Rock the Vote! Just rock it somewhere else: Young people, social media and political engagement

Young people are generally the most disaffected voters. In 2012, the Pew Center reported that young people (ages 18 to 29) are 34 percent less likely to vote than the oldest cohort (65 and overs). Pew Center Executive Vice President Paul Taylor thinks that one reason for this generational turn off is economics. Young people are moving toward traditional “adulthood” rites of passage about five to seven years later than did Baby Boomers: moving out of parents house, getting married, having kids, etc.

Taylor says: 

Now, today’s young adults have been given a much worse hand economically, when you look at all the difficulties of finding a good job and all the student debt they’re carrying. We have the highest levels of youth unemployment and under-employment that we’ve seen since the government started tracking such data…

Since 18 year olds were given the right to vote in 1972, young people have showed up to the polls on a much lower rates than older cohorts. The Pew Center’s Taylor points out that this trend has increased in recent years to record levels.

Two researchers investigated the role social media played in the 2008 election -- the one bright spot for voting rates of young people, who went to the polls in record numbers (at 50 percent of electorate for 18-24 year olds), supporting Democrat Barack Obama over Republican John McCain on a 2 to 1 margin, per the Center for Information and Research on Learning and Engagement, CIRCLE.

Instead of investigating voting trends, Masahiro Yamamoto and Matthew J. Kushin actually looked at (in their words) the “relationship between social media attention, online expression, and traditional Internet attention, and political disaffection” in the weeks leading up to the November 2008 Presidential election.

Historically, those who label themselves politically cynical are less likely to use the media and engage in situational political engagement, the researchers point out. But what changes do social media bring to the table, if any?

Social media is different than traditional media because people have the ability to interact and share information directly with others. This information not only can be extremely partisan in nature, but also provide more focus on specific topics than traditional media sites. Another (very important) difference is the fact people can create their own content, sometimes from scratch or through borrowing parts of other content.

How much does this potential expression feed ideas about political engagement? A bit, the researchers found. And not in a positive way. But, it seems, more in a filter bubble -- walling yourself off from opposing viewpoints -- sort of way. 

With the caveat that online expression is complex phenomena, here’s the paper's takeaway:

For some, social media may breed political disaffection, as users tend to be limited to incidental exposure to political information. This study suggests that consuming political information on social media increases cynicism and apathy, negative aspects of political disaffection. Despite popular assumptions that social media are inherently good for politics, this study adds to a growing body of evidence to the contrary. However, online expression was found to be positively associated with skepticism. Social media not only allow incidental consumption of political information but also enable exploration and development of political identity through interaction and expression with others about politics.


Here's the paper again: More Harm Than Good? Online Media Use and
Political Disaffection Among College Students in the 2008 Election