How traditional media and social media affect older and young voters

Editor’s note:

In this series, we look at how younger voters can influence future elections and American politics.

As we have seen in other articles on these sites, social media has become a major driver of the widening gap in voting behavior between voters over and under 45. In this article, we will look at how the media habits of older and younger voters contribute to and enable this gap.

Compared to the messaging systems of the past, social media messaging is highly decentralized at source and destination. Instead of relying on executives, presenters and editors to decide which news is edible, social media puts that power directly into the user’s hands. This power allows users to search for news that interests them and aligns with their concerns, resulting in a fragmented news landscape undefined by political polarization. With this greater access to personalized news channels comes a greater diversity of political perspectives.(1)

According to Pew, over 40% of Americans aged 18-29 say social media is their main source of news. The same is said by 22% of Americans aged 30-49. This number drops to 6% and 3% respectively for people aged 50-64 and 65+. More people aged 18-29 get their news from social media than people aged 65+ get their news from cable TV.

This remarkable disparity between older and younger generations has implications beyond mere delivery methods, as the experience of receiving news from social media is drastically different from the experience of getting news from traditional media.

Viewership among traditional news services (news on national networks and cable television, radio, newspapers and magazines) is divided into two different ecosystems defined by the party. The latest Pew research he couldn’t find a single news site that was watched by a majority of both Democrats and Republicans. Pew was able to identify a number of legacy news sources used almost exclusively by one party.

In contrast, social media platforms have users from both sides. The two most popular social media platforms, YouTube and Facebook, are used by the majority of adults in both parties and have almost no bias.

Source: Pew Research Center

Source: Pew Research Center

Source: Pew Research Center

They still are some party divisions however, in the social media ecosystem. Younger Democrats appear more frequently on every major platform except Facebook. Instagram has a particularly large gap between pages. But unlike older media, what is not present in the data is a widely used platform Just for Republicans or Just for Democrats.(2)

The world of traditional media is divided. The world of social media is divided.

The world of traditional media is divided. The world of social media is divided.

Patterns of social and traditional messaging usage persist by looking specifically at those who report receiving messages from the platform rather than just using it.

(3)While there are variations from party to party, they are not even close to the discrepancies we see in party usage patterns in older media and NO individual traditional media outlets are moving closer to the consensus seen in the use of YouTube as a source of news.

This is not to say that the experiences of Republicans and Democrats are at all similar on YouTube. A 34-year-old Democrat living in Detroit sees about the same on NBC News every day as a 68-year-old Republican living in Seattle because the content of the news is chosen by the network, not by the user. But a 26-year-old Republican living in Birmingham may have a completely different YouTube channel than a 26-year-old Democrat living across the street.

Social media is designed to deliberately divide user bases into ever narrower groups defined by specific interests. A single social media user can belong to a climate change collective on Instagram, an anti-tax group on Facebook, and a Southeast Asian food community on TikTok. This varied diet of news is virtually impossible to pick up in the forked media landscape of legacy media.

The same characteristic of hyperpersonalized news feeds can lead to an echo chamber, which occurs when a group of like-minded individuals form and foster distrust of outside sources. But that same pocket-forming phenomenon is also how online fandoms develop – and how BookTok, Black Twitter, or the Zelda subreddit come into being.

In short, those who get their news from social media have a greater diversity of opinion than those who get their news mainly from older media.

The latest data from the Pew survey shows how differences in social media use by age relate to people’s political ideology. Pew refines political ideology by dividing society into nine distinct groups: four on the left, four on the right, and one of those too politically uninvolved to be classified.

Source: Pew Research Center

Within the four groups that make up consistent Democratic voters, older Democrats are much more likely to cluster into just two of Pew’s typologies – either “Basic Democrat” or “Establishment Liberal.”(4) By contrast, Democrats under 50 are equally likely to be found in any of the four groups; they have no clear typological preferences. As a result, it would be much easier to predict the political ideology of a 53-year-old Democrat chosen at random than a 31-year-old.

(5)To a lesser extent, this also applies to Republicans; however, senior Republicans tend to be slightly more diverse in terms of political ideology than their Democratic counterparts. Younger Republicans are slightly less diverse compared to younger Democrats. Many have been classified by Pew as belonging to the “ambivalent right” typology. The prevalence of this ideological perspective among junior Republican party identifiers and the absence of young Republicans in traditionally conservative typologies aligns with research showing that young Republicans are increasingly at odds with older members of their party.

Data on Pew’s political ideology shows that younger voters are driving the emerging new wings of both parties. This is happening in the Republican Party with the rise of the “ambivalent right.” Among Democrats, this is reflected in the fact that younger voters make up the majority of what Pew calls the “outsider left” and the “progressive left.” Both are made possible by the nature of social media they use as their primary source of news for voters under 50.

Social media allows younger Americans to have more individualized political interests than older voters. They are looking for a political party that will support this diversity of perspectives and will welcome their ideas. Whoever does this by effectively understanding the social media information ecosystem will be increasingly successful in the election.


(1) This blog does not address the issue of misinformation/misinformation in social media, which is related to news ecosystems, but is not directly within the scope of this blog. When users act as their own editors, disinformation/misinformation can more easily creep into their diet, but comparing this to older media and how it is fueled by guerrilla forces requires further analysis.

(2) Alt-Right social networking sites exist, but they are currently at such a low level of usage that they do not affect the overall results.

(3) This data was provided by Pew in the specific pivot table request and is not available in their website data. To see, see the following PP_2021.11.09_political-typology_REPORT. Pew didn’t have specific age breakdowns on their website, so they created a new document for us with those breakdowns. For each of the individual social media sites, the respondent is asked if they have used a particular site for news only if they have previously indicated that they have ever used that platform.

(4) The figure of 20% in the charts indicates that 20% of the total Democrats are people aged 50+ and a Democratic mainstay NO 20% of Democrats aged 50+ are Democratic mainstays.

(5) The data used for the graphs is not directly included in the published Pew work. Pew published the percentage of each lot in each typology and the percentage of each typology that was below 50. We used these two sets of numbers to calculate what percentage of each lot was young AND in a specific typological group. This is the data used for the charts and this dataset is included below.

In a room, 100 Republicans would be…
Age 18-49 Age 50+
Conservation of Faith and Flags 9.316455696 19.79746835
Committed Conservative 8.164556962 10.82278481
Populist right 12.2278481 16.88607595
The ambivalent right 14.35443038 8.430379747
In a room, 100 Democrats would be…
Age 18-49 Age 50+
The Outsider’s Left 16.81012658 3.443037975
Foundations of Democracy 15.59493671 19.84810127
Establishment liberals 15.43037975 13.6835443
Progressive Left 10.78481013 4.405063291

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