Expert Commentary

Exploring the role of political discussion for online political participation

2011 study in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research on the factors that spur online political discussion and 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.”

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