Does Online Political Engagement Reflect Real-World Actions?

By October 30, 2012

While the Internet offers considerable scope to spread political views, people may not actually be spurred to take part in real-world protest activity by information circulating on the social media, a recent study appears to indicate.

Social protest is becoming increasingly prevalent online. However this phenomenon tends to be driven by people who are already engaged in social protest in the real world, indicates a study*carried out by researchers at the School of Journalism and Mass Communicationat the University of Wisconsin-Madison,USA. Looking into the way young people use four social media networks – Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and blogs – in relation to political issues, the researchers distinguish the use of these channels simply to obtain or relay information on the issues from their more active use as a ‘soapbox’ to express personal social or political views. They then sought to correlate such online behaviour with offline, real-world political engagement. They took as a case study the controversy over the Budget Repair Bill in the state of Wisconsin in the spring of 2011, where online protests spread widely, especially among young people.

How does online activity relate to offline action?

Among adults who use social media sites for political purposes, 42% are under the age of 30. A survey of more than 200 university students in Madison, Wisconsin between April and May 2011, which also comprised collecting information on their ideological orientation and demographic data, confirmed an earlier finding that young people use social media for two primary purposes - “informational” and “expressive”, both of which the researchers see as important but which differ in their role and impact. They found that when social media were used simply to obtain information on what was going on, this activity did not correlate with ‘real-world’ protest behaviour. However, those young people who used the social media to express political views tended to be the ones actually engaging in public protest activities.

Ideology determining type of engagement

The study results indicate that in this case the social media were not serving to “spur offline behaviour” or “act as a mobilising force.”  Moreover, individual ideology appeared to correlate with a decision such as whether or not to take part in a public demonstration. The researchers point to two distinct approaches – individual protest participation, such as writing blogs, sending letters to politicians or making placards; and group participation, i.e. taking part in demonstrations, sit-ins, etc. Students describing themselves as ‘liberal’ tended more often to be actively engaged, whether in groups or as individuals. Meanwhile those who claimed to have a specific interest in politics were less likely to take part in group protest activity, though a moderate proportion did report they had undertaken individual activity. 

The researchers believe that this type of social media analysis can help to spot political trends. There are also tools available for this purpose: earlier this year L’Atelier highlighted Truthy, a dashboard designed to track political trends by analysing Twitter flows.

*Killing the Bill Online?: Pathways to Young People’s Protest Engagement Via Social Media(2012), by T. Macafee and J.J Simone.

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