Social media platforms received mixed reviews in terms of political and social activism, with most respondents to a new study from Pew Research Center saying they are an effective tool for raising awareness and creating sustained movements, but also calling them a distraction and believing that they lull people into thinking they are making a difference when they are not.
Pew said eight out of 10 Americans believe social networks are very (31%) or somewhat (49%) effective for raising public awareness about political or social issues, and 77% believe they are at least somewhat effective for creating sustained movements.
Majorities also believe these platforms are at least somewhat effective in getting elected officials to pay attention to issues (65%), influencing policy decisions (63%) or changing people’s minds about those issues (58%).
Pew found that Democrats and independents who lean Democratic were more likely than Republicans and Republican leaners to say social media sites are at least somewhat effective at raising public awareness about political and social issues (86%, versus 74%), creating sustained social movements (82%, versus 73%) and drawing the attention of elected officials (71%, versus 59%).
The gap was wider among those who found social platforms to be very effective at raising awareness: 39% of Democrats, compared with 22% of Republicans.
Pew noted that while younger respondents were more likely to use social networks than older respondents, there were few age-related differences in its results, and party-related differences persisted.
Research associates Brooke Auixier and Colleen McClain wrote in a blog post, “Leading up to the presidential election, social media platforms have played a role in raising awareness about voting issues, spreading information about the presidential candidates and allowing users to engage in online activism and campaigning. But when asked about social media’s broader impact on political discourse, there are some signs that Americans think these platforms can have both positive and negative effects.”
While 65% of respondents believe social networks highlight important issues that might otherwise not receive attention and 64% believe it at least somewhat gives a voice to underrepresented groups, 79% believe the statement, “social media distracts people from issues that are truly important,” describes the sector very or somewhat well, while 76% felt the same for, “social media make people think they are making a difference when they really aren’t.”
Pew said Democrats were more likely than Republicans to see those platforms’ positive impacts, with 75% believing they highlight important issues that might otherwise not receive a lot of attention, compared with 55% of Republicans.
The splits were similar for giving a voce to underrepresented groups (75%, versus 52%) and holding powerful people accountable for their actions (60%, compared with 40%).
Republicans were more likely than Democrats to believe social networks distract people from the issues that are truly important (82%, versus 77%) and lead people to believe they are making a difference when they aren’t (80%, versus 74%).
Pew said younger respondents tended to have a more positive outlook on the societal impact of social media platforms, but partisan differences remained consistent.
The think tank added that its results were statistically unchanged from the last time it conducted this study, in 2018.
Respondents who believe social media makes it easier to hold powerful people accountable for their actions slipped to 50% this year from 56% in 2018, while those who think people are led to believe they’re making a difference when they aren’t rose to 76% from 71%.