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Americans’ activism on social media differs by race, age, party – Pew Research Center

From global protests against racial injustice to the 2020 election, some Americans who use social media are taking to these platforms to mobilize others and show their support for causes or issues. But experiences and attitudes related to political activities on social media vary by race and ethnicity, age, and party, according to a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults conducted June 16-22, 2020.

People can be politically active on social media in many ways. This survey asked Americans about four different types of activities that they may have engaged in on these platforms. Overall, about one-third of social media users (36%) say they have used sites like Facebook, Twitter and others in the past month to post a picture to show their support for a cause, look up information about rallies or protests happening in their area (35%) or encourage others to take action on issues they regard as important (32%). A smaller share (18%) reports using a hashtag related to a political or social issue on social media during this time.

Pew Research Center conducted this study to understand how Americans are using social media to engage in civic behaviors and online activism. For this analysis, we surveyed 4,708 U.S. adults from June 16 to June 22, 2020. Everyone who took part is a member of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.

Here are the questions used for this report, along with responses, and its methodology.

Hispanic and Black social media users (46% and 45%, respectively) are more likely than white users (29%) to say they have looked up information about protests and rallies in their area on social media in the past month.

Black social media users more likely than white or Hispanic users to say they’ve recently encouraged others to take action

But in certain activities, Black users stand out: 48% of Black social media users say they have posted a picture on social media to show their support for a cause in the past month, compared with 37% of Hispanic users and 33% of white users. Black adults who use social media (45%) are also more likely than their Hispanic (33%) or white (30%) counterparts to say that in the past month they’ve taken to social media to encourage others to take action on issues that are important to them.

Black users are also more than twice as likely as white users to say they have used a hashtag related to a political or social issue on these platforms in the past month (33% vs. 15%), while Hispanic users fall in between these two groups (22%).

Social media engagement for causes or issues also varies by age. Just over half of social media users ages 18 to 29 (54%) say they have used these sites in the past month to look for information about rallies or protests happening in their area, compared with 36% of those ages 30 to 49, 26% of those 50 to 64 and 20% of those 65 and older. Social media users under the age of 30 are also more likely than those 30 and older to say they have used a hashtag related to a political or social issue and encouraged others to take action on issues that they see as important, while there are smaller age gaps when it comes to posting a picture to show support for a cause. 

Racial differences are also present within younger groups, with younger Black social media users being particularly likely to post hashtags or encourage others to be politically engaged. For example, 55% of Black social media users ages 18 to 49 say they posted a picture to show support for a cause in the past month, compared with fewer than four-in-ten Hispanic (37%) or white users (36%) in the same age range. Among adults under the age of 50, Black users (44%) are about twice as likely as their white (22%) or Hispanic (23%) counterparts to say they have used a hashtag in the past month related to a political or social issue.

Partisanship is also a factor. About four-in-ten or more Democrats and those who lean Democratic say that in the past month they have posted a picture to show support for a cause, used social media to look for information about rallies or protests happening near them, or encouraged others to take action on an issue that is important to them. This compares with only about three-in-ten or fewer Republicans and Republican leaners who say they have done this. Democrats are also more than twice as likely as Republicans to say they have used a hashtag related to a political or social issue in the past month (25% vs. 10%).  

Although the survey did not specifically ask respondents the kind of topics they were posting or looking up, these findings come at a time when a majority of Americans are having conversations about race and racial inequality, according to a separate Center survey conducted in June 2020, following the killing of George Floyd in police custody at the end of May.

A separate Pew Research Center analysis of tweets found an unprecedented use of the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Twitter. The hashtag had been used roughly 47.8 million times between May 26 and June 7. And a 2018 Center report found that people take to social media to discuss a variety of political and social issues, ranging from #MeToo to #MAGA to #LoveWins.

Racial and ethnic differences on importance of these platforms for finding like-minded people, getting involved with issues

Social media users were also asked in three distinct ways how important these sites were to them personally as a venue for their political activities. Black and Hispanic users were found to be particularly likely to value social media for these activities. 

Overall, 45% of users say that social media is very or somewhat important to them personally when it comes to finding other people who share their views about important issues, while similar shares say the same for getting involved with political or social issues (44%) or giving them a venue to express their political opinions (40%).

Black and Hispanic social media users see more personal benefits than white users when it comes to these types of civically minded activities.

Black and Hispanic social media users more likely than white users to say social media is important to them for engaging in certain political activities

Black and Hispanic social media users (60% and 57%, respectively) are more likely than white users (39%) to say that social media is very or somewhat important to them personally for finding other people who share their views about important issues. There are similar racial gaps when asked about these sites’ personal importance for getting involved with issues they care about or giving them a venue to express their political opinions.

Users who are Democrats are also more likely than Republicans to say these sites are important to them personally for engaging in certain types of civic activities. Some 55% of Democrats say that social media is very or somewhat important to them for getting involved with political or social issues that are important to them, compared with 32% of Republicans who say the same (including those who lean to each party). Similar partisan gaps are evident when the issue is the importance of social media in finding others who share users’ views (54% vs. 36%) and in giving users a venue to express their political opinions (47% vs. 33%).

Younger social media users also are more likely than older users to say social media is important to them in these ways. About six-in-ten (58%) of those ages 18 to 29 say that social media is very or somewhat important for them when getting involved with political and social issues that are important to them. Among older adults, 43% of those 30 to 49 say this, while a smaller share (36%) of those 50 or older say this.

A majority of social media users ages 18 to 29 (59%) say social media is at least somewhat important to them for finding others who share their views on important issues, compared with smaller shares of those 30 to 49 (45%). Users 50 and older (37%) are the least likely to say social media is personally important to them in these ways.

Overall, the levels of personal importance that social media users place on these platforms for political engagement are fairly consistent with the last time the Center asked these questions, in a 2018 survey. For example, 43% of social media users said then that these sites were somewhat or very important to them personally for finding others who share their views about important topics, about on par with the 45% of social media users today who say the same. There is also little or no difference in the level of importance that users place on getting involved with social and political issues that are important to them and using social media as a venue to share their political opinions. 

There have been shifts in how much some users – particularly younger ones – view social media platforms as important for certain forms of online activism

Growing shares of younger social media users say these platforms are important for finding like-minded people, getting involved with issues

The share of 18- to 29-year-old social media users who say that these platforms are at least somewhat important to them for finding other people who share their views about important topics has risen from 47% in 2018 to 59% today. There have also been double-digit increases among younger users when it comes to getting involved with political or social issues and having a venue to express their opinions. By comparison, there has been little to no change on these questions for social media users ages 30 or older.

Democrats are more likely to describe these platforms as important to them personally than in the past. Some 44% of Democrats said in 2018 they found social media to be at least somewhat important to them personally for getting involved with political or social issues, compared with 55% today. There have also been increases among Democrats when it comes to the importance of finding others on social media who share their views and giving them a place to express political opinion. However, there has been little or no change on these questions for Republican social media users.

And while these shares for both Black and white users are largely unchanged, the share of Hispanic social media users who say these sites are at least somewhat personally important to them for finding other people who share their views has grown from 47% to 57% over the past two years. Hispanic users are also more likely today than in 2018 to describe social media as very or somewhat important to them personally for getting involved in social or political issues they care about.

Note: Here are the questions used for this report, along with responses, and its methodology.

Brooke Auxier  is a research associate focusing on internet and technology research at Pew Research Center.

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