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Social Media and Political Participation
Alexander W Kunkle
Western Oregon University


“One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by
your inferiors.”
— Plato
The core of a free society is the ability to participate in the political process. While the act
of voting may be the most scrutinized, and understood element of the political process,
participation reaches far beyond the voter‟s booth. There are a variety of factors which play into
voter decisions, leading up to the act of voting, the most important perhaps is one of political
discourse. Political discourse does not require pollsters and pundits, micro analyzing each
element of a campaign. Political discourse does not require voter identification laws. The
purpose of political discourse, is to create a dialog about relevant issues which impact our
society. The result, is a populous which has a better understanding of policy and candidates‟
positions, both of which are vital components of the decision making process. Robertson (2010)
said, “Informed discourse is central to democratic government. Theories of deliberative
democracy posit that informed argument and rhetoric will lead to rational decision making” (p.
While the word choice “informed” could be debated, the concept of discourse among
people is not. However, what is debated, is the venue in which this discourse can occur to truly
affect the political system. Is political discourse, or as Robertson (2010) phrased it, “informed
discourse,” only allowed in town-hall forums? Around the water cooler at work? Or can it be
held digitally on the web? Can it be held across state lines and time-zones? More importantly, is
the discussion only to be held through those with the media‟s pen and those with influence? If


that is the case, then the United States will never become a country, in which every citizen truly
has a voice. If however, through the advancements of technology and social media, we can
stimulate discourse among its users, then perhaps we can truly get to Robertson‟s (2010) notion
of informed discourse.
Political Participation
Mainstream media and political pundits often suggest that that voting is the only measure
of participation in politics. Polls and reports always refer to the participation among age groups,
races, locations and a thousand other demographics. Rarely, if ever, do they focus on the
participation of the citizenry prior to the point in which their vote is cast. Once the vote has been
cast, the most visually obvious result of that vote is an elected official, but before that point, the
term „participation‟ can be expanded to include so much more. How does one decide who to vote
for? Do they watch commercials or discuss topics with friends? Do they volunteer for political
campaigns or take five minutes to talk to someone with a clipboard? These are all elements of
political participation, and they all influence the end point of the process, the vote.
Many researchers have defined political participation over a large spectrum, from broad
to narrow. While the aim of this paper is not to debate the merits of each definition, it is
important to select one as a framework for this discussion. On October 31st, 2000 the United
Nations adopted a resolution focusing on the importance of women for peace and security.
Within that resolution they published a guide which details political participation. Their
definition states,
Participation in electoral processes involves much more than just voting. Political
participation derives from the freedom to speak out, assemble and associate; the


ability to take part in the conduct of public affairs; and the opportunity to register
as a candidate, to campaign, to be elected and to hold office at all levels of
government. (ch. 3).
The idea that informed discourse is vital to political participation is clear within this definition.
The ability to “speak out, assemble and associate” on topics of political importance is “central to
democratic government,” and must come from a place long before one votes.
Political Knowledge as Part of Participation
The definition provided calls for people to “speak out,” and as Robertson (2010)
suggests, that “informed discourse” will lead to “rational decision making.” What then causes
that rationality? It is important, in order to speak about political matters, that an individual
should know about politics (we hope, but it isn‟t always the case). Within our society, the range
of knowledge which our citizenry possesses varies.
In Delli Carpini‟s seminal work (1996), he argues that “an informed citizenry helps
assume a democracy that is both responsive and responsible” (p. 1). Delli Carpini defines
Political Knowledge in broad terms as factual knowledge about politics. He makes a point of
emphasis that knowledge differs from attitudes, values, beliefs and opinions. This definition is
consistent across other research into Political Knowledge, and how it correlates to other
variables, which has been done since Delli Carpini‟s work (Galston, 2001; Kenski & Stroud,
Delli Carpini (1996) explained multiple findings in regards to political knowledge and the
American public; first, political knowledge is depressingly low, but optimistically there are signs


in certain populations that the American public can become well informed. Second, political
knowledge as a percent has remained relatively consistent over the past 50 years. Third, most
people who are knowledgeable about some areas of politics are knowledgeable about other areas
as well. Finally, the more informed you are, the more likely you are to participate in the
democratic process.
Delli Carpini (1996) also looked at particular variables and how they correlated to scores
on the 1988 and 1989 National Election Studies (NES) test. From this, he determined that
political knowledge was correlated to several grouping variables, but at different levels;
The largest correlations (from .38 to .60) in both data sets are for
education, attention to politics, discussing politics, internal efficacy, and income.
Attention to the print media, holding a politically impinged job, external efficacy,
having a sense of civic duty, gender, and (in the 1989 survey) race also have
sizable correlations with political knowledge (from .26 to .35). And many of the
remaining variables (for example, attention to the electronic media, strength of
party identification, age, and living in the south) have at least modest correlations
with what people know about politics.
As shown within this research, the act of discussing political matters directly correlates to
political knowledge. This of course fits into Robertson‟s (2010) comments on “informed
discourse” and the United Nations definition of political participation, which includes the ability
to “speak out.”
Lambert (1988) continues by discussing political knowledge as a precursor to political
action, specifically voting, but they also discuss knowledge itself as its own form of action. From


