Social media for civic participation

Evidence Rating  
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.

Disparity Rating  
Disparity rating: Inconclusive impact on disparities

Strategies with this rating do not have enough evidence to assess potential impact on disparities.

Health Factors  
Date last updated

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?

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.


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