Social media: encouraging political participation or political laziness?

By Ginna Royalty

Part 1/2

Protesters gather in D.C. for the Women’s March on Washington. Photo by The Chicago Tribune

Teresa Shook was trying to find a way to express the disappointment, anger, and sadness she felt when she heard the results of the 2016 Presidential election.

She posted a single, crazy idea in a Facebook group: what if women marched in D.C. during inauguration weekend? Before she went to bed, 40 women had responded with a yes. When Shook woke up she could not believe her eyes; 10,000 people agreed with her.

Social media’s role in political participation is undeniable. Teresa Shook would not have been able to gather around half a million people without the help of social media. More than three million people across the globe came together and made a statement regarding the rights of women. There were almost 700 sister marches in over 60 countries across the world, from Australia to France to Kenya and Spain.

The 2016 election was different than most elections in more ways than one. Social media played a huge role in both the spreading of news and becoming politically active.

Social media’s role in the 2016 election

Since 2008, the number of users on social networking site has grown tremendously, from 33% to 69% in 2012. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2016 only 13% of adults are not online and nearly eight-in-ten online Americans now use Facebook.

With the increasing amount of people using social networking sites, the ways that Americans are getting active in the political world are also changing.

Lee Rainie, the director of Internet, science and technology research at the Pew Research Center. Photo by Ginna Royalty

According to Lee Rainie, the director of Internet, science and technology research at Pew Research Center, “For millennials, social media participation is just a part of life. It’s a way for them to do all kinds of things, including political activity.”

“For baby boomers, social media came into their lives at a much later stage and so they’ve had to incorporate it into their political life, rather than millennials who just started with social media being just as much a part of their civic life as whatever else they were doing in ‘real life,’” Rainie said.

But has social media been more harmful than helpful for political life? This past election cycle has perpetuated scandal and drama and fake news, hurting both candidates.

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Jason Husser, director of Elon Polls. Photo by Elon University

“There are a lot of folks that think that because they liked or retweeted something that they made an actual difference in that cause, “ said Jason Husser, director of Elon Polls. “Influencing policy takes more than a like. It doesn’t do much more than get attention.”

According to the English Oxford dictionary, the definition of “slacktivism” is “actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement, for example signing an online petition or joining a campaign group on social media.”

Voting patterns for millennials 


reasons young people don't vote (1)
Research from Lee Rainie from Pew Research Center. Graphic by Ginna Royalty

Only about 50 percent of Americans aged 18-29, millennials, voted in the 2016 election, which went down from the 2008 election. An estimated 56.8 percent of the total eligible population voted in 2016.

Rainie said that younger people not turning out to vote is a long-standing problem that is not new to 2016 and that there a lot of political science reasons for this.

“Young people don’t necessarily pay as much attention to politics and news, they are just launching their lives and have a lot of stuff on their mind,” Rainie said. “They’re wondering, ‘Where am I going to live? Who am I going to marry? Where am I going to get a house? How’s my career going to unfold?’”

“They also haven’t necessarily lived their lives with lots of direct impact of political decisions on their lives,” Rainie said.

However starting in 2008 the trend of less voting behavior started to reverse. There was a higher voter turnout than previous elections, and young people, in particular, had a higher level of participation. There were multiple factors to this: it was the dawn of social media and Obama was a special kind of candidate.

Even though more millennials started to vote, it was still not all of them.

“The story of people’s lives tend to be that as they settle down, as their careers develop, as their families develop and as their community groups become more pronounced, they get more interested in voting because they can see ways that policies affect their everyday lives,” Rainie said.

Map of United States 2016 election results if only millennials had voted. Graphic by Mic

Rainie wonders whether more young people who didn’t vote in the 2016 election now feel like that was a mistake, especially after seeing how so few votes had to change to produce a different election outcome. In 2020 more people might think, “Well my vote might count.”

According to Rainie, one of the biggest hindrances on people voting is that they think, “What I think doesn’t matter and I can’t influence anything” or “It’s a waste of time for me to pay attention to this stuff when I have other things to do.”

There is no doubt that the political environment is changing with all of the different media options that are also continually changing. There are many more social media channels now than there were 5 or 6 years ago, and there will be more in the future.

“Social media has allowed politicians to communicate without the media,” said Husser. “It allows instant and direct communication to the public.”

Companies and political figures have to adjust the way they treat social media content because they’re worried about accusations of promoting fake news or accusations of echo chambers, people who are living in information bubbles and not really encountering other information.

“The big difference with social media is that it has the ability to target areas in ways that were never feasible before. Campaigns can deliver very specific information. Social media helps connect people in a way that we weren’t connected before.”

-Justin Grimmer, associate professor of political science at Stanford University.

“Heading into the future there will be adjustments in the platforms,” Rainie said. “Some of them will become even more open, but a lot of them will make adjustments to try to limit fake news and try to limit the way people can hurt each other on these platforms.”

News sources in relation to political participation  

According to the Pew Research Center, about one-third of millennials said that social media was the most helpful way to learn about the 2016 presidential election.

Using social media as a way to obtain news drops off drastically after the 18-29-year-old range with only 15% of 30-49-year-olds and 5% of 50-64-year-olds reporting that social media was a helpful way to get news about the election.

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“Across the board, social media is becoming a resource for political activity,” said Grimmer. “Baby boomers are increasingly using social media as an outlet, but it is still a little more natural for millennials.”

full shot photo
Hal Vincent, lecturer and faculty director of Live Oak Communications. Photo submitted by Vincent

“Social media helps coordinate and communicate with much smaller niche audiences,” said Hal Vincent, lecturer and faculty director of Live Oak Communications at Elon University. “Down to the county, municipal and neighborhood level, things can be more organized, at least in their communication, thanks to social media.”

“Fundraising and grass-level political support will only continue to strengthen and mobilize thanks to social media.”

Graph by Pew Research Center

The Pew Research Center also found that there is also a difference between outlets used to consume news and likelihood to participate in a primary or caucus. Those who consume information through cable TV and the radio are more likely to participate in a primary or caucus than someone who finds out information through social media or local TV.

“There is such a polarization on social media, people only see, read and follow the things that they want to hear about,” said Dan Griffin, Elon University senior and political science and strategic communications double major.

The notion of “fake news” also played a huge role in the 2016 election. A study done by Stanford University found that “of the known false news stories that appeared in the three months before the election, those favoring Trump were shared a total of 30 million times on Facebook, while those favoring Clinton were shared 8 million times.”

“I think flashy news article titles hit people at their values and if someone sees an article that has a crazy title name, they may share it automatically without even clicking on the link,” said Kayla Gallagher, Elon University junior and political science major. “When people see something that they want to be true, they may also be likely to share it whether it’s true or not.”

Read more about social media’s impact on political campaigns in the sidebar labeled: “Social media’s involvement in political campaigns”

Lee Rainie discusses the differences between baby boomers and millennials and their usage of social media for political participation.

Questions: Why aren’t younger people getting out there and voting? How can social media help with political participation?



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