USF study: Voters rely on social media for information, call online conversations 'hateful,' 'frustrating'

Voter turnout for the presidential election is expected to reach record levels, but researchers at the University of South Florida wanted to find out how Floridians feel about the election as it relates to their use of social media for information.

With a week to go before Election Day, USF researchers found a sense of conflict among social media users.

“People rely very heavily on social media to stay informed about politics, that they report that they do, but they also don’t trust a lot of the information that they see though, which is a really interesting paradox,” said Stephen Neely, an associate professor at USF’s School of Public Affairs. “They want to stay engaged. That’s the vehicle they use to do it, but they don’t really like the environment they see.”

USF surveyed about 600 Floridians online from October 10 to October 17 about how they use Facebook and the political information they see online. For some 29 percent of the Floridians who responded, political posts even led to unfriending or unfollowing people, researchers found. Another 25 percent used the snooze button on Facebook.

“The five words that were most commonly chosen by respondents were 'one-sided,' 'frustrating,' 'hateful,' 'offensive' and 'angry,'” said Neely about how respondents described the political conversations online.

While the act of unfollowing or unfriending only takes a second, Neely explained how narrowing your feed can lead to views that go unchallenged.

“There’s a real danger to creating closed-off social circles on Facebook and other social media platforms because it creates the environment where misinformation can flourish, and ultimately where extremism can kind of take root,” said Neely.

As users choose what information to consume, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are doing what they can to reach more people.

“Certainly there is a push to turn out younger voters through social media right now. Both campaigns are engaging in that,” said Neely.

Neely said Floridians they surveyed do not trust the information they see on social media in general but are more likely to trust what they see on their own feed. You can find a detailed look at the survey results at