There is a clear racial divide over how Americans feel about the effect of the Internet and social media on politics.
Minorities in America believe technology has had a far more positive impact on politics and the cultural conversation than do white Americans, according to a Yahoo News survey conducted by the Harris Poll. Blacks, Hispanics and Asians all feel the Internet and social media have made the American political debate more representative of the whole country and have increased the ability of voters to be informed about candidates for office and policy issues.
African-Americans, in particular, are more optimistic about the future of the country than all other ethnic groups, the online survey of 5,188 registered voters found, and their hopefulness transfers to their view of a fractured, often chaotic media landscape. The survey was conducted ahead of Yahoo’s first conference on politics and technology, Digital Democracy, at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on Nov. 12.
One of the most profound gaps between whites and minorities is on the question of the country’s future. Whites are the most pessimistic, with 71 percent seeing the U.S. “going off on the wrong track,” compared with just 41 percent of blacks. A majority of Hispanics and Asians think the country is headed in the wrong direction, at 54 and 55 percent, respectively. But in contrast, a majority of African-Americans, 59 percent, think the U.S. is “going in the right direction.”
These numbers were put into further perspective by a groundbreaking study from two Princeton University researchers this month that showed it has been a difficult decade and a half for white Americans across the country. The death rate among middle-aged whites of all education levels spiked starting around 1999, largely caused by increases in drug and alcohol abuse, drug and alcohol overdoses and suicides, the study found. At the same time, the mortality rate among blacks and Hispanics has been dropping, and no other comparable increase in deaths among a demographic group has occurred in any other major industrialized country.
The rise of mobile technology, in particular, may be adding to the optimism and sense of empowerment among marginalized communities. In the past year or two, the problem of police brutality against African-American men has been brought to light by amateur videos captured on mobile phones. Activism and protests have been organized and amplified by social media networks like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and presidential candidates have been forced to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Correspondingly, there are major differences in how ethnic groups feel about whether technology has empowered new voices in the political debate. Three out of four African-Americans and Latinos (74 percent and 73 percent, respectively) and two out of three Asians (69 percent) believe the Web and social media have “made political discussion more representative of what Americans really think.”
Only three out of five Caucasians (60 percent) agree with that statement. In all categories, in fact, whites are more skeptical of the raucous social media environment than minorities.
More precisely, 55 percent of African-Americans think the Internet and social media have made minority voters “more influential,” compared with just 45 percent of whites, 51 percent of Hispanics and 43 percent of Asians.
However, there is a big split between younger Republicans and older Republicans, voters who overwhelmingly skew white, over the question of tech and its impact on minorities. Nearly two out of three millennial Republicans (59 percent) think the Web and social media have given minority voters more influence, compared with just 39 percent of nonmillennial Republicans.
Asians are the group that feels most strongly that tech has made politics “more inclusive,” at 78 percent, compared with 77 percent of blacks, 72 percent of Hispanics and 67 percent of whites.
Whites lag behind blacks and Asians in their view of whether it’s “easier to find the truth about an issue or candidates because of the Internet and social media” and whether these technologies “ensure more transparency in the campaign process.” A majority of whites agree with these statements, but only at 60 and 59 percent for the two questions. Blacks agree with the two statements at 73 and 74 percent, and Asians agree at 74 and 69 percent.
Hispanics are in between, with 66 percent believing it’s easier to find the truth about an issue or a candidate, and 63 percent holding a view that there is more transparency.
All ethnic groups are aware that with the magnitude of content that is online, and with the barriers to publication now being so low, not all information is equally accurate or truthful. A heavy majority (83 percent) of all voters believe that the Web and social media spread misinformation, but even here whites are more skeptical of online content, with 85 percent saying there is inaccurate content, compared with 78 percent of blacks, 81 percent of Hispanics and 83 percent of Asians.
Nearly three out of five white voters (57 percent) think social media has made politics more negative, while only two out of five African-Americans (41 percent) share this view. Latinos and Asians are in the middle on this question, at 50 percent each.
On all these questions, there are higher levels of optimism among younger, urban, low-income voters than among those who are over 30, rural and suburban, and those with higher incomes.
And minorities have higher hopes for the possibility of engaging with political candidates electronically than whites do. Exactly half of blacks surveyed want political candidates to engage with them through social media, while only one out of three whites (32 percent) feels the same way.
Hispanics scored high on this question of engagement. At 30 percent, they were most likely to view a presidential candidate’s picture on social media, to watch his video or read his blog. Hispanics, in fact, scored the highest in most categories of online engagement as well as offline civic involvement. They reported the highest levels of posting on social media about current events (26 percent), attending a public meeting on school or town affairs (19 percent), attending a political rally, speech or organized protest (10 percent) or writing letters to newspapers or calling a radio show (8 percent).
Social media engagement with politicians across the board is increasing, but not in great numbers yet. It is, however, still early in the 2016 election process. So far, the number of voters who follow a presidential candidate on social media has gone from 17 percent in 2012 to 24 percent in the 2016 election.
And yet most voters have a limited view of the reach of their own influence as individuals, even with the advent of social media. Of all ethnic groups, Hispanic voters are the most positive on this, and yet fewer than one in four of them (23 percent) believes that technology has given them more of a voice in politics, compared with 21 percent of African-Americans, 18 percent of whites and 15 percent of Asians.
White Americans are more skeptical of information they see online. Nearly half (45 percent) think it’s difficult to know whom to trust because every news organization has a bias. Fewer than one in three blacks (29 percent) agrees with that, as do 34 percent of Latinos and 32 percent of Asians.
But two out of three voters (69 percent) think that candidates who don’t master social media risk losing control of their message.
The federal government is viewed as being on the cutting edge of technology by almost half of African-Americans (45 percent) and a third of Hispanics (36 percent), but only one in five Caucasians and Asians (22 percent) agrees.
All groups are united in their skepticism that the government is able to protect their personal information from hacking, but blacks give the feds the most benefit of the doubt. Nearly one in five (17 percent) thinks their information would be safe from hackers if the government were tasked with protecting it, compared with just 8 percent of whites, 14 percent of Hispanics and 12 percent of Asians.
There is a generational divide here as well. Older voters are more skeptical of the government’s ability to protect information than younger voters are, and they are also the most concerned about the issue.
And on cybersecurity, two out of five millennial voters are surprisingly optimistic that the U.S. government and corporate sector are well prepared for a cyberattack, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. Concerns about cybersecurity vulnerability are much higher for all other age groups. Almost half of African-Americans (46 percent) think the government and corporate sector are well prepared for cyberattacks, while that number is about 20 percent for whites. A third of Hispanics and Asians think the government and private sector are prepared for cyberwarfare.
When it comes to politics, 67 percent of whites think former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time in government is a serious matter, compared with just 42 percent of blacks. Two out of three Hispanics and Asians (60 percent each) agree that it is serious.