Is Social Media Conducive to Political Engagement?

Posted in 2014 The Gnovis Blog

While most people have put aside their worries to prepare Halloween costumes, people in Hong Kong are still focused on their protest, posting every piece of related information to their Facebook pages. If you have a friend from Hong Kong on Facebook, you will never miss anything about their political activities or political attitudes, even if you are not a “political” person.
Few people will deny that social media has changed the way people acquire information, but what are social media’s impacts on political engagement? If political engagement is defined as political knowledge, political interest, and offline political participation, then the fundamental question becomes whether or not social media can increase a person’s political engagement. Looking at how social media has interacted with social movements in recent years, we can gain some insight into this question.
According to a recent study conducted by Pew Research Center, 78% of people get news from Facebook “incidentally” (Mitchell, Kiley, Gottfried, & Guskin, 2013). The research shows that 64% of U.S. adults use Facebook, and 30% of U.S. adults get news from it. However, among those Facebook news consumers, only 4% regard Facebook as their major approach to news, while the majority (78%) see news unintentionally when they use it for other purposes. This situation must seem familiar: When you glance at your friends’ Facebook photos to see how they spent their weekends, news about Obama’s Ebola Quarantine Policy attracts your attention. When browsing randomly on the Facebook homepage, you find your classmates sharing videos, links, or statuses about the Scottish independence referendum. You then know something must have happened in Scotland, though you never cared about anything in the UK or Scotland, except their whiskey.
Accordingly, from my perspective, social media can increase people’s political knowledge, because users are exposed to a news-saturated environment and thus have more opportunities to receive more political information, either intentionally or unintentionally.
Previous research, regarding political participation offline, is often contradictory. Some studies express negative attitudes towards social media’s effects on increasing political participation (Davies, 2014; Dimitrova, Shehata, Strömbäck, & Nord, 2014), while other studies find positive correlation between the use of social media and people’s political participation (Holt, Shehata, Strömbäck & Ljungberg, 2013; Xenosa, Vromen, & Loader, 2014; Skoric & Poor, 2013). Nevertheless, the latter studies fail to prove a causal relationship. While it is possible to conceive that people who are more interested in politics and engage in political activities use social media more frequently, we cannot conclude from these studies that the use of social media has an influence on increasing people’s political participation.
However, social media’s influence on Hong Kong’s recent protest, also known as “Umbrella Movement”, is noticeable. U.S. media even claims this protest is a “social media revolution” (Greenwood & Sprenger, 2014; Parker, 2014). From my observations, most of my Hong Kong friends post protest-related content on their Facebook every day. Additionally, they’ve expressed they would participate or have participated in the protest using social media. According to Tindall and Groenewegen (2014), participation requests from acquaintances with strong social network ties are the key to individuals’ engagement in political activism. Peer pressure, crowd psychology (Le, 1896), and the polarity shift phenomenon (Stiff & Mongeau, 2003) can help us understand the influence of social media in offline political participation. Hence, I believe the use of social media can increase people’s offline participation, at least in the Umbrella Movement. People have strong social network ties with each other, and the use of Facebook tightens potential protesters’ social ties with people in the movement. In Singapore’s 2008 protest and the 2011 Arab Spring, social media also played a large role in organizing protests and enhancing people’s political activity (Skoric & Poor, 2013; Tindall & Groenewegen, 2014).
Though the use of social media can increase people’s political knowledge and offline political participation, a question arises as to whether or not social media can also increase people’s political interest and attract those who are initially disengaged in politics. My answer is no. As early as 1948, Lazarsfeld’s research articulated that mass media’s influence on changing people’s minds is limited. Scholars in persuasion research also admit that, changing people’s attitudes and behaviors is the most difficult (Stiff & Mongeau, 2003; Jowett & O’Donnell, 1999; Jamieson, 2000). In most cases, a person’s political predisposition is determined by the environment in which he or she grows up, education, culture, and neurobiological factors. The mere use of social media could rarely influence or change people’s interests.
Reviewing previous research and political movements leads me to the conclusion that while the use of social media can increase people’s political knowledge and political participation, it has a limited effect on increasing political interest. But don’t get frustrated! Even though social media can not change people’s political interest easily, it can improve the publics’ political awareness and political participation. Thus, social media is still an important tool that policy makers and candidates should not ignore.
Davies, R. (2014, March 28). Social Media in Election Campaigning. Retrieved from
Dimitrova, D. V., Shehata, A., Strömbäck, J., & Nord, L. W. (2014). The Effects of Digital Media on Political Knowledge and Participation in Election Campaigns: Evidence From Panel Data. Communication Research, 41(1), 95-118. doi:10.1177/0093650211426004
Greenwood, P., & Sprenger, R. (2014, October 5). Hong Kong protests: a socialmedia revolution – video. The Guardian. Retrieved from
Holt, K., Shehata, A., Strömbäck, J., & Ljungberg, E. (2013). Age and the effects of news media attention and social media use on political interest and participation: Do social media function as leveller?. European Journal Of Communication, 28(1), 19-34. doi:10.1177/0267323112465369
Jamieson, K. H. (2000). Everything you think you know about politics… And why you’re wrong. New York, NY: Basic Books. Jowett, G. S., & O’Donnell, V. (1999). Propaganda and persuasion (Third edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Lazarsfeld, P. F., Berelson, B., & Gaudet, H. (1948). The people’s choice: how the voter makes up his mind in a presidential campaign. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Le, B. G. (1896). The crowd: A study of the popular mind. London: T. F. Unwin.
Mitchell, A., Kiley, J., & Gottfried, J. (2013, October 24). The Role of News on Facebook: Common yet Incidental. Retrieved from
Parker, E. (2014, October 1). Social media and the Hong Kong protests. The New Yorker. Retrieved from
Skoric, M. M., & Poor, N. (2013). Youth Engagement in Singapore: The Interplay of Social and Traditional Media. Journal Of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 57(2), 187-204. doi:10.1080/08838151.2013.787076
Stiff, J. B., & Mongeau, P. A. (2003). Persuasive communication. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Tindall, D. B., & Groenewegen, T. (2014). Activities and activism, digital. In Encyclopedia of Social Media and Politics (Volume 1). Retrieved from
Xenos, M., Vromen, A., & Loader, B. D. (2014). The great equalizer? Patterns of social media use and youth political engagement in three advanced democracies. Information, Communication & Society, 17(2), 151-167. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2013.871318

Elaine’s research interests lie in media effects and political communication, especially the difference between social media and traditional media’s influence on people’s political attitudes and behaviors. Elaine is also interested in the governmental and political use of social media.