Social media for civic participation

Evidence Rating  
Some Evidence
Evidence rating: Some Evidence

Strategies with this rating are likely to work, but further research is needed to confirm effects. These strategies have been tested more than once and results trend positive overall.

Health Factors  

Social media sites provide internet-based tools that individuals and groups can use to receive news, communicate or share information, collaborate on ideas, mobilize networks, and make collective decisions1.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased civic participation

  • Increased political participation

What does the research say about effectiveness? This strategy is rated some evidence.

There is some evidence that social media use increases civic participation2, 3, 4, 5 and offline participation in political activities2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, including voting9, 15, 16. Additional evidence is needed to confirm effects.

Using social media as a news source may increase civic engagement (e.g., volunteering, attending a neighborhood meeting)3 and both online and offline political participation3, 9, 17; however, social media use for social interaction does not appear to directly influence political engagement17. Using social media for political purposes is positively associated with offline political participation14. Personalized social media messages encouraging congressional voting can increase voter turnout15.

Surveys of youth suggest that political use of digital media, including social media, is positively associated with engagement in offline political activities18. College students and adults, who participate in more expressive political activities and frequently share political content on social media are more civically and politically active offline than those who do not participate in these activities2, 16. The size of online networks on social media (e.g., the number of Facebook friends) appears to be positively associated with civic and political participation19.

Using social media for community engagement and social connections is associated with increased offline civic and political participation through increased trust in local communities20. People using social media as a news source are more likely to participate in voting and online political activities21, and report feeling connected to their community and to help resolve community issues3. However, another study indicates that more frequent online political engagement is associated with fewer strong interpersonal relationships with family or friends4.

For individuals who are 36 years old or older and use social networking sites (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram) that feature their preferred political views, positive perceptions of using social media for political engagement are associated with increased social media use for political expression, which in turn increases offline political participation6. Another study of online diversity suggests that increased online cross-cutting political discussion may increase the sharing of political information on social media, and in turn, increase offline political participation22.

Connecting with others via social media can encourage young people to become engaged citizens23. Increased Facebook interactions between students from different high schools appear to be associated with increased civic participation24. The positive association between frequent social media use for local issues and civic and political participation appears to be stronger for rural residents than those in urban and suburban communities25. The association between social media use and political engagement may vary by experience of digital civics education (i.e., digital media literacy combined with civic or political discussion topics)13.

How could this strategy advance health equity? This strategy is rated inconclusive impact on disparities.

It is unclear what impact social media use could have on disparities in civic and political participation across populations. Available evidence suggests that an association between social media news consumption and online political participation is stronger for white people than minorities, but an association between social media news consumption and voting does not vary by race21. Another study suggests that the positive association between online political engagement and offline political participation appears to be stronger for individuals who are less educated and have a low income compared to those who are more educated and have a higher income8. Surveys of individuals ages 18-34 show that those with lower socio-economic status are less likely to consume online political news and participate in offline political campaigns or voting, but more likely to express their political opinions on social media than individuals with higher socio-economic status29.

There is a continuing debate over whether social media worsens or reduces disparities in political participation among population groups. Supporters of social media argue that it creates alternative spaces and channels for political participation for people of color and youth with lower socio-economic status so that they can actively amplify their voices, advocate for public issues, and engage in political campaigns, through building online communities of solidarity21, 30. However, opponents argue that increases in digital media channels do not assure equal democratic benefits for people of color and rather reinforce the digital divide, due to inequities of media use capabilities (e.g., different knowledge of using online resources) and differences in information distribution21. Moreover, social media platforms can have social and political biases nested in their design and should be used with caution due to challenges such as unequal access, unaccountable content, and limited democratic outcomes that the platforms may create31.

What is the relevant historical background?

The World Wide Web was invented in 1991 and transformed how people accessed information on the internet. Building on the early success, social media platforms emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s to facilitate two-way communication between people, build networks, and organize around shared interests32.

Historical and present structural barriers prevent people of color and people with low socio-economic status from participating in civic life and making their voices heard in decisions. These structural barriers include restrictive voting laws, underrepresentation in electoral processes, and being excluded from decision making processes33, 34. Although social media may create more opportunities for more people to stay informed and engaged in civic life, disparities in online civic and political participation may persist. Digital technologies, like social media, may reduce costs of political participation for individuals who are interested in public issues but have fewer resources to engage in collective activities21. However, limited knowledge and technology skills may limit some groups of people from opportunities to seek information and engage in political mobilization through the internet21.

