Nick Brown turned 18 in September and will vote for the first time in November. But the Brandon, S.D., resident admits he has some research to do.
“As of right now I know nothing,” said Brown, whose high school law and government teacher registered voting-age students in class. “I don’t follow politics at all, so I need to educate myself before I go in and vote.”
Many first-time voters are just like Brown—they’re excited about voting, but need information about candidates, issues, and even how and where to cast their ballots. They’re seeking these answers from a laundry list of sources—family, social media platforms, YouTube, teachers—and often they’re consulting a handful of these sources at once.
But could the influence of so many outlets—especially social media, with its inherent hyperbole, fake news, and nonstop news cycle—mean young voters are getting a skewed version of the truth? Not necessarily, said Carolyn DeWitt, the president and executive director of Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan youth-voting organization.
“This generation … is incredibly skeptical and critical,” she said. “But we have to do a better job with media literacy. Knowing how to fact-check and find credible sources” is key.
Brown’s first course of action is to talk to his parents.
It’s the same step most young voters take. Nearly 39 percent of 18- and 19-year olds who responded to an Education Week Research Center survey about voting said they turned to family members to help them decide how to vote. It was the top choice among respondents.
But Brown said just because he’s gathering information from his parents doesn’t mean he’s going to vote the way they do. “Some things we agree on and some we don’t at all,” he said. “I find my own opinions.”
For Delsa Guerrero-Castillo, a 20-year-old junior at Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, social media plays a significant role in the information she’s collecting about elections. Twitter and Instagram are her main social media sources. She feels she gets helpful background information about candidates there, and she likes watching videos about issues.
Guerrero-Castillo said she takes note of what friends post and retweet, and also searches Twitter using hashtags to get differing perspectives on candidates. For example #StaceyAbrams—the name of Georgia’s Democratic candidate for governor—is a common search of hers.
But Guerrero-Castillo also is attuned to the fact that information gleaned on social media may not be reliable. “I’m aware it can be pretty biased, so I look on Google to double-check information,” she said. She considers social media “a double-edged sword,” because there’s a lot of information available, but it’s not always reliable and her generation can be swayed by what they consume there.
Respondents to the Education Week Research Center survey said they got a significant amount of election-related information on social media: 30 percent used Instagram, 25 percent used Facebook, 23 percent tapped Snapchat, and 21 percent looked to Twitter. The September survey was conducted with support from the Education Writers Association.
That survey result is mostly in line with those from a 2018 college pre-election civic youth poll by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), based at Tufts University. But that poll, which questioned 18- to 24-year-olds in September who said they would be first-time voters in this election, also found 90 percent of respondents turned to up to six types of sources for election information.
“They’re hearing about elections in different places,” said Abby Kiesa, the director of impact at CIRCLE. And even if the source is social media, information may come from friends and family, outside organizations, candidates, or news sources.
But there are concerns about the impact and reach of social media. Fake news, manipulation techniques, disinformation, and even a phenomena like Instagram flop accounts—places where discussions on hot-button topics may spread incorrect and unreliable information—all worry observers.
“It raises a concern because of what we saw in 2016 with disinformation about campaigns on Facebook and Twitter,” Kiesa said.
But just because young voters are swimming in the social media pond, that doesn’t always mean they’re being taken in by information that’s skewed, she said. “When a young person is looking at a social media outlet, they might be looking at specific people they trust and writing off others,” she said. “That trust on social media is important.”
In fact, a report released in October by the Pew Research Center found that younger Americans are actually better than older Americans at discerning what information is accurate.
In that survey, a third of 18- to 49-year-olds were able to determine whether statements presented to them were fact or fiction, and 44 percent were able to classify which statements were opinions.
A bigger problem, however, may be that younger voters often aren’t getting much information at all about elections, said Clarissa Martinez, the deputy vice president in the office of research, advocacy, and legislation at the nonpartisan Hispanic voter group UnidosUS, which has a youth-voting initiative called the Power of 18. That’s particularly true among young Latino voters, she said.
“In many ways, candidates and parties are not reaching out,” she said. “Young voters often feel they don’t have enough accurate information.”
In the Education Week Research Center poll, prospective voters also rated television news (cited by nearly 38 percent), YouTube (named by 33 percent), and school and teachers (selected by 32 percent) as important sources of information.
For Maggi Davis, a University of Vermont freshman from Denver, it took some digging to make her election choices. Looking at her absentee ballot, she realized she wasn’t familiar with the candidates’ names or with the ballot initiatives. Before she sent the ballot off, she talked to her parents, and went to the website of her local news station in Denver—KUSA 9News—which featured what she considered to be an impartial review of candidates and issues.
She avoided social media because “I know that’s pretty biased,” she said. “I was trying to go for reliable, not partisan, information.”
Afterward she felt ready to fill out her ballot. So does Guerrero-Castillo in Atlanta, who didn’t vote the first time she had an opportunity to in 2016.
“I missed out on the importance of having my voice heard,” she said. “I don’t want to miss out on that again.”
The survey of first-time voters was conducted with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship Program.
A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2018 edition of Education Week as Where Young Voters Learn the Political Scene: Google, YouTube, Mom and Dad