Social media’s effect on political participation and civility

In the nonstop flow of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, it’s hard to avoid comments and news about politics, especially in a presidential election year. Many worry the geyser of political rhetoric and uncivil comments might discourage some from participating.

That’s not always the case, says Porismita Borah, an assistant professor in the Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University since 2012. As a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin and at WSU, she researches emerging technology and how it affects politics. She coauthored a study in 2008 that found young people became more civically involved in real life when they engaged on social media.

“My own research and several other studies have shown the more you use social media for political purposes—you go to Facebook or Twitter to learn more about politics, follow political leaders, or discuss politics—leads to more online and offline political participation,” says Borah.

That bodes well for civic engagement. Voting, keeping informed, and expressing opinions on political leaders and issues form the heart of democracy. Government traditions in the United States depend on individual and group participation.

Facebook and Twitter can act as an arbiter for informed involvement, a cornerstone of U.S. politics since New England town meetings before the Revolution.

Even back then, people bemoaned incivility in political discourse. On the other hand, nasty comments can drive some people to get even more involved. In Borah’s published work on the political blogosphere and  current project, Facebook use in presidential campaigns, she found that people become more intensively engaged if someone attacks a political leader they like.

“It’s possible they get angry and they’re willing to do more if the political leader they like is attacked: put up a lawn sign, donate, or volunteer,” says Borah.

The rapid changes in social media and political campaign strategy have also cast traditional campaign advertising in a different light.

“What is campaign advertising anymore? Our terms are getting more muddled as technology has advanced,” says WSU political science professor Travis Ridout. Some campaigns have adjusted quickly to the new era of social media, he says. “This presidential campaign especially, if a candidate says something stupid on Twitter, all of a sudden the opposition has crafted a 30-second ad.”

Ridout says that negative campaign ads have increased significantly since 2000, but it’s unclear whether or not negative ads change behavior. “Political scientists have been debating this for 20 years. We’ve come to a pretty good consensus that on average, the tone of the ad doesn’t matter too much in terms of whether you’re going to participate or not.”

Online political ads do tend to be more positive, he says. Political campaigns often post online to speak to existing supporters. That doesn’t prevent uncivil responses, though, as many have seen in Facebook or YouTube comments.

“Social media anonymity makes it easier to be uncivil. You can say whatever you want because you’re not held accountable,” says Borah.

Incivility can have some detrimental effects on political participation. “If it’s mudslinging about things we think are irrelevant—such as about the candidate’s religion or family—that might be enough to turn off people and they won’t participate,” says Ridout.

For political and communication researchers, it’s tough to nail down all the effects when social media changes so rapidly.

“It’s dynamic. Facebook data and features from three years ago are different than its current form,” says Borah.

Ridout agrees with that assessment: “Data on Facebook from four years ago have become dated quickly. Who is on Facebook has really changed.”

She and Ridout are not dissuaded by the shifts in social media. Instead Borah sees even richer research opportunities to explore how politicians are changing and using social media, and how social media is making a difference to the public’s engagement.