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Online Oldies: Senior Voters’ Social Media

Posted: November 18, 2015 | By: Austin Cannon Tagged: From the Campaign Trail

Besides their overwhelming whiteness, I’ve always held another stereotype about Iowans: They’re old. Turns out, I’m a little wrong here. The median age in Iowa is 38. According to Census data, 15.8 percent of Iowans are age 65 or older, only 1.3 percent above the national average. Iowa, as it happens, isn’t even in the top ten of the U.S.’s oldest states. But, if you look at the very nice Pew Research Center graphic below, you can see that Iowa does have some hubs of senior citizen activity. Not like the retirement hotbeds of Arizona and Florida, but there are concentrations of seniors in north and west Iowa:

Counties With the Largest, Smallest Shares of Seniors

As a journalism student, I like investigating where people get their news. I, as a typical head-in-my-phone millennial, get my news from Twitter. My grandfather, who is 90, gets his from reading the paper back-to-front each morning and watching the local news at night. It makes up for not having a computer or smartphone. He’s not an Iowan, but it still had me wondering: Do seniors, particularly those who will caucus on Feb. 1, use social media to get their news or follow candidates?

This question was also spurred by some comments made at the Yahoo! News Digital Democracy conference at Drake. During a panel on social media and politics, author Nicholas Carr made the case that Donald Trump was the “Social Media Candidate.” I wrote more here, but what Carr was getting at was how Trump, with his nearly 5 million Twitter followers, “cuts through the noise” with bombastic, unexpected tweets that get peoples’ attention. Like, say, this one:

And the audience isn’t just his Twitter followers. He gets media coverage that expands his reach across the Internet. So the next question is whether or not Iowa’s seniors are seeing Trump call Marco Rubio a “total lightweight” on Twitter.

Most likely, Papa and Nanna up in Decorah did not see Trump’s tweet. According to Pew, 10 percent of the adults older than 65 use Twitter, which, while small, is still a 5 percent increase from the year before. Papa could’ve seen it on his Facebook news feed, though. Sixty-five percent of Internet-using adults over 65 have a Facebook page. Perhaps Uncle Steve shared the Washington Post story on Papa’s profile and now both Nanna and Papa know about it. The pure quickness of social media makes just about anything on the web easy to share with your online friends. Sometimes it’s great and useful; other times it makes me rething friendships.

But are seniors even on the Internet at all? Yes, 53 percent back in 2012. That’s surely risen by now, and as baby boomers start to reach retirement age, that number will spike even more. Computers have become a part of daily life for most adults, so I would guess more and more people will turn to platforms like Twitter to get their news.

But what about my grandpa? He might not get the most breaking news from the newspaper or TV, but he still gets plenty of election news, just not as instantly as we do. And the thing with Trump is that he expands across all mediums: online, TV, radio and print. His tweet about Rubio probably made it into several newspapers, so maybe Grandpa read about it. Accompanying Trump at the top of the polls is Ben Carson, but his tweets aren’t nearly enough to pick up coverage from the media. Well, unless he happens to re-shuffle New England.

So will caucus night come down to who reaches the most voters from social media? Definitely. Probably not, but in a primary season featuring 14 candidates, a little bit of an edge anywhere can’t hurt. Right now, Trump has the any-publicity-is-good-publicity edge. As more and more people, including our older relatives, start to employ social media as a news source, the online battle will intensify. One battleground will be Iowa.

IMG_1208Cannon is a senior journalism and political science major from Kansas City. He interned this summer at the oldest continuously published newspaper in the U.S., The Hartford Courant, and he cares too much about the World Champion Kansas City Royals. Follow him on Twitter.