Youth Voters Still Learning to Navigate Social Media Politics

Gabriel Nikius, 21, a philosophy major at the University of San Francisco took a break from studying Socrates and Heidegger, leaned on a railing with the sun falling directly on his face.

“I don’t really see a significant enough difference between the candidates,” Nikius said, “There is a lot of rhetoric that is basically trying to cover up the fact that they are both working for the same interests and the same system.”

For that reason, Nikius said he will not be voting for President this November. Nonetheless, Nikius, like 66% of all social media users-or 39% of all American adults- engages with civics and politics through social media, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Though Nikius follows President Obama on Twitter and feels the medium is used “effectively for that purpose,” any campaign statement “will be so crafted, broad and vague,” it won’t influence his voting decisions.

University of San Francisco Politics professor Corey Cooke said via e-mail, “I don’t think campaigns can ‘sway’ voters, per se, through social media. But it’s not really a tool to change minds. What they can do is use social media to facilitate the dispersion of the campaign’s messaging through trusted sources (your friends and family).”

Alex Stallings, 22, is an undecided voter and said, “Our country is in a little bit of a pickle, there are upsides and downsides and so many issues to be sorted out.”

For Stallings, social media hasn’t made the decision any easier, because, contrary to what Professor Cooke said, she doesn’t really trust the opinions of her Facebook friends.

Stallings said, knowing her most politically vocal friends, who she said happen to be Mitt Romney supporters, and knowing their families, she feels like those friends are just repeating ideas from their parents.

“For how much they argue I don’t know how informed they are so I don’t take them seriously,” Stallings said.

Though Sonny Smith, 21, accounting major, is not one of those friends that Stallings mentioned, he is planning on voting for Mitt Romney, because “he’s better with the economy because of his experience in the private sector,” Smith said.

Smith said that he followed both candidates on Twitter and Facebook, but has been disappointed with the medium “because all they do is bash each other and post poll numbers.

He “liked” or “followed” each candidate “to see what is going on, to stay informed.” But because of his disappointment with the way candidates use social media, Smith said that in the future he will watch more debates and “wouldn’t mainly focus on social media.”

Smith may find in the future however, that it is difficult to avoid political messages on social media, the way Rebecca Litke, 35, did this year.

Litke identifies with the LGBTQ community and said, “everyone in my social group is very political” and they share ideas and posts. So much so, in fact, that Litke said it sometimes feels like she is being “bombed with political messages” and has had to hide certain social media friends because she thinks sometimes “it is too much.”

The most interesting trend that Litke has noticed is friends of hers who will defriend others who have online political habits that they don’t agree with.

“Some friends draw a line in the sand,” Litke said, and tell people they can no longer be Facebook friends because their “political views don’t mesh.”

As Cooke also said, campaigns “are just scratching the surface” of the way social media can be used in elections. “The logic of social media is largely that voters, especially younger voters, don’t trust much of the information they get through paid or earned media. As a result, campaigns have used social media to encourage folks to talk to their friends about politics.”

Friends are talking. And though many young voters are unsure about social media’s use in politics, they are happy there is a conversation. As Nikius said, “A good thing about social media is it allows you to post thoughts and is good for expanding the discussion. I’m pretty down with all that stuff.”

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