Social Media in Politics: Positive or Polarizing?

A new study has found that one in five adults who use the Internet turned to social networks to get or share information about the 2010 midterm elections. So when a voter turns to Facebook instead of a candidate’s website for information, is that a win or a loss for democracy?

In the study, released this week by the Pew Research Center, researchers confirmed what politicians, and campaign consultants, have long known: given the opportunity to interact with people rather than institutions, people look to connect to those they trust, i.e. friends, family and colleagues.

But now in the age of social media and the Internet, like never before, they have an outlet, and a means, to collect the information they want, when they want it.

“The take-away from this political election is that these online spaces – whether they are social-media tools, online news sources or blogs – … are now part of the standard tool kit for people engaged with politics,” said Aaron Smith, the report’s author and a senior research specialist at Pew Internet.

Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of American Internet users, or 54 percent of all voters, went online in 2010 for news or information about the midterm elections or to communicate with others about the campaigns, according to the report.

That makes the 2010 races the second consecutive election, and first ever mid-term race, in which the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found more than half of all adults using the Internet for political activism and to gather information, from watching a political video to fact-checking and sharing and discussing information.

And the information voters are getting online, appears to have sway.

Just over one-third of respondents said the information they saw online made them decide to vote for or against a particular candidate.

Those results underscore the important role that technology, but, more specifically, social networks like Twitter and Facebook, will play in the 2012 presidential campaign, the report concluded.

“As more people live more of their lives in the social web, it becomes an important space for them to share their views and interpret what is going on in the world around them.”

Yet, while 61 percent of adults surveyed said the Internet exposed people to a wider ranger of political views than they might get from traditional news media sources, they also remained skeptical about the quality and value of the information they were finding.

The report found that 56 percent of Internet users believe it is usually difficult to differentiate information they find on the Internet that is true from information that is not true.

And, at the same time, 55 percent of all Web users feel that the Internet increases the influence of those with extreme political views, compared with 30 percent who say that the Internet reduces the influence of those with extreme views because it gives people a chance to be heard.

“People recognize that there’s a downside,” said Smith. “They sort of see it on a broader level, where they have concerns that the Internet promotes extremism … but they think it has value for them personally, and they are not falling into those kinds of things.”

Tell us what you think. Do social network sites in politics help or hurt democracy? Have you found your political views have changed due to social media?

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