“I don’t like it and I think it’s useless, people discussing politics on Facebook”: Young Swedes’ understandings of social media use for political discussionMalin Sveningsson
Keywords: youth; political participation; citizenship; social media
Western democracies have seen a decreased participation in elections, as well as in other activities traditionally associated with political participation (Bennett, 2008; Bennett, Wells, & Rank, 2009; Dalton, 2008; Furlong & Cartmel, 2007; Norris, 2004; Putnam, 2000). Although a decreased interest in politics applies to various groups in society, young people are frequently pointed out as the most problematic group (Barry, 2005; Biesta, Lawy, & Kelly, 2009; Coleman, 2006, 2010; Harris, Wyn, & Younes, 2010; Smith, Lister, Middleton, & Cox, 2005).
At the same time as young people are among the least civically engaged, they are the most avid users of online media (Coleman, 2008, 2010; Rheingold, 2008; Xenos & Foot, 2008). It has therefore been argued that since young people spend much time online, to express themselves, explore their identities, and connect with peers, online media could be used to evoke their interest in politics, and thus contribute to the reinvigoration of democratic citizenship (Coleman, 2008, 2010; Rheingold, 2008; Xenos & Foot, 2008).
During the interviews and group discussions with young Swedes that this article is based on, contrary to what we had anticipated, the participants turned out to be quite skeptical about social media such as Twitter and Facebook as used in relation to politics. The aim of this article is to take a closer look at how the young participants understand the use of social media as a platform for political discussion, and why they are disinclined to use them for that purpose.
Dutiful and Actualizing Citizens
The statement that young people’s political participation is decreasing can be, and has been criticized (see for example Bennett, 2008; Bennett, Wells, & Freelon, 2011; Bennett et al., 2009; Dalton, 2008; Norris, 2004). One argument that is emphasized is that the way we define the concepts politics and participation has implications for what we see. If boundaries are too narrow and include only certain forms, we will draw unnecessarily pessimistic conclusions as to the decline of political participation.
Researchers have found a shift in the way young people think about and engage in politics. In his research on norms of citizenship in the US, Dalton (2008) found two types of citizenship norms. For the first type, duty-based citizens, participation focused on institutionalized forms of action such as elections and party activity, which was seen as a civic duty. The second type, engaged citizens, on the other hand, stressed individualized and direct forms of action. Dalton found that the citizen types coincided with age, meaning that the older generations were more likely to have duty-based norms, while the younger generations were more likely to embrace the norms of an engaged citizenship. In a similar distinction, Norris (2004) discusses two types of political participation: citizen-oriented actions that relate mainly to elections and parties, and cause-oriented repertoires, which focus attention upon specific issues and concerns, and often use consumer politics, petitions and demonstrations to make a change.
Lance Bennett (2008) argues against juxtaposing the rise of engagement and personal causes with dutiful citizens, as their participation too can be engaged, and motivated by causes. Instead he suggests the terms dutiful citizens (DC) and actualizing citizens (AC), which then describe styles of engagement. Dutiful citizens experience citizenship in terms of duty, and feel obliged to participate in conventional civic activities. They see voting as a core democratic act, and become informed about issues and government from mass media. They join civil society organizations and/or express interests through parties that typically employ one-way conventional communication to mobilize supporters. The actualizing citizens, on the other hand, have a more individualistic approach to politics and citizenship. They experience a diminished sense of government obligation and a higher sense of individual purpose. They see voting as less meaningful than other, more personally defined acts. They also prefer more expressive or self-actualizing politics, such as political consumption (Atkinson, 2012; Shah et al., 2007). Actualizing citizens