Research & Insights

How Time Online Rallies Offline Political Engagement

For old-school operatives it may seem that the younger generation spends far too much time online and far too little time engaged in political activities. But based on findings from a new study published in the Journal of Communication that examines how Facebook and other social media spurs political activity, the researchers think online activity and political activity may not be mutually exclusive. According to the study, people are translating Facebook posts and tweets into political participation offline.

For their study, Homero Gil de Zúñiga, Logan Molyneux and Pei Zheng analyzed data from a survey conducted by the Community, Journalism & Communication Research unit of the University of Texas-Austin, in which 312 respondents were asked at two separate times about their social media usage as well as their political participation both online and offline.

The data show “significant connections between social media use, political expression, and political participation,”the researchers write. They found a relationship between exposure to news and political information on social media sites and offline political participation: Seeing political content online increases online political participation. In turn, this increased online engagement spurs offline political action such as attendance at public hearings and political rallies.

Gil de Zúñiga, Molyneux and Zheng theorize that online political engagement changes how we see ourselves as political actors. Reading about and participating in politics on social media helps transition us from seeing ourselves as political observers to seeing ourselves as political activists. “In the same way that talk precedes action,”they explain, “expression may work to enable political action by causing the expresser to alter his self-perception…from observer to participant.”

The researchers suggest that social media sites are good for this type of self-identity change because they “provide a space for people to express themselves and create their own identity (which may include political expressiveness), and…introduce people to new social groups.”By developing a “political face”online, people begin to view themselves as political actors.

“The ease of using and creating social media have spawned an explosion of grassroots participation, allowing individuals to express their opinions more openly and freely as well as to build a more active and significant relationship with official institutions,”the authors explain. Providing an online space where people can practice seeing themselves as political actors may help followers move from digital to in-person participation.

Journal of Communication, June 2014

Homero Gil de Zúñigam, Logan Molyneux, Pei Zheng, University of Texas

Posted: December 4, 2014
Tagged as: