Just over a third -- 36 percent -- of the respondents to a nationwide telephone survey said that they consider social networking sites "very" or "somewhat important" for tracking political news, while 26 percent said they rely on the sites to recruit others into service of a cause or candidate.
But when asked about recent activity, their level of interest appeared to slacken. Indeed, 84 percent of respondents to Pew's survey said that they had posted little or no material relating to politics in their recent status updates, comments or links. In contrast, 6 percent said that most or all of what they post focuses on politics, while the remaining 10 percent said that some of the content they recently shared was politically themed.
"Those who are really active in discussing and participating in politics use social networking sites pretty eagerly and report that their discussions and debates on the sites affect them," Lee Rainie, a co-author of the report and director of the Pew Internet Project, said in a statement. "However, for most of those who use the sites, political material is just a small portion of what they post and what they read. And the impact of their use of the sites is modest, at best."
The report follows an earlier study by Pew that evaluated the social media strategies of the presidential candidates. In that review, Pew reported that President Obama's campaign engaged with voters to a far greater extent than Republican nominee Mitt Romney's camp, with the most glaring disparity found in the respective candidates' use of Twitter.
The latest survey found that Democrat respondents said they were more likely to use social sites for political activities than independents or Republicans. One-third of the respondents who identify as Democrats and use social networking sites said that they have become more politically active because of the technology, compared with 24 percent of Republicans and independents.
Evaluating the respondents by demographic, the Pew researchers found that black social networking users were far more likely than white users to rely on the sites for political activities, and younger users, predictably, were more apt to view social sites as political significant than older users.
But among the cohort of respondents, social networking emerged as a sidelight in their political activities. Just 25 percent said that they have taken action on an issue after discussing or reading about it on a social site, while a scant 16 percent said they had changed their position on an issue following their engagement with social content.
In contrast, 9 percent of respondents said that they had actually become less engaged with a political issue following an experience on a social site.
An even quarter of respondents said that social networking sites were "very" or "somewhat important" to them both in debating political issues with others and finding other like-minded users who share their views.
At 59 percent, a slight majority of respondents said that their friends had posted little or nothing relating to politics, while just 9 percent said that their friends primarily post political material.
The Pew researchers conducted their telephone survey of 2,253 adults in January and February, describing the survey sample as "nationally representative."
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.
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