Online Political Behavior V. Offline Political Participation


This paper is an examination of literature centering on online political behaviors versus offline participation. With this, studies that survey the ways in which prevalent forms of online activity inhibit, and facilitate political participation will be reviewed. Moreover, The slacktivism hypothesis will be an underscored subject throughout this analysis. By exploring studies that assess the validity of slacktivism and its proposed implications, this review seeks to answer the following questions: are social media inciting slacktivism, and does this phenomenon pose a threat to offline political participation?

Review of Literature

The slacktivism hypothesis surfaced with the emergence of social media, and suggests that engaging in low-threshold acts of political participation online will decrease willingness to engage in more effortful action offline (Kwak, et al., 2018). These low-threshold acts include the liking, or sharing of political messages via social media, signing online petitions, etc. And typically involve minimal effort. Likewise, slacktivism is often associated with a feel-good measure that demands little or no personal sacrifice (Conway, 2012). Some fear that the individuals taking part in this form of online expression have a na??ve sense of its effect on political results offline, or in real life (Kwak, et al., 2018).

In the study, Perceptions of Social Media for Politics: Testing the Slacktivism Hypothesis, authors consider how perceiving social media as easy or impactful might promote political communication online. Likewise, the authors explore how factors such as political diversity in social networks and age might incite (or deter) online political expression (Kwak, et al., 2018). In their discussion, the authors confirm that social media’s qualities of ease and impact are associated with online political expression. However, their findings do not indicate that those partaking in online expression will become slacktivists. The authors report, that those who engage in low-threshold acts of political expression on social media are more likely to subsequently take part in higher-threshold offline political activity. Additionally, they state that identifying social media as easy or impactful methods of engagement implicitly motivates political participation offline.

However, the effects of perceiving social media as easy or impactful are not consistent among all users. The authors explain that younger users, and individuals with politically diverse social networks are not encouraged by ease and impact, implying that some find discussing politics online too hazardous. Those with homogenous social networks receive political affirmation online. This can result in increased motivation to participate, as they are less likely to damage relationships with like-minded others in their social networks. Lastly, while the ease and impact of social media can encourage users of all ages to be politically expressive online, the authors explain that only middle-aged and older people benefit from a potential spill-over effect between online expression and offline activity (Kwak, et al., 2018).

Another study, College Students and Online Political Expression During the 2016 Election, suggests that college students are more likely so participate in particular methods of political expression than older generations. The authors indicate that college-aged students are more accustomed to online political expression, as they are digital natives. They further suggest that this familiarity pulls more young adults into the political process (Moffett & Rice, 2017). In the study’s conclusions, the authors report that certain online actions can lead college students who might not otherwise participate politically to venture into the political world. Political engagement on social media and the reading of blogs are both cited as indicators. College students who engage politically on social media are also more likely to be expressive in the encouragement of others to vote for, or against a given candidate. Likewise, college students that regularly read political blogs are more likely to be politically expressive online. These individuals, who often immerse themselves in others’ sentiments, are also more likely to share beliefs and persuade offline. The authors acknowledge that, the political blogosphere tends to be highly polarized, suggesting further analysis of blogs and their effects on the political expression of their readers (Moffett & Rice, 2017).

As for the individuals that opt out of online political expression, having vocal friends within their network might keep them more informed by proxy. Though social media sites are perceived to have lower credibility that other online news sources, one study suggests that the communal functions of social media connect users to individuals and groups who aim to mobilize support (Yamamoto, Kushin, & Dalisay, 2016). The authors say that using social media can increase the likelihood of incidental exposure to political content shared by others. Moreover, they claim that while the politically inactive individuals are not pursuing political material on social media platforms, such socially transmitted information can help heighten receivers’ interest in politics, as peers have strong persuasive influences on personal judgments (Yamamoto, Kushin, & Dalisay, 2016). Another study indicates that social media users experience passive learning when they encounter political content without actively seeking it, which is typical of a low-choice media environment (Bode, 2015).

The authors of The Political Significance of Social Media Activity and Social Networks take a specific approach in analyzing the ways in which common modes of online activity potentially create routes to political activity (online and offline). They do so by exploring Friendship-Driven and Interest-Driven activity, and their influences on online participation and offline action (Kahne & Bowyer, 2018). In sum, the authors find that Friendship-Driven and Interest-Driven online activity create pathways to greater online and offline political engagement. Additionally, they discuss the importance of political engagement (and socialization) during youth and young adulthood, as it is a forecaster of future patterns. Moreover, the significance of weak ties is highlighted. And for hose who have more weak ties, which are synonymous with sizable social networks: both FD and ID participation led to increased levels of offline political activity and ID participation in conjunction with large social networks led to increased engagement in online participatory politics (Kahne & Bowyer, 2018).

