Researchers, politicians and marketers are keenly interested in the Millennial generation, born between 1980 and the mid-2000s. Also known as Generation Y, this generation is markedly different than earlier ones. For example, its members are less likely to be affiliated with religion and more likely to be politically independent. This group — America’s most diverse and educated generation — also is the largest in the U.S. labor force. Millennials also stand out as the first generation to grow up with the Internet as well as technology such as cell phones, smart phones and tablets.
As “digital natives,” Millennials are heavy users of social media, relying on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to connect them with more than just friends and family. Eighty-eight percent of Millennials who participated in a March 2015 research study said they use Facebook to find news. This reliance on social media has fueled debates about how social media and personalized web searches influence political polarization. At the same time, social media also provides opportunities for people to actively engage in politics, including communicating directly with community leaders and their staff.
Scholars at the University of Hawaii sought to understand how Millennials use social media to educate themselves about political issues and political candidates. Their August 2015 study, “Community Matters: How Young Adults Use Facebook to Evaluate Political Candidates,” compares the opinions formed by college students who received information about two opposing political candidates through social media with the opinions of students who got information about the candidates from more traditional information sources, including news articles. A total of 70 students participated in the study, which was published in the Information Polity journal and funded by the National Science Foundation. The majority of participants were aged 18-20 years old.
Key findings include:
- Millennials tend to stumble upon political information rather than seek it out. They tend to “have serendipitous encounters with political information both on- and offline.”
- Millennials’ political opinions are influenced by online interactions and interactions that do not involve the Internet. Many of the college students in this study said their parents were their strongest influences.
- College students who saw the political candidates’ Facebook pages were much more likely to base their opinions on Facebook community-based cues. These students read comments left on Facebook pages to gauge other people’s opinions of the candidates and also to see how candidates responded to and interacted with citizens.
This study suggests that user-generated comments on social media can influence the reputations of political candidates in the eyes of potential Millennial voters. “As political conversations often emerge spontaneously in non-political spaces … audiences will be affected by candidates’ SM [social media] presence, regardless of whether they sought out the political information,” the authors state. The authors note that study participants’ exposure to social media was limited to 10 minutes per Facebook page and that other behaviors might have emerged with longer exposure times. The authors recommend that future studies investigate how social media affects young adults’ opinions of corporations and brands.
Related research: A 2015 meta-study published in Information, Communication & Society, “Social Media Use and Participation: A Meta-analysis of Current Research,” explores the effects of social media on political participation and civic engagement. A 2015 research brief from the Scholars Strategy Network considers the Internet’s role in promoting political activism among underrepresented groups.
Keywords: politics, political engagement, social media, social networking, Facebook, technology, millennials, young adults, voting behavior, digital democracy, e-participation