In the age of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, political engagement through social media is easier than ever. For members of the millennial generation, where interconnectedness is driven by likes, shares, and retweets on social media sites, politicized discourse often goes viral, perhaps at the cost of meaningful engagement with the topic at hand. The Kony 2012 video and campaign’s initial success resided in the movement’s ability to quickly spread through Twitter under the trending topic #KONY2012. The original post of the Human Rights Campaign’s red equals sign has received over 19,000 likes and 70,000 shares to date.
But the results of the latest Harvard Public Opinion Poll tell a different story. When the ubiquitous red equals sign swept Facebook profile pictures this past May, commentary quickly zeroed in on social media’s role in promoting “slacktivism.” Detractors argued that viral movements like the Human Rights Campaign’s effort to promote public displays of support for marriage equality amounted to little actual action. A simple “like” on Facebook, while creating the illusion of political participation, generally fails to stimulate further action.
Contrary to what the attackers of slacktivism argue, amongst millennials, engagement in social media is correlated with higher levels of political engagement and a stronger partisan identity. Social media, in other words, does not seem to act as a be-all, end-all for political engagement. Rather, results suggest that those who are more connected with social media are more likely to be politically engaged in ways that extend beyond social networking platforms.
HPOP’s survey of voting behavior, a measure of political engagement, suggests that use of social media corresponds to higher rates of registration and turnout. According to survey results, 73 percent of individuals with three or more social media accounts were registered to vote, while only 50 percent of individuals with no social media accounts were registered to vote. Similarly, although 42 percent of the individuals with no social media accounts failed to vote in the 2012 election, only 33 percent of those with three or more accounts did not vote.
If slacktivism, as some critics suggested, enables individuals to engage with causes at a superficial level and abandon all further involvement, this survey of voting behavior offers a telling rebuttal. Those who have heavily used social media did, in higher proportions, go to the polls on Election Day. The association between use of social media sites and voting behavior seems to suggest that for the networked generation, political activity does not stop with a retweet.
Furthermore, social media usage corresponds to increasing party alignment: only 19 percent of individuals with three or more accounts identified themselves as “Independent, no lean,” while 33 percent of individuals with no accounts chose to identify themselves as such. Party alignment, though not necessarily indicative of higher levels of political awareness, does point to an increased personal stake in political issues. Thus, social media’s role seems to extend beyond simply offering material to “like” on Facebook. These online interactions, however seemingly insignificant, may be shaping the political views of an entire generation.
The HPOP results hint at a relationship between social media and millennial political engagement that defies the predictions of those who criticize social media’s role in shaping political behavior. Discussions of slacktivism unfairly limit the scope of social media’s potential impact on the political landscape for millennials. While Kony 2012 and the red equals sign may be the most visible products of the age of social networking, the most significant outcome of social media may be its role in shaping the political identities and behaviors of the millennial generation.