Sharing beyond Slacktivism: the effect of socially observable prosocial media sharing on subsequent offline helping behavior tests the likelihood offline action following the sharing of a social cause video. The authors explain how some journalists use of the term slacktivist, and their argument that online social action satisfies youths’ moral and psychological needs for engagement, thereby excusing them from participating in traditional offline forms of engagement (Lane & Cin, 2017). This study also compares the effects of publicly versus anonymously shared content, as to challenge the perceived narcissism often associated with slacktivism. In their findings, the authors point out that an individual publicly sharing a video onto his or her Facebook wall leads to a greater willingness to volunteer for an issue-related cause. Furthermore, they report that those who claim to use social media as a method of engaging with social issues were willing to volunteer regardless of whether their post was anonymous or public (Lane & Cin, 2017).

A significant amount of research has been completed to examine the ways in which social media have influenced the political behaviors of young adults, but older generations have not ignored the wave of new media. Baby Boom or Bust? The New Media Effect on Political Participation, explores the impact of traditional and online media on Baby Boomers, during the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign. In their findings, the authors note first that Boomer’s attention to traditional media does not positively associate with their participation (offline and online). This suggests that traditional media, particularly television, is falling short (Towner & Mu?±oz, 2016). Another significant finding indicates that the more politically engaged among Baby Boomers are those who frequently visit campaign websites for information. The authors speculate that Boomers used these websites as a one-stop-stop for campaign activity, where they might have searched for information regarding donations, volunteering and voting. Forms of social media”notably Facebook, YouTube and blogs”are positively associated with Boomer’s online political engagement, and confirm that the influences of social media are reaching older generations.

By creating virtual relationships and observing the political actions of their reference groups, Boomers perhaps no longer feel alienated from politics and instead feel more connected. While Boomers paid significant attention to multiple online platforms in order to gather information, this did not result in increased modes of offline engagement. With that said, the authors propose that more attention to social media and online sources could increase offline forms of engagement as Boomers further embrace these digital sources (Towner & Mu?±oz, 2016).

While some warn that moving away from traditional media and toward new media elicits political apathy, Roderick Hart contends that a popular form of traditional media, television, merely provides American citizens with a sense of knowing in his novel, Seducing America. With this, he argues that television programs present political information in a manner that feels personal to the viewers, consequently impeding their ability to be informed, and therefor make informed decisions. By bringing politicians close to us, the American mass media appeal to our natural cockiness about judging character. In doing so, the media also establish a model of politics that emphasizes politicians over politics and psychology over economics (Hart, 1999). Hart explains that this primes viewers to consider policy at surface level. And that though Americans may watch the news and feel relatively informed, most have little knowledge concerning legislation and governance. In a 1986 survey, for example, respondents were presented with the names of the sitting vice president, the senate minority leader, the Speaker of the House, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and several other major political figures. Less than 4% of the sample got all occupations correct (Hart, 1999).

Some suggest that new media have the potential to play a vital role in politically informing and mobilizing Americans. In one study, an author considers how Facebook users can increase voter turnout. By employing the tagging feature of the social media platform, users were able to tag friends and remind them to vote (instead of going to door to door). This action subjects the tagged friends to the praise of others for deciding to vote. In the author’s discussion of this social pressure method, they report that it produced gains greater than that found from face-to-face contact, suggesting that direct contact within digital networks might be even more effective at fomenting turnout than traditional methods (Haenschen, 2016).

Social media have also been utilized to shed light pertinent social issues and problematic norms. Twitter hash tags are commonly used to increase awareness across the platform. For instance, I Was Grabbed by My Pussy and Its #NotOkay: A Twitter Backlash Against Donald Trump’s Degrading Commentary, details how Twitter users can start a massive discussion by using a has tag. The authors state that their findings, highlight the ways celebrities’ perpetration of violence against women can spark public discourse on this pervasive issue and how individuals can collectively organize on social media to challenge problematic social norms (Maas, Mccauley, Bonomi, & Leija, 2018). Hash tags incite substantial social dialogue and Twitter provides a meeting place for commentary to take place. Another study analyzes the conversations young individuals are having about the environment on social media. In the authors’ discussion of their findings, they describe the conversation as argumentative, sophisticated, elaborative and competitive discussion (Andersson & ?–hman, 2016). Though these dialogues and hash tags create buzz and foster important social (and political) exchange, they are often temporary, and consequently result in minimal societal change.

In Beyond Viral, an analysis of social media’s lacking ability to create lasting, social change, the authors mention past social mobilization occurrences (i.e. Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Boston Marathon bombing manhunt, etc.) and consider why issues do not retain popularity long enough to activate social progress. This is the tragedy of a completely open and equally connected society: when people discuss social issues online, it is very difficult to reliably quantify the importance of the different issues being raised (Cebrian, Rahwan, & Pentland, 2016). Though the previously mentioned has tags have the ability start important conversations online, these dialogues typically gain popularity but fizzle out over time”within days, weeks, months. As a result, most of these events burst upon the scene, occupy our attention for a few days, and then fade into oblivion with nothing substantial having been accomplished. The authors suggest that, as citizens of an open and connected society, we are unable to prioritize among the multitude of platforms and innumerable potential issues to address. Without meaningful thresholds for action, the set of alternative issues end up canceling each other out, leading to slacktivism (Cebrian, Rahwan, & Pentland, 2016).

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