By: Callie Douthit
This post is based on research I did at Loyola Marymount University in 2015 and is an overview of how the internet has transformed and sometimes confused the process of civic participation for certain age groups. I welcome any comments and can send references if requested.
With the digital age, social media has given users an engaging platform to share information and any thoughts or comments that they may have. Digital natives are easily navigating through these spaces, setting social media norms that digital immigrants attempt to follow as they slowly navigate online. While older folks as digital immigrants are traditionally more versed and engaged in areas like politics, it is interesting to see how their younger counterparts are developing engagement in those same areas with their digital tool belt. Digital natives’ world has redefined traditional political participation, creating a concept of e-politics that digital immigrants are slowly following.
First off, who are digital natives and immigrants? A digital native refers to a person who was born or brought up during the age of digital technology. Many sources are skewed as to what exact ages are categorized as digital natives, but it is generally agreed that the millennial generation are digital natives, that is ages 18 to 34. On the other hand, classification of a digital immigrant are individuals who are considered to be a part of Generation X (Gen X) and the Baby Boomer generation. Those in Gen X are generally between the ages of 35 and 50-years-old while the Boomers are ages 51 to 69-years-old.
For both these groups, there is indication of a strong relationship between digital media and political participation. This relationship has been formed based on the main effect of the present online political information for issues and voting. In terms of political participation, there are two main components: political knowledge and political engagement. There are significant indicators or predictors for measuring political knowledge. In a study conducted during the 2010 Swedish election campaign, it was observed that internet access and online exposure to campaign information predicted levels of political knowledge (Dimitrova, Shehata, Strömbäck, & Nord, 2014). Those who visited the campaign sites were generally more knowledgeable about politics than those who had not viewed these sites. On top of this, it was also concluded that the role of online news (non-tabloids) plays a positive impact on political knowledge. Not only do these indicators predict levels of knowledge, but also their online engagement. Pew Internet and American Life data show that by reading online news, email mobilization, and online political discussion positively correlates to the probability of voting (Mossberger, Tolbert, & McNeal, 2008). However, it is important to note that consuming online political news is a stronger indicator of political knowledge compared to political engagement.
Aside from digital news, there are other digital platforms that have an influence on political participation. Social media plays an influential role to its users. In order to develop a line of intersection between political participation and social media, it is best to look at user statistics of digital natives and immigrants on Facebook, the most popular social network across the globe. Adweek recalls from a recent study that 88 percent of millennials have Facebook accounts, with over 50 percent of them being active users (Bennett, 2014). Specifically, the 2011 Facebook Demographic Report calculates that between the ages of 18 to 24 there are 45 million users which are 40 percent of all Facebook users (IStrategyLabs, 2014). There are 33 million Facebook users from ages 25 to 34, or 22 percent of all users. In sum, millennials account for over half of total Facebook users. According to Adweek, 81 percent of Gen X have accounts on Facebook as of 2014. Of the Boomer generation, 70 percent have Facebook accounts (Bennett, 2014). In the demographic report, it is noted that there were 39.5 million users on Facebook between the ages of 35 to 54, accounting for 27 percent of all Facebook users. Ages 55 and above totaled to 15.5 million users on Facebook, contributing 10.5 percent of all users (IStrategyLabs, 2014). In total, these digital immigrants account for around 37.5 percent of all Facebook users.
With these statistics in mind, an examination of Facebook’s influence on political participation can start to be explored. According to Pew’s study on social media and voting, about 45 percent of millennials have been encouraged to vote by family or friends via social media (Rainie, 2012). Further, 34 percent of these digital natives have encouraged other to vote for a particular candidate through Facebook. This study also interjects that around 40 percent of those in the category of Gen X had been encouraged to vote by family or friends via social media platforms like Facebook. But, only 26 percent of Gen X admitted to having encouraged others to vote for a particular candidate. On the other hand, only 27 percent of Boomers have been encouraged to vote through Facebook and 16 percent have encouraged others (Rainie, 2012). With this, it is clear that comparatively digital immigrants in Gen X and Boomer generation are less politically active through social media. Aside this group having less Facebook users than that of millennials, this difference may be able to be explained by digital immigrants’ lack of activeness on Facebook compared to digital natives. Of the near 39 million Gen X Facebook users, only 48 percent are considered to be active users. With around 15 million Boomer Facebook accounts, an even smaller 40 percent are actually using Facebook. Those adults that are using Facebook more often do tend to be politically active with their accounts. But, because less than half of these digital immigrants are actually using their social media, it is unlikely to see much political activity vocalized on those mediums among them. Another explanation for these statistics can be explained through some findings from a cross-cultural study tracking older adults’ political participation online. The study suggests that in the U.S., older adults may not be easily adjusting their understandings of the online political environment (Xie & Jaeger, 2008). In other words, their digital user skills are not as refined as those considered to be digital natives. For example, the older adults in this study tended to have lower rates of success when trying to use online government resources (e-government) than other groups, “with only 55 percent of older adults who have used e-government feeling their experience was successful, in contrast to an overall average of 63 percent”. (Xie & Jaeger, 2008) Another speculation for these findings is the suggestion that older adults may choose to not engage in political discussion online in order to not disturb their social networks with political disagreements. Of all these explanations of digital immigrant’s low political activity on social media, the explanation based off their activeness on their profiles best explains these numbers.
