Exploring the Role of Political Discussion for Online Political Participation
Informal political discussions that encourage participants to learn more about topics through active informational exchanges with others are considered staples of healthy democratic societies. The body of research relating to the dynamics of these online exchanges, including on political blogs, has continued to grow as the public’s usage has increased. One key question relates to the factors — both online and offline — that spur digital political dialogue.
A 2011 study from the University of Texas at Austin and Catholic University of Chile published in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, “Society Networks that Matter: Exploring the Role of Political Discussion for Online Political Participation,” surveyed 1,159 U.S. adults about their online and offline political practices between November, 2008, and January, 2009. The researchers focused on network size and composition, level of partisan agreement and argumentation, and degree of offline political engagement.
Key study findings include:
- Overall, people “with a larger network of online discussants tended to be more more engaged in online political activities.” This finding supports the idea that “web-based services facilitate the transmission of political messages, so that mobilizing information such as public petitions to authorities can be shared more effectively through interactive-based applications than through in-person conversations.”
- Respondents with larger online networks that are often composed of people with weaker social ties — defined as “individuals who are outside the more closely-knit group of friends and family members” — are more likely to engage in online political discussions.
- People whose interpersonal networks are characterized by face-to-face communications and stronger ties, however, are less likely to participate online.
- “In line with the expectation that people who receive less support for their views within their discussion networks tend to participate less, disagreement was negatively related to online engagement … [and] discussion agreement was positively related to online participation.”
- “Younger, lower income respondents engaged more frequently in political activities online, as did those with a strong identity with political parties and who were exposed to online news more frequently.”
- An individual who reads more online news is more likely to participate in online political discussions. Reading offline news sources such as newspapers and magazines, however, does not impact online participation rates.
- Researchers also tested for the importance of reasonableness — the degree of logic present in an online discussion — in online debates; they found that it was not a significant variable in determining participation rates.
The researchers conclude that weak ties “appear to be a key ingredient of discussion networks that mobilize citizens to participate in politics online. In contrast, discussion network attributes [considered] essential for promoting citizen engagement, such as reasoning, seem to be far less consequential, at least for Internet-based political participation.”
Tags: Facebook, campaigns and media, social media
Note to instructor: The suggested assignments are designed for flexibility. They can be used in whole or part and can be adapted to a particular task -- for example, the newswriting assignments could be applied to the writing of the headline, the lead, the nut graph or the full story. Material from the assignments could also be combined with other material, for example, in the writing of a background, feature or local-angle story.
Read the International Journal of Public Opinion Research study “Society Networks that Matter: Exploring the Role of Political Discussion for Online Political Participation.”
- Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
Read the study-related Boston Globe article titled “Brewing a Progressive Alternative to Tea Party Politics.”
- Reporter's use of the study: Evaluate what the reporter chose to include and exclude from the study. Would the audience have acquired a clear understanding of the study's findings and limits from this article?
- Reporter's use of other material: Assess the material in the article that is not derived from the study. For example, does the reporter place the study in the context of other research and to what effect? Does the reporter include reactions to the study from other researchers or interested parties (e.g., political groups business leaders, or community members) and are their credentials or possible biases made clear?
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.