Social media tools like Facebook and Twitter have gained wide attention for the role they have played in popular uprisings in countries like Moldavia, Iran, and most recently, Tunisia and Egypt. In the U.S., they have more quietly become a regular part of the political landscape, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.
The study found more than one in five (22%) online adults used Twitter or other social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace in the months leading up to the November 2010 elections to connect to a campaign or the election itself.
The midterm elections also showed that Republicans and Tea Party supporters had caught up with Democrats in embracing social media. Among social network users, 40% of Republican voters and 38% of Democratic voters used these sites to become involved politically. Tea Party supporters were especially active, with 22% friending a political candidate or group on a social site. Overall, 58% of Democrats use online social networks compared to 54% of Republicans (among Internet users).
A Pew study last month found that people using mobile phones to connect politically are also divided evenly along party lines.
"The social networking population as a whole has grown larger and demographically more diverse in recent years, and the same is true when it comes to political activity on social networking sites," said Aaron Smith, a Pew senior researcher specialist.
The main reason people follow political groups on social networks or Twitter is because it makes them feel more personally connected to the candidates or groups they follow. More than a third (36%) cited this as the major factor.
Two-thirds (67%) of those who follow politicians or other political groups via social media say that the information posted is interesting and relevant. A similar number say they pay attention to most (26%) or some (40%) of the material posted by the politicians or groups they follow.
Among other findings, 11% of online users discovered who their friends voted for in November through a social site, 9% got candidate or campaign information on Twitter or a social site, 8% posted political content, and 7% started or joined a political group on a social property.
These Pew study findings come from a nationwide telephone survey of 2,257 American adults (including 755 interviewed on cell phones) conducted between November 3 and November 24, 2010.