People believe that social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, can help promote real political change. But do people actually do anything political outside of Facebook?
A team of researchers from Michigan State University led by Jessica Vitak set to find out, by looking at how young adults interacted with Facebook and in real life politics during the 2008 election.
According to background information in the new study, during the 2008 election, both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates utilized Facebook to maintain pages that allowed users to post comments, share news and videos, and connect with other users.
Furthermore, Facebook members had access to various site features that allowed them to share their political views and interact with others on the site, including both their “friends” on the site, as well as other users to whom they connected with through shared use of political groups and pages.
“But did these efforts make a difference to the political participation of Facebook users?” the researchers asked.
Recruiting students from the University of Michigan campus, a survey email was sent to a random sample of 4,000 students, with 683 usable responses. Participants took a number of surveys about their use of Facebook — including the Facebook Intensity quiz — as well as their political activities outside of Facebook.
Respondents tended to be female (68 percent) and white (86 percent), with a mean age of 20 years. Most participants reported having a Facebook account (96 percent) and being registered to vote (96 percent).
After analyzing the data, the researchers discovered that there is a complex relationship between young people’s use of Facebook and their political participation.
Researchers found that while young voters participate in political activity, the degree of this participation is somewhat superficial. The most common forms of general political participation tended to be informational and low in resource intensity (e.g., watching a debate), whereas political actions that required a greater commitment of resources (e.g., volunteering) were less frequent.
“This finding in isolation lends credibility to the concern that young citizens are becoming “slacktivists,” engaging in feel-good forms of political participation that have little or no impact on effecting change,” note the researchers.
“While there are a variety of ways to participate, our sample indicated they overwhelmingly engaged in the least intrusive, least time-consuming activities.”
But the researchers suggested an alternative interpretation of their data, too. “As we age, our political participation inevitably increases, in part due to the accumulation of civic skills. By this line of reasoning, any political activity — whether occurring on Facebook or in other venues — facilitates the development of civic skills, which in turn increases political participation.”
“One advantage to the more lightweight political activity enabled via Facebook is the opportunity to “practice” civic skills with a minimal commitment of time and effort. Not only is Facebook accessible at any time of the day, but activities such as joining a political group or sharing a link can be accomplished with a few clicks of the mouse. These site characteristics create unique opportunities for participants to develop skills in their own time, representing a lower threshold for informal civic-engagement education.”
The study found that as the number of political activities people engage in on Facebook increases, so does political participation in other venues, and vice versa.
The researchers found a strong negative relationship between Facebook Intensity and general political participation.
The negative relationship between Facebook Intensity and general political participation is more difficult to explain. One interpretation of this relationship is that the most intense users of Facebook are classic “slacktivists,” — they do not translate their political activities on the site into other more commonly valued forms of political participation.
However, a number of alternative explanations are also possible. It may be that politically active users are only accessing Facebook to supplement their political participation in other venues.
Most importantly, this study has revealed that political activity on Facebook is significantly related to more general political participation.
“Facebook and other social networking services may offer young citizens an opportunity to experiment with their political opinions and beliefs while also being exposed to those of their peers, which could, in turn, stimulate their own interest and knowledge,” the researchers say.
“While Facebook may not be the cure-all to lagging political participation among young adults in the United States, this research provides support to the Internet-as-supplement argument that other researchers have made in regards to general communication.”
The study appears in the July 2010 issue of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.
Source: Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking
Vitak, J., Zube, P., Smock, A., Carr, C.T., Ellison, N., Lampe, C. (2010). It’s Complicated: Facebook Users’ Political Participation in the 2008 Election. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.