As of 2021, 85% of adults in the U.S. have a smartphone and about three in four adults have a desktop or laptop computer. Smartphone ownership does not vary by race but shows disparities across household income, educational attainment, and disability status35, 36, 37. As of 2021, Black and Hispanic people, young people ages 18-29, women, college graduates, and people living in urban communities are more likely to use at least one social media platform than their counterparts26. As of 2018, broadband adoption rates in rural areas (81%) are lower than urban areas (85%). Access to broadband is a challenge to rural residents as internet service providers often ignore rural markets and do not invest in setting up broadband networks38.

Equity Considerations
  • Who may not have access to devices (e.g., smartphones, laptop computers, tablet computers) and internet services that influence access to social media? What challenges or barriers prevent access to devices and internet services? How can your community connect individuals to these services?
  • What knowledge and skills do people in your community have that impacts their use of social media? How does their knowledge and skillset impact the information they obtain from social media? How can you support community members to increase their digital literacy?
  • What are ways to use social media to give voices to diverse groups, build community power, and encourage participation in online and offline civic and political activities?
Implementation Examples

As of 2021, about seven in ten adults in the U.S. reported that they use social media26. In 2015, 61% of millennials between the ages of 18 and 33 reported receiving news about politics and the government from Facebook27. Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube, are available across the nation through the internet.

Civics education in K-12 schools may use social media to teach students how to communicate with others and practice civic knowledge and skills28.

Implementation Resources

Resources with a focus on equity.

MRSC-Community engagement - Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington (MRSC). Community engagement resources: Social media.

Footnotes

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 Lin 2022 - Lin Y. Social media for collaborative planning: A typology of support functions and challenges. Cities. 2022;125:103641.

2 Rice 2019 - Rice LL, Moffett KW. Snapchat and civic engagement among college students. Journal of Information Technology and Politics. 2019;16(2):87-104.

3 Gil de Zuniga 2012 - Gil de Zúñiga H, Jung N, Valenzuela S. Social media use for news and individuals' social capital, civic engagement and political participation. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 2012;17(3):319-336.

4 Ferrucci 2019 - Ferrucci P, Hopp T, Vargo CJ. Civic engagement, social capital, and ideological extremity: Exploring online political engagement and political expression on Facebook. New Media and Society. 2019.

5 CTSA-2011 - Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA). Principles of community engagement. Bethesda: National Institutes of Health (NIH); 2011.

6 Kwak 2018 - Kwak N, Lane DS, Weeks BE, et al. Perceptions of social media for politics: Testing the slactivism hypothesis. Human Communication Research. 2018;44(2):197-221.

7 Conroy 2012 - Conroy M, Feezell JT, Guerrero M. Facebook and political engagement: A study of online political group membership and offline political engagement. Computers in Human Behavior. 2012;28(5):1535-1546.

8 Tai 2019 - Tai KT, Porumbescu G, Shon J. Can e-participation stimulate offline citizen participation: An empirical test with practical implications. Public Management Review. 2019;22(2):278-296.

9 Adegbola 2019 - Adegbola O, Gearhart S. Examining the relationship between media use and political engagement: A comparative study among the United States, Kenya, and Nigeria. International Journal of Communication. 2019;13:1231-1251.

10 Holmes 2018 - Holmes JW, McNeal RS. Social media use and political mobilization. International Journal of Public Administration in the Digital Age. 2018;5(4):50-60.

11 Bode 2018 - Bode L, Edgerly S, Wells C, et al. Participation in contentious politics: Rethinking the roles of news, social media, and conversation amid divisiveness. Journal of Information Technology and Politics. 2018;15(3):215-229.

12 Velasquez 2018 - Velasquez A, Quenette AM. Facilitating social media and offline political engagement during electoral cycles: Using social cognitive theory to explain political action among Hispanics and Latinos. Mass Communication and Society. 2018;21(6):763-784.

13 Xenos 2014 - Xenos M, Vromen A, Loader BD. The great equalizer? Patterns of social media use and youth political engagement in three advanced democracies. Information Communication and Society. 2014;17(2):151-167.

14 Lee 2022b - Lee S, Xenos M. Incidental news exposure via social media and political participation: Evidence of reciprocal effects. New Media & Society. 2022;24(1):178-201.