that connection we can see that informed discourse leads to higher political knowledge, and
higher political knowledge leads to higher voter turnout. However, one key element explained by
Delli Carpini (1996) is that motivation and attitude play an important role in political knowledge
learning. Therefore, if an individual does not care, it would be expected that their knowledge on
that subject would be lower. Seeing that, if interested people are more adept to participating in
informed discussion, the question can then turn towards how the discussion takes place.
Digital Landscape for Informed Discourse
Most people remember a time when all information came from three main sources, print
mediums like a newspaper or magazine, television or radio based mediums, and direct
information from people we spoke with in person. Over the last decade however, this has
drastically changed. Information is still pushed from political candidates or traditional news
media, but often this is done through the internet. The message largely has not changed, it simply
has had a change in venue. The message is still, much like its print predecessors, a form of oneway dialog. Within this type of message, there is no response from the recipient, simply
information being absorbed.
While newspapers are still printed on paper they are also printed digitally. CNN is still
scaring us with a never-ending stream of crisis and disaster on channel 202 on DirectTV, but
they also stream live on Pew Research Center (2008) found that “In 2007, 46% of 18to 29-year-olds reported they got most of their election news from the Internet” (p. 736). As
impressive as those statistics are, they are not the most illuminating statistics related to
knowledge acquisition. Social media has expanded news beyond what digital newspapers and can. Many researchers have pointed towards social media as the new source for


political news (Baumgartner, 2008; Bekafigo, 2011; Bennett, 2012; Effing 2011). From this,
PEW (2008) presents that, “27% of 18-29-year-olds say they got some information about the
campaign from social networking sites” (p. 736).
Social media has become the new political participation battleground. Through social
media, there are two primary methods of obtaining information. The first, similar to their news
website counterparts, information is presented and the viewer absorbs that information. The
second is a two-way dialog through social media about any topic of interest. While the first
method of one-way dialog can build upon the political knowledge that Delli Carpini (1996)
spoke about, passive knowledge acquisition is not as powerful as discussion based acquisition.
Nor does this passive acquisition fit into the concept of “informed discourse” that Robertson
(2010) spoke of.
Andersen (2009) describes digital political participation, which he calls eParticipation, he
defines this terms as, “the use of information and communication technologies to broaden and
deepen political participation by enabling citizens to connect with one another” (p. 102).
eParticipation at its basic level is the “use of information and communication technologies.” This
is the old model of one-way communication that political campaigns, and the mass media, have
always used. The important element of the eParticipation definition, and one which would fit into
Robertson‟s (2010) notion of informed discussion, is the component which states that
eParticipation, “enable(s) citizens to connect with one another.”
Andersen (2009) continued by explaining, “the social network platform is mainly seen as
a means to obtain information, that is, establishing a one-way relation in which information is
retrieved from policy-makers for use by citizens. Such a relation established with the sole


objective of obtaining information is described as the lowest level of eParticipation” (p. 109).
While obtaining information clearly is considered eParticipation by Andersen, it is the
connection with each individual that raises the level of eParticipation. The added connection is
what will expand political knowledge, allowing for informed discussion and an increase in
political participation.
The difference between one-way communication and two-way communication, even
when done digitally is described by Gustafsson (2012), “people rarely act on mass-media
information unless it is also transmitted through personal ties; otherwise one has no particular
reason to think that an advertised product or an organization should be taken seriously” (p.
1114). It is the personal connection, which builds the connection to the information they are
Robertson (2010) explains, “SNSs [Social Network Systems] enable the dissemination of
private opinion and through their distribution and consumption facilitate the formation of
(online) public opinion via user participation and interaction” (p. 14). Now, among our „friends‟
society is able to debate the issues of importance to them, often from a prompt supplied by
someone completely unattached to mainstream media. From this discussion we are able to form
opinions on matters of political relevance. Delli Carpini (1996) would argue that opinions are not
consistent with political knowledge but Gustafsson (2012) explains that, “the surprise effect of
noticing a Friend joining a group might make users inclined to look for more information on a
subject, but the bitter and sarcastic tone used by political activists seem to scare people away” (p.


