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Are social media users better citizens?

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Are social media users better citizens?

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The role of social media in civic engagement has been a hot topic ever since the Arab Spring brought the role it can play to the attention of the world.  Earlier this year the Pew Research Center produced a report into how social media impacts civic engagement.

It found that 40% of adults used social media as part of a political campaign during the 2012 presidential election.  Interestingly, online engagement was largely found to have been done by the well-educated and affluent amongst us.

I have doubts about the nature of this engagement however.  Whilst attending an event at Facebook earlier in the year, we heard from the Facebook employee responsible for their work with both presidential candidates, and it was telling how it wasn’t really engagement at all.  He spoke almost exclusively about the advertising power of Facebook.  In other words, it was a great platform for talking at voters rather than listening to and engaging with them.

Given the interesting projects being done around the world on participatory democracy it was all a bit disappointing.

Some new research took a deeper look into how social media influences our civil engagement and perhaps explains why Facebook was used just for preaching to the converted.  It explored how different personality types react to social media in a political context.  It found that there were distinct differences between how extraverts and introverts used social media politically.

Extraverted people, whilst open to new experiences, were found to use social media to reduce the heterogeneity of their social network.  In other words, they used social media to engage with people just like them, thus further entrenching their views.

Introverted people by contrast were found to do the opposite, utilising social media to increase the heterogenity of their social network and thus take in a more diverse range of opinions.

Report abstract

“Using original national survey data, we examine how social media use affects individuals’ discussion network heterogeneity and their level of civic engagement. We also investigate the moderating role of personality traits (i.e., extraversion and openness to experiences) in this association. Results support the notion that use of social media contributes to heterogeneity of discussion networks and activities in civic life. More importantly, personality traits such as extraversion and openness to experiences were found to moderate the influence of social media on discussion network heterogeneity and civic participation, indicating that the contributing role of social media in increasing network heterogeneity and civic engagement is greater for introverted and less open individuals.”

So given that Facebook tends to attract the more extraverted type, it’s perhaps not all that surprising that there aren’t too many floating voters lurking about the place. Of course, this doesn’t get away from the failure of many in political life to do real engagement rather than one way communicating, but that’s for another discussion.


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