Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action

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Citation: (2012/07/01) Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action.


Tagged: Sociology (RSS) NatematiasGenerals (RSS), participation (RSS), participatory politics (RSS), digital divide (RSS), civic media (RSS), DML (RSS)


Is social media actually changing politics, and are young people actually engaging in political activity online, beyond a few prominent cases?

In this 2012 report led by Cathy Cohen and Joseph Kahne and published by the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning network, the authors set out to describe emerging forms of political engagement that are happening online, especially among young people, as they sign petitions, share content on social media, and participate in online conversations.

Cohen and Kahne offer a definition of participatory politics as "interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern." They are especially focused on ways that these acts can:

  • "reach large audiences and mobilize networks, often online, on behalf of a cause"
  • "help shape agendas through dialgue with, and provide feedback to, political leaders (on- and offline)
  • "enable participants to exert greater agency through the circulation or forwarding of political information (e.g. links) as well as through the production of original content, such as a blog or letter to the editor."

Drawing from Jenkins[1], they argue that "these practices are focused on expression and are peer based, interactive, and non-hierarchical," occurring when "the participatory skills, norms, and networks that develop when social media is used to socialize with friends... are being transferred to the political realm" (vi).


This study is based on the work of the MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP), that carried a nationally-representative (US) study of "new media and politics among young people," surveying almost 3,000 people between 15 and 25. Their study included representative samples of black, Latino, and Asian American respondents.

The researchers carried out roughly 35-44 minute online and telephone survey in English and Spanish. The target population was young people in the US between 15 and 25. The sample was drawn from Knowledge Networks Probability Based KnowledgePanel, sometimes directly to the young person and sometimes through parents[2].

The researchers also carried out an address-based sample. African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanics were oversampled "because of the difficulty in reaching members of these target populations," drawing from the U.S. Postal Service's Delivery Sequence File, to "target census blocks with relatively large African American populations." Households were sent a letter, a follow-up letter, and a telephone call.

Survey Results

The report offers results on a wide range of questions for the survey period. Most notably, the researchers found:

  • many young people who engaged in politics also engaged in participatory politics
  • black youth were the most likely to have participated in voting, institutional politics, or participatory politics
  • "interest-driven online activities appear to lay a foundation for engagement in participatory politics through the development of 'digital social capital" (as defined by involvement in nonpolitical interest driven activities online)
  • participatory politics activity was equally distributed across different racial and ethnic groups. This is offered as an important counter-example to narratives of a "digital divide."

Discussions of Note

The Role of Online Social Networks in Participatory Politics

The authors argue that online social platforms, including "email... YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and Twitter" offer people access to a much wider network of people than before, as well as the ability to share information more quickly across those networks than before. At the same time, the authors express concern that "the deep ties needed to engage in such mobilization over the laung haul... might be missing." This challenge over long-term sustainability leaves the authors wondering if participatory politics have the power to change politics fundamentally or if ti will remain just a possibility (18).

Equitable Political Participation through New Media

The authors find that "while there still exists an eleven-percentage-point gap in the number of white households (67%) compared with black households (56%) with broadband access" the gap was shrinking at the time of the report. Furthermore, Asian American and black youth were engaged in Internet activities than others, whether participating in an online forum, sharing a link, joining an online discussion, or participate in a gaming community. Likewise, Black and Asian American young people consumed more news than Latino or white young people, although distinctions were much less clear when it came to "participatory political acts." The authors draw a parallel to voting figures showing that black voters showed up in greater proportions than any other race or ethnicity in the 2008 presidential election.

Drawing from these observations, the authors express hope that the Internet might be a force towards greater equitable political participation in the United States: "if participatory politics can be harnessed to be a mechanism through which young people can gain access to and control over their politics, then we might expect that young blacks and Asian Americans, whose voices have often been marginalized and silenced, will have much to gain from these new forms of expressions and political activity" (27).

Aside from race and ethnicity, the authors also offer findings on the relationship between education and engagement in participatory political activity; more educated young people engage in more traditional and participatory political acts.

The Influence of Participatory Politics on News Volume and Diversity

The authors consider whether participatory politics are influencing young people's news awareness, finding that 53% of young people got news from at least one participatory channel in the last week. Consistent with other studies by Pew and others, they found that television and radio remained a primary source of news for young people, followed by Twitter and Facebook. They also found that young people who consumed news through participatory media were more likely to encounter divergent views than those who only focused on traditional news, and that the greatest number who reported encountering divergent views consumed both traditional and participatory media.

Theoretical and practical relevance:

This report offers a clear, concise definition of "participatory politics" online. It also offers a large N sample study of young people in the U.S. to focused on how they did or did not engage in the production or consumption participatory material in relation to politics.

I find it an especially helpful companion to Virginia Eubanks's Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age, adding survey-based evidence against the idea of a 'digital divide.' Instead, this evidence prompts me to focus on valuing the considerable technology assets and experience that marginalized communities already have. Natematias (talk) 13:21, 4 March 2015 (UTC)

References of Note

  1. Henry Jenkins, with Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Katie Clinton, and Alice J. Robison, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007); Ito et al., Hanging Out, Messing Around,and Geeking Out
  2. Knowledge Networks. Probability-Based Online Surveys. Accessed March 2015.