Gustaffson (2012) made a key point with regards to political novices trying to educate
themselves on political matters. Rather than being required to read often cynical comments from
news sources online, or participate in discussions beyond their comprehension, they can research
based on their „friends‟ similar interests in a safe zone. Valenzuela (2009) compares this to other
organizations people can feel a part of, “Investment in social networks enables individuals to
develop norms of trust and reciprocity, which are necessary for successful engagement in
collective activities (e.g., participation in neighborhood associations)” (p. 879).
Bennett (2012) describes this trend as “personalized politics.” He explains that
participation is, “channeled through often dense social networks over which people can share
their own stories and concerns—the pervasive use of social technology enables individuals to
become important catalysts of collective action processes as they activate their own social
networks” (p. 22). This concept of personalized politics, has adapted the concept of political
participation. Politics is now more than ever a grassroots process. One which people connect on
an individual level to each other to form opinions on political matters. Not where political
decisions are made based on a commercial or a news story, which is not shared among peers, or
engaged with in any form.
While many points have been made by researchers as to the important role social media
is playing on political participation, not all researchers feel that the discourse which is happening
on social media, truly benefits political participation. Bekafigo (2011) explains that “most people
who participate in political discussion via social media are people are already interested in
politics” (p. 4). He continues by stating, “Others have shown that the Internet, blogs, and Twitter
encourage clustering of like-minded individuals” (p. 4). This indicates that the people involved
in online discussions are already people participating in the political process.


Effing (2011) expands on this doubt by explaining that, “the politically active on the web
are well educated males with relatively high income and even relatively high age. In many cases
the politically interested people online, are the same as the politically interested people offline”
(p.27). If Bekafigo (2011) and Effing (2011) are correct in their doubts to the merits of social
media, why have so many other researchers focused praise on the new two-way communication?
Effing, despite his doubts admits that, “with frequency, the younger they are, the more they post
and participate” (p. 27).
While many people have moved to social media, taking the dialog which they are already
having offline into n online enviornment, youth have begun a dialog in a place they were
already; social media. Two-way communication on a „friends‟ wall is not the only way in which
social media is engaging youth. Valenzuela (2009) discusses how youth are getting involved
through other aspects of social media, “Facebook features such as “groups” and “Events” were
found to promote political discussion” (p. 877). To participate in these groups and events, social
media users must make an active choice to „like‟ such a page, which is an vital part of political
participation. This, much like stopping to sign a petition, or placing a lawn sign, indicates a
decision has been made prior to voting. This decision is to become more involved in the political
process. This is even more important in the youth demographic, which often does not participate
in political events.
Politics have moved into a sphere that youth are already familiar with. Unlike the
traditional model of political interaction, this new digital interaction removes knowledge
limitations that youth may have experiences in the past. Bekafigo (2011) explains,


Those on the democratizing side of the digital divide debate argue that the
Internet can bring new participants into the political system by removing barriers
that favor traditional participants and conventional forms of participation. The
Internet has the potential to broaden the sphere of democracy by promoting
communication and providing information needed to participate (p. 3).
Gustafsson (2012) also addresses the impact of social media on youth, “political engagement on
blogs and social networking sites clearly overcomes the historical underrepresentation of
younger citizens with respect to political activity” (p. 1113).
It is not just youth that are becoming more involved in political matters via social media.
Bekafigo (2011) explains that,
Twitter and other social media sites have the potential to draw the unengaged into
politics. Though this research demonstrates that some familiar faces—highly
politically involved, partisan individuals—are extending their offline political
reach to Twitter, we also find evidence that racial and secular minorities, too, are
tweeting about politics (p. 12).
People who often did not have, or did not try to have a voice in politics, are now playing a role in
the political process. This role cannot be ignored.
Political campaigns have not ignored social media or their users, often segments of the
population previously left out as they didn‟t vote are now the focus of major political campaigns.
Fisher (2012) explains, “Such electronic tools that have the capacity to flatten the world are
particularly important for national campaigns that aim to mobilize a large group of people who


likely do not know one another and do not live in geographical proximity” (p. 129). The concept
of „friends‟ goes far beyond actual personal connections one forms and serves as an indication of
common interests and organizations. From those interests, political parties are able to mobilize
more people to gather both physically and digitally.
Informed discourse leads to higher levels of political knowledge. Higher levels of
political knowledge leads to more political participation. More participation leads to a larger
voting population. A larger voting population may be able to end a 90 percent incumbency rate
in Congress. Even if increased voting fails to knock some people out of office, the increase in
participation, especially among those often left out of the political process, cannot be a bad thing.
All this is made possible by social media. The importance of social media on politics cannot be
diminished by social media pessimists or those looking to keep the often disenfranchised citizens
from voicing their opinion.
It is impossible to tell if social media alone is responsible for the shift in how people get
their information; Gustafsson (2012) explains this point by stating, “The fact that digital media
such as social network sites are interconnected with other types of media and communication
presents yet another challenge to the isolation of the individual effects of social network site use”
(p. 1115). However, it is important to go back to Robertson (2010); “Informed discourse is
central to democratic government.” Social media only increases that discourse. Facebook says on
their homepage, “Facebook helps you connect and share with the people in your life.” That by
itself leads to more discourse.





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