With digital natives demonstrating more political participation on Facebook than their older counterparts, there were also some unique aspects to their political activity. Surveys from the 2008 election reveal that millennials are more likely to participate in political actions that are easily accomplished with little effort (Vitak, Zube, Smock, Carr, Ellison, & Lampe, 2011). For example, posting a wall comment about politics or a politically oriented status were most common types of political action on Facebook. Activities like taking a political quiz or positing a political note were fairy uncommon among them. Even though effortless political engagement via Facebook is common for digital natives, there is only a minimal amount of support among them for Facebook being an appropriate platform for sharing political beliefs. But, using Facebook as a means to persuade others politically was not acceptable in their opinion. This opinion understanding, as these same sentiments can be seen among students at Loyola Marymount University even during their student government elections.
However, isn’t political participation really about voting and contributing to the democratic practice? Given the findings that suggest digital natives are more likely to politically participate on the world’s most popular social media, some would assume there would be a correlation between digital political participation and real-life political participation through voting. But, youth political engagement is and has been actually a huge problem in the United States. In fact, not even a mere half of digital natives who are eligible to vote, do vote. It is important to understand that even though statistics frame digital natives as online political participants; this is by no means an indicator or predictor for this group’s level of participation in the democratic voting process. In fact, this circles back to the earlier point on political knowledge being an indicator of political engagement. Young who choose to participate early in politics are more likely to participate through their life (Carpini, 2000). Another factor that is correlated to voting for young Americans is political self-efficacy. Political self-efficacy is “The feeling that individual political action does have, or can have, an impact on the political process, i.e., that it is worthwhile to perform one’s civic duties. It is the feeling that political and social change is possible, and that the individual citizen can play a part in bringing about this change” (Condon & Holleque, 2013). With this feeling, predicted probability of voting can change among the youth. In explanation of lack of youth voters and in observation of their digital world, we may see self-efficacy being fulfilled in other ways outside of voting. It is possible that these digital natives do have a sense of political self-efficacy but see this participation online as a way of fulfillment. This could easily been seen piggybacking off the earlier finding that millennial are more likely to participate in easily accomplishable tasks. Because election voting is not a digital submittal and must be done either in advance via mail, or in person at a polling station, I would assume digital natives consider voting as “not easily accomplishable”. Using social media to politically engage is possibly a compromise that a digital native views as fulfilling both their civic duty and their feeling of self-efficacy.
With the help of youth-driven political campaigns such as Rock the Vote, voter turnout among these digital natives have increased over the past decade, but it is still comparatively low among all ages. This past 2012 election, Rock the Vote did a great job at encompassing the digital world into their tactics and promotions, trying to connect with digital natives in their territory. But, this appeal to the digital world isn’t enough. I believe that as a digital native, we have become so involved with our lives online that sometimes there is not much room to be involved with our lives off the computer. If digital natives think that political activity on social media is an appropriate way to fulfill your civic duties and gain political self-efficacy, this line of thinking must be changed. You are not an activist just because you posted that you condemn SeaWorld for their treatment of whales, just like you are not a voter because you posted that you support Obama. This is such a common misconception of digital natives on Facebook. From the looks of my average daily feed, most do not understand that posting these types of media only facilitates awareness among their audience, not action. Awareness is the first step in activism and political involvement—the next step is mobilizing action. Future youth engagement campaigns should look to put forth this message: posting is not enough.
In evaluation of both digital natives and immigrant’s political activity on and off Facebook, it is clear that both groups can learn from each other’s ways. Even though both groups consume online political knowledge in the same manner with similar effects, both have areas to work in the digital political arena. Digital natives need to learn from digital immigrants about using their political engagement from the Internet and social media to participate in the most essential civic duty: voting. Digital immigrants on the other hand can learn to use the digital world to enhance their political engagement and participation, and access government resources in an easy way. With these parting thoughts, the digital natives’ redefinition of traditional politics may need to revert back to some qualities of traditional political involvement that have enticed a generation of digital immigrants to be politically active in the voting polls.