Is the Internet a Tool or a Distraction for Increasing Political Participation?

Table of Contents:

Political participation is the voluntary engagement in the activities by which leaders are chosen and policy is made. Voting is the most obvious (and the most common) form of active participation, but there are many others. Discussing politics, attending party meetings or campaign rallies, donating money to a campaign or party, or simply communicating with your representatives are all forms of political participation.

It has been said that political participation is a cornerstone of representative democracy. After all, how can an elected official actually represent us if they don’t know our preferences? And those elected officials are going to be making decisions about how to spend our tax money and how to organize our society whether you participate or not. “But, in the United States, the choice to not participate is just that, a CHOICE”, you might say. And you are right. There are countries that have mandatory voting, and heck, there are countries where there is no chance for political participation at all. The freedom to go to a rally for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or for Donald Trump or to stay home and watch Rick and Morty is way up there in terms of things that we value about our system of government in the U.S.

Who decides to engage with the political system matters though. This is of particular interest to those who run campaigns, of course, but also to social scientists. People who fail to participate, whether out of apathy, disenfranchisement, anger, bitterness, or life circumstances, end up wielding less power than those who do participate. This becomes particularly interesting/disturbing when you look at the patterns. We know from research that some groups of people are less likely to engage politically than others. For instance, young people (at least historically), people of color, people with lower incomes, those with less education, and disabled people are all less likely to vote or attend rallies or contact their representatives.

Dating all the way back to Aristotle, philosophers have lauded political participation as a means of using crowdsourcing to do better. Involving as many people as possible should, according to such minds as John Dewey and the author typing this, propose stability, foster creative problem-solving, and prevent tyranny. We all have talents and knowledge and experiences. The more of these things that we can throw at the political system, the better. Think of it this way—do we want a group entirely made up of lawyers to decide all of our agricultural policies? Or a bunch of people who are from rural areas making policies for big cities? Or, only older Americans without student loan debt deciding how to handle those policies? The idea is that if we have as many people as possible, from backgrounds as diverse as possible, deciding on the policies together, we will end up with the best policies that address problems more appropriately.

One might wonder how we can increase political participation in the United States. Researchers from the University of Northern Iowa, Justin Holmes and Ramona McNeal’s 2018 paper for the International Journal of Public Administration in the Digital Age (Holmes and McNeal 2018) sought to find out whether modern technology can help. The advent of television may have seemed like a good thing for participation, after all, it was suddenly easier to get information to the mass public, and more information should mean higher levels of participation, right? But as Holmes and McNeal summarize, this isn’t exactly what happened. In fact, the rise of television was terrible for political participation and after the 1950s we saw massive drop-offs. Some studies concluded that the form of the information was bad for participation as it trivialized major issues into little sound bites. Others, namely Robert Putnam in his seminal work Bowling Alone, find that the decline in political participation during the TV era is because people started staying home to watch it instead of going out and engaging in social and political activities.

Does this mean that the internet would work the same way? Or can we look to it as a tool to potentially motivate more Americans to participate politically? Well, as Holmes and McNeal write, the evidence is mixed. Early studies found that the internet could be useful in increasing participation by providing unlimited information at any time with just a few button clicks. Considering that a lack ofknowl-edge about the issues and candidates is one of the reasons people don’t participate, it makes sense that providing this easy access would be useful, no? Plus, much of the internet is interactive, giving people more opportunity to connect with others who have similar interests and issues. And of course, this includes giving political campaigns the opportunity to connect with voters. The problem though, is that sure, we have pretty much instant access to information about government and politics, but we also have instant access to basically everything else in the world. Could I have spent my time this morning sipping coffee and reading about the developments in Iran? Sure. But did I spend my morning sipping coffee and seeing if my taste in breakfast food predicts my Harry Potter house?2 Yes.

Many of the studies summarized by Holmes and McNeal agree that the internet seems to reinforce dispositions that the user already has. For example, an earlier study by Holmes found that when available information increases, people who are interested in politics and in learning things use it but people who aren’t interested avoid it altogether. In order to test this further, Holmes and McNeal use survey data to test the following hypotheses: 1) those who engage with politics on social media will be more likely to engage in various forms of political participation that those who do not, and 2) individuals who are predisposed to political participation will be more likely to participate if they are social media users.

The findings of this study are sort of all over the place, but interesting nonetheless. The researchers find that social media use makes it more likely that the user will go to a meeting or wear a political button, but none of the other forms of engagement. The results for the test of the second hypothesis are more expected but still relatively weak. Holmes and McNeal found that people who have high levels of political interest vote at even higher rates if they are social media users. Overall, the findings suggest that it is true that the internet, and specifically social media, increase the “you-ness” of who you already are. You love politics? Engaging on social media may make you turn out to vote. No interest at all in politics? Cool, there are plenty of baby Yoda memes out there for you to look at instead.

One phenomenon that Holmes and McNeal didn’t consider is what is known as “slacktivism.” Many websites and social media platforms give users the ability to feel like they are participating through mechanisms that are not the traditional outlets. “Liking”, “sharing”, “tweeting”, joining online communities, signing online petitions, putting topical filters over a profile picture ... these are all ways that users can be made to feel like they are making a difference. And no doubt, awareness of issues and signaling support can be useful when it comes to affecting change, however critics wonder if slacktivism might serve to lessen political participation out in the real world. If a person “likes” a cause and signs a petition, are they less likely to contact their member of congress? If you can subtweet the President directly, are you less likely to vote?

The internet is a behemoth of a thing and the way we use it continues to evolve over time. Can it be used to increase political participation at this point in time? Maybe a little, and maybe mostly in groups of people who are already interested in politics. But will this be the same in five years? In ten years? Probably not.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. Why do you think young people are less likely to vote than their older peers?
  • 2. Why should we even care about increasing participation?
  • 3. Do you feel like your peers use the internet to gain information about current events and candidates running for election? Is this something we should try to encourage?
  • 4. How do you feel about the idea of “slacktivism”? Is this something you witness in your life?

Key Concepts

  • • Political Participation
  • • Representative democracy
  • • Disenfranchisement
  • • Social media
  • • Slacktivism

For More Information: th-turnout-midterm-2018/575092/


  • 1 The Hawthorne effect is when subjects of a study alter their behavior because they are aware they are being studied. This term comes from a set of experiments performed at the Hawthorne Works factory outside Chicago where they were looking at whether things like changes in the lighting would increase worker productivity. Instead, the researchers found that the workers got more productive due to the fact that they were being observed.
  • 2 French toast and Slytherin. Accurate.

Works Cited

Department of Homeland Security. (2016, July 12). Written testimony of NPPD for a House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies hearing titled “Value of DHS’ Vulnerability Assessments in Protecting our Nation’s Critical Infrastructure”,

Gerber, A. S., Green, D. P., & Larimer, C. W. (2008). Social Pressure and Voter Turnout: Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Experiment. American Political Science Review, 102(1), 33-48.

Good, C. (2018). 5 states will vote without paper ballots; experts want that to change. ABC News. https://abcnews. 57835958

Schwartz,J. (2018, November). The Vulnerabilities of Our Voting Machines. Scientific American,

Hegel, G., in Wood, A.W and Nisbet, H.B. (1991). Elements of the philosophy of right. Cambridge University Press.

Holmes, J. W, & McNeal, R. S. (2018). Social Media Use and Political Mobilization. International Journal of Public Administration in the Digital Age, 5(4), 50-60. https://doi. org/10.4018/ijpada.2018100104

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