interest in political news from traditional media sources, there is a “U-shaped” pattern in how ideological groups engage with political news on Facebook. Smaller shares of those who are less ideologically consistent pay attention to Facebook posts about government and politics than those with stronger ideological ties. These middle groups are about half as likely to pay a lot of attention to political posts.

Many Facebook Users See Political Views That Differ From Their OwnOverall, those who see posts about politics on Facebook are exposed to a variety of views. Only about a quarter of those who pay attention to these posts say the posts they see are nearly always (2%) or mostly (21%) in line with their own political views. A 62% majority of these users see political content in line with their views “some of the time,” while just 13% say they see such posts “not too often.”

Nearly Half of Consistent Conservatives Mostly See Posts That Match Their PoliticsBut consistent conservatives and, to a lesser extent, consistent liberals are much more likely to be exposed to views similar to their own. Among those who pay attention to posts about politics, nearly half of consistent conservatives (47%) say the opinions they see are mostly or always in line with their own views; among consistent liberals, about one-in-three (32%) say the same.

Among mostly conservative Facebook users who pay attention to political posts, 28% say the posts they see are always or mostly in line with their own political views. Those with mostly liberal views (13%) and mixed ideological views (17%) are the least likely to see like-minded posts about politics.

Consistent Liberals Most Likely to Block Others Based on Political ContentAnd how do different groups respond to political views with which they disagree? About one-in-four (26%) Facebook users have hidden, blocked, defriended or stopped following someone on a social networking site based on disagreements over political posts. While consistent conservatives are the most likely to see Facebook posts in line with their political views, consistent liberals are the most likely to block others on social networking sites because they disagree with their content.

More than four-in-ten consistent liberals who use Facebook (44%) say they have blocked someone on a social networking site because of a political post. Consistent conservatives are less likely to have done this (31%), as are those with more mixed ideological views (about two-in-ten).

Beyond personal friends and colleagues, what kinds of groups and organizations do these news consumers on Facebook follow? Among those who pay at least some attention to politics on Facebook, about three-in-ten (29%) “like” or otherwise follow political parties, candidates or elected officials. A somewhat greater share of users follows news organizations, reporters or commentators (36%), and about four-in-ten (41%) follow issue-based groups on Facebook.

“Liking” and Following Groups and Organizations on Facebook

Of those paying attention to political posts, the two most ideologically consistent groups are about twice as likely as those with mixed views to follow political parties, candidates or elected officials. About half of consistent conservatives (49%) and 42% of consistent liberals “like” or follow parties, candidates or officials, compared with three-in-ten or fewer of those with more mixed ideologies.

Consistent liberals on Facebook are the ideological group most likely to follow issue-based organizations: 60% of those who pay some attention to political posts follow such a group, compared with 46% of consistent conservatives.

  1. The higher usage of Facebook allows us to probe more deeply into behavior differences among the different ideological groupings.