skip to main content
Campus Discussion Done Mostly Online Pre-COVID-19

Campus Discussion Done Mostly Online Pre-COVID-19

Story Highlights

  • 58% of students say most college discussion take place on social media
  • 29% say social media discussions usually civil, down from 41% in 2016
  • 80% think hate speech is a serious problem on social media

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- COVID-19 has shuttered college campuses across the U.S. and learning has moved online for at least the current semester. This unprecedented situation is affecting not only how students learn but how they communicate as well. Yet, data from a Gallup/Knight Foundation survey of U.S. college students conducted in late 2019 finds that students were already reporting that most discussion of political or social ideas at their college takes place through social media (58%) rather than face-to-face on campus (42%).

Donut chart. Fifty-eight percent of U.S. college students say most expression of political/social ideas on campus is online.

These data are almost identical to the initial measurement in 2017, and students' views vary little by subgroup. The latest survey also found that college students are heavily reliant on social media for news about events and issues happening in their community, the U.S. and the world. Asked in an open-ended question format about where they get most of their news, two-thirds of students cite some form of social media -- either in general or specifically. Television is another common news source, with 19% mentioning TV news generally, 13% CNN and 8% Fox News, in addition to other specific broadcast news channels named by smaller percentages of respondents.

These results are based on a nationally representative 2019 Gallup/Knight Foundation survey of 3,319 randomly sampled U.S. college students about First Amendment issues. It is an update of 2016 and 2017 surveys on the same topic. The full 2019 report is available for download.

College Students Recognize Drawbacks of Social Media

While social media provides a ready forum for people to express their views, there are significant downsides. The 29% of college students who "strongly agree" or "agree" that the dialogue on social media is usually civil is down from 41% in 2016 and 37% in 2017. Additionally, 81% of students agree that it is too easy for people to say things anonymously on social media.

Most students also agree that social media can stifle free expression both because too many people block those with whom they disagree (60%) and because people are afraid of being attacked or shamed (58%). Both figures are up about 10 percentage points from 2016, but stable since 2017.

Line charts. College students’ views of social media on four measures since 2016.

Republican students are more likely than Democratic students to believe social media stifles free expression. Students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and black students, more generally, are more likely than other student subgroups to perceive the dialogue on social media as being civil.

Hate Speech on Social Media Considered Serious Problem

Thirty-eight percent of college students say hate speech is a "very serious" problem on social media, and 42% say it is a "somewhat serious" problem. The majority of HBCU students (57%) and Democrats (51%) describe hate speech as a "very serious" problem.

Female students are also more likely than most other subgroups to view hate speech as a serious problem, while male and Republican students are less likely to see it as "very serious" (though the majority of those groups believe it is at least a "somewhat serious" problem).

Bar charts. College students’ views of how much hate speech is on social media, by gender, race, party affiliation and HBCU.

When asked for their views on methods of addressing hate speech on social media, college students are most supportive of allowing individuals to take personal responsibility for what they post (77%); this approach appeals more to Republicans (89%) than to Democratic students (69%).

A majority of students (68%) also support the idea of social media companies aggressively removing content that violates their standards for what can be posted. Less than half of Republicans, 47%, favor this approach, compared with 80% of Democrats and 73% of women.

Students are disinclined to believe the government should allow individuals to directly sue social media companies for content that they believe causes them harm (36%). However, a majority of black students favor this approach.

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030