September 15, 2012

The 2012 election is the first truly “social” presidential cycle. Candidates from major and minor parties alike are plastered all over the most popular sites, with presences on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, not to mention Tumblr, Reddit, Quora and many others. In surveys, social network users claim social content doesn’t influence their political opinions and activity, but, according to a new eMarketer report, “The New Political Influencers: Social Media's Effect on the Campaign Trail,” the evidence is adding up that they are wrong.

In April, the Pew Internet & American Life Project surveyed US social network users and found that they considered social sites to be minor sources of campaign news, compared to news sites. Consumers as a whole also reported being less likely to have learned something about a candidate or campaign from social sites than from any other source, from cable news networks to the internet in general to NPR and religious radio talk shows.

But other data suggests that social content is in fact having an effect on voters. For instance, when AYTM Market Research surveyed US internet users in September, more than a quarter said social media had influenced their political opinions. Similarly, Pew found that 41% of Twitter users at least sometimes learned something about the election from the service, as did 36% of Facebook users.

A similar difference in the self-reported importance of social media for politics vs. social media’s actual effect appeared when Pew asked users how much political content they posted. Social network users tend to say they don’t post much about politics on the social sites they use—but someone must, since they also report seeing such content from their friends. While just 16% of social network users told Pew they posted at least “some” political status updates, comments and links, 39% said the same of their friends. Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of respondents claimed to post no political material at all, while just 23% reported seeing none in their newsfeeds.

And when those views, surprising or otherwise, cause conflict, they can break down the social graph. Pew found that, overall, nearly one in five social network users had blocked, unfriended or unfollowed someone because of political postings that upset them.

The data suggests that users are influenced by political/social content but also that they are resistant to it, pointing up opportunity and risk for marketers when working within social media.

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