15 Bond 2012 - Bond RM, Fariss CJ, Jones JJ, et al. A 61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization. Nature. 2012;489(7415):295-298.

16 Piatak 2021 - Piatak J, Mikkelsen I. Does social media engagement translate to civic engagement offline? Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. 2021;50(5):1079-1101.

17 Gil de Zuniga 2014 - Gil de Zúñiga H, Molyneux L, Zheng P. Social media, political expression, and political participation: Panel analysis of lagged and concurrent relationships. Journal of Communication. 2014;64(4):612-634.

18 Boulianne 2020 - Boulianne S, Theocharis Y. Young people, digital media, and engagement: A meta-analysis of research. Social Science Computer Review. 2020;38(2):111-127.

19 Lee 2022a - Lee Y. Social media capital and civic engagement: Does type of connection matter? International Review on Public and Nonprofit Marketing. 2022;19:167-189.

20 Kwon 2021 - Kwon KH, Shao C, Nah S. Localized social media and civic life: Motivations, trust, and civic participation in local community contexts. Journal of Information Technology & Politics. 2021;18(1):55-69.

21 Wang 2022a - Wang L. Race, social media news use, and political participation. Journal of Information Technology & Politics. 2022;19(1):83-97.

22 Lane 2017 - Lane DS, Kim DH, Lee SS, Weeks BE, Kwak N. From online disagreement to offline action: How diverse motivations for using social media can increase political information sharing and catalyze offline political participation. Social Media and Society. 2017;3(3).

23 Culver 2012 - Culver SH, Jacobson T. Media literacy and its use as a method to encourage civic engagement. Comunicar: Scientific Journal of Media Education. 2012;20(39):73-80.

24 Kornbluh 2019 - Kornbluh ME. Building bridges: Exploring the communication trends and perceived sociopolitical benefits of adolescents engaging in online social justice efforts. Youth and Society. 2019;51(8):1104-1126.

25 Nah 2021 - Nah S, Kwon HK, Liu W, McNealy JE. Communication infrastructure, social media, and civic participation across geographically diverse communities in the United States. Communication Studies. 2021;72(3):437-455.

26 Pew-Social media 2021 - Pew Research Center (Pew). Social media fact sheet. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center; 2021.

27 Pew-Mitchell 2015 - Mitchell A, Gottfried J, Matsa KE. Millennials and political news: Social media - the local TV for the next generation? Washington, DC: Pew Research Center; 2015.

28 Chapman 2021 - Chapman A, Marich H. Using Twitter for civic education in k-12 classrooms. TechTrends. 2021;65:51-61.

29 Lane 2021 - Lane DS, Thorson K, Xu Y. Uninterested and unequal?: Examining SES-based gaps in youth political behavior on social media. Information, Communication & Society. 2021.

30 Wilf 2021 - Wilf S, Wray-Lake L. “That’s how revolutions happen:” Psychopolitical resistance in youth’s online civic engagement. Journal of Adolescent Research. 2021.

31 Feeney 2021 - Feeney MK, Porumbescu G. The limits of social media for public administration research and practice. Public Administration Review. 2021;81(4):787-792.

32 Van Dijck 2013 - Van Dijck J. The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. New York: Oxford University Press; 2013.

33 Pollock 2022 - Pollock EA, Givens ML, Johnson SP. Voting and civic engagement rights are eroding: What does it mean for health and equity? Health Affairs Forefront. March 9, 2022.

34 Pabayo 2021 - Pabayo R, Liu SY, Grinshteyn E, Cook DM, Muennig P. Barriers to voting and access to health insurance among U.S. adults: A cross-sectional study. The Lancet Regional Health - Americas. 2021;2:100026.

35 Pew-Mobile tech 2021 - Pew Research Center (Pew). Mobile fact sheet. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center; 2021.

36 Pew-Vogels 2021 - Vogels EA. Digital divide persists even as Americans with lower incomes make gains in tech adoption. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center; 2021.

37 Pew-Perrin 2021 - Perrin A, Atske S. Americans with disabilities less likely than those without to own some digital devices. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center; 2021.

38 Brookings-Tomer 2020 - Tomer A, Fishbane L, Siefer A, Ballahan B. Digital prosperity: How broadband can deliver health and equity to all communities. Washington, D.C.: Metropolitan Policy Program, Brookings Institution; 2020.

Date Last Updated