“[O]nline political activity is no longer simply an information gathering endeavour” (Garcia-Castañon, Rank & Barreto 2011)
Participation as a mode of engagement is one of the most important factors affected by the transition to an online environment. While “the impact of general Internet use on political efficacy and trust is still contested, many are optimistic about the ability of political Internet use to increase offline and conventional forms of political participation” (Conroy, Feezell & Guerrero 2012). Most research now differentiates between ‘online’ and ‘offline’ participation, with offline participation being seen as a more traditional (and often more valid) method of engagement.
Although“[i]ndividuals can engage in numerous types of behavior online that promote, develop, and explore their political orientations [which] subsequently alter their political behavior offline” (Garcia-Castañon, Rank & Barreto 2011), the way the social media/political landscape is growing and evolving means that online participation is becoming seen as more important, rather than just a means to bring about offline action (although the act of voting is usually one of the most important political participatory acts). If we consider online participation more than just a means, then we may observe a change in the so-called politically apathetic youth of today.
A Political Approach to Social Media:
Politicians have demonstrated an apprehension in embracing social media as they have traditional media. While web 2.0 may have been originally utilised by politicians as a medium resembling traditional media, it is clear that to meaningfully engage with users online (rather than just an audience), political activity must adapt to a more interactive platform. “[S]ocial media is significant in considerably expanding the extent to which once-passive audiences are able to engage with media producers and fellow consumers” (Chen & Vromen 2012), and politicians must acknowledge their new relationship with citizens.
As well as accommodating new interaction, social media is an invaluable resource to politicians as a source of information about their demographics. Social media “makes visible the types of active audience behaviours once difficult for elites to identify: the tendency for citizen sociality and “cross talk”… and audience “talk back” to media” (Chen & Vromen 2012).
Channelling the Youth Vote:
“[Of] voters aged 18 to 29, 67 percent have done at least one online activity, compared to just 32 percent of voters aged 50 or older who took part in at least one online activity, [indicating that] youth are more likely to be engaged in politics online”. (Garcia-Castañon, Rank & Barreto 2011)
The youth vote, a key demographic often elusive to politicians has seen somewhat of a resurgence in recent years, most likely due social media as a new political platform. As social media acts as a ‘leveller’ for youth (making up for a lack of traditional media) for political engagement (Holt, Shehata, Strömbäck & Ljungberg 2013), it acts as an effective tool with which politicians may interact and engage with youth.
Quality of Engagement:
“[Social media tools] offer powerful new ways to connect, influence and engage fellow citizens – perhaps ushering in a radical transformation in the way citizens connect with and influence their government and politicians connect with the public.” (Grant, Moon & Grant 2010)
Social media use for political engagement online varies greatly, exhibiting a range of qualities, from:
- Humourous, serious or satirical
- Supportive to abusive or attacking
- Factual to opinion-based
and offer valuable opportunities for two-way interaction between politicians and citizens, yet many studies demonstrated that social media remains largely a political tool for self-promotion. A Norwegian report found tweets “were mainly used to provide information on professional activities, to express views on current topics and to discuss issues with fellow politicians. Only to a lesser extent was Twitter used to engage in discussion with citizens” (Larsson & Moe 2014, p.320). Politicians also frequently restrict potential engagement by creating Facebook ‘pages’ rather than ‘profiles’, strict censorship of comments/interaction, posting of scripted, repetitive messages only, and not using features to broaden reach, eg. hashtags., meaning that social media “interactions tend to take on rather traditional patterns” (Larsson & Moe 2014, p. 328)
On the whole, it seems that politicians’ use of social media to engage youth “showed more evolutionary than revolutionary tendencies” (Larsson & Moe 2014, p. 328).
Potential drawbacks of social media for political purposes:
A number of common drawbacks and considerations arose when researching this topic that may affect the ability for social media to facilitate meaningful engagement between politicians and citizens on- and off- line:
- For citizens to engage politically online there is an assumed level of political interest existing in the individual.
- Research has suggested that while online behavior did increase offline participation, there is a negative link between online engagement and political knowledge (Östman 2012).
- An analysis of Facebook page content and commentary found “information quality to be quite low and relatively opinionated rather than information rich” (Conroy, Feezell & Guerrero 2012).
- Humourous and ‘viral’ content such as political memes and fake/satirical accounts also could have negative impact but lack factual foundation. This means that funny/offensive and reputation-damaging content can often become more powerful than well-informed/positive messages and reputations that politicians work towards.
The internet being an expansive backlog of information and anecdotal evidence that many people can access, circulate and discuss also makes it a place where politicians can be easily scrutinised for things they have said or done, which may lead to apprehension exhibited by politicians in embracing social media, as they have much less control over what information is distributed and interacted with online.