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Young People With Large Social Networks Are More Politically Engaged

A recent research article The Political Significance of Social Media Activity and Social Networks (Political Communication Journal, Feb 2018) by Joseph Kahne and Benjamin Bowyer, reports that young people's online activity increases their engagement with politics. One of the more interesting findings from the research was that those with larger social networks tend to engage in significantly higher levels of political activity.

The authors analysed longitudinal data from the Youth Participatory Politics Survey, which surveyed a representative sample of young people, between 15 to 27 years of age, in 2013. Research has found that political activity in young people is a strong predictor of future patterns of political engagement (Plutzer, 2002).

The relationship between offline and online political activity has been the subject of much research recently. The authors point to some key research findings namely:
  • Emmer, Wolling, & Vowe (2012) who found that online and offline political activity are relatively independent 
  • Bode, Vraga, Borah, & Shah (2014) and Gil de Zúñiga et al., (2014) who both found evidence that online political activity leads to increased offline political activity
  • Harlow & Harp, 2012; Vissers & Stolle, (2014) who found that online and offline activity is mutually reinforcing 
Previous studies have reported a positive relationship between the use of social media and political activity (Boulianne, 2015).  Kahne and Bowyer specifically analysed two types of online social activities, namely friendship-driven (FD) and interest-driven (ID).
  • Friendship driven (FD) activities include interacting with friends and family on social media.
  • Interest driven (ID) activities include commenting, posting reviews, creating content to share and helping others.
The authors hypothesised that these activities would foster political engagement through providing exposure to political issues and by developing skills to engage with these political issues.

The research confirmed the hypothesis that online social activity and ties were important in encouraging political activity. They also found a difference between the political engagement fostered by these two types of social activity. They found ID activity led to greater offline political engagement whereas FD activity led to more online political participation. More research is required to understand why this is the case.

The authors also found "the pathway leading from offline political activity to online participatory politics was statistically significant.” I don't think it is too surprising that young people who are politically engaged offline would also become politically engaged online.

Fundamentally the research supports previous findings that social activity and social ties are important in fostering the political activity of young people. The research also found that weak social ties, exemplified by large networks of friends on social media, was more significant in promoting political activity.

Further research is required to understand this relationship, for example it could be that larger networks expose you to more political content, that those who are likely to be engaged in politics actively seek out larger networks of friends or there is something about weaker social ties that possibly allow more political discussion and involvement.