November 30, 2020
This piece was originally published in Lone Conservative on November 20, 2020.
For many college students, using social media has become second nature. Out of habit, we check our online accounts as soon as we wake up and repeat the process before we go to sleep.
The Pew Research Center reported in 2018 that 88 percent of 18 to 29 year-olds use at least one form of social media. However, what was once used as a place to keep in touch with friends, post about fun experiences, and discover new brands from influencers, has become a prominent platform for political engagement.
Over the past few months, my social media feeds have been overwhelmed with posts related to the 2020 presidential election, Black Lives Matter movement, and criminal justice reform. Hashtag campaigns such as #blackouttuesday reached more than 29 million posts in a day on Instagram. But what is unique is that college students are not only re-sharing these posts, but actively creating their own.
Although social media is becoming an increasingly popular platform for political engagement for college students, there are notable disparities in engagement across political ideologies. According to another Pew Research Center report in 2018, liberal Democrats were the most likely of any ideological group to be politically active on social media.
The report found that 44 percent of liberal Democrats have used social media sites within the past year to “encourage others to take action on an issue that was important to them.” This is a glaring comparison to only 27 percent of conservative Republicans who said the same.
Liberal Democrats were also more likely than their moderate Democrat and conservative counterparts to say social media is important for creating sustained social movements and getting elected officials to pay attention to these issues.
One explanation for the higher level of liberal political engagement could be related to the fact that more young adults tend to identify on the left side of the political spectrum.
Leading up to the 2016 election, approximately 58 percent of 18 to 25 year-olds identified as Democrat or lean Democrat while a much smaller 36 percent identified as Republican or lean Republican. As one of the largest demographics to use social media, young adults and college students play a significant role in influencing the dominant political culture on these platforms.
For politically conservative students, this poses a great concern. A consequence of these statistics is that young conservatives find themselves under greater scrutiny from their peers when they share content that fails to conform to the dominant political narrative being shared. But a potentially more distressing experience is the loss of friendship.
In a 2014 Washington Post article headlined, “Liberals are more likely to unfriend you over politics—online and off,” data was shared showing that nearly a quarter of those who identify as consistently liberal will stop talking to or being friends with someone because of politics.
After reading these statistics, I asked a few friends to find out if this was accurate within my own circle.
One said, “I feel guilty for not wanting to express my opinions online, but I worry about facing backlash for posting anything controversial.” She said that, although she hasn’t lost friends over conflicting politics, it has definitely strained some of her friendships. Another similarly said, “I’m hesitant to go on Twitter now, because every time I log in, there’s always a group of people trying to ‘cancel’ others for not agreeing with their beliefs.”
“I’ve definitely lost followers from posting conservative content on social media. If anything, that’s just a testament to my generation’s unwillingness to communicate with others who hold differing worldviews,” a third shared.
The results of these findings and stories are troublesome. With social media being one of the best representations of young adult and college students’ political beliefs, our country is headed toward a more polarized state as social circles close and friends are accepted or rejected according to their political views.
As a conservative college student, I am concerned that students like me will feel shut down and irrelevant. I’m worried that this discouraged conservative students from going to the polls when our country needs young voices represented now more than ever.
Rather than drive one another away over partisan political views, we should use social media as a platform for conversation and informative discussion. Especially now, as the election is winding down, let’s engage with one another on social media instead of shutting down opposing views outright.
It is in everyone’s best interest, regardless of political views, to be better informed on the people and issues we care about.
Jamie LeVie is a senior Medical Humanities and Legal Reasoning major at Baylor University. LeVie is President of the Network of enlightened Women (NeW) chapter at Baylor University and a NeW Student Media Fellow. NeW is part of a growing conservative movement on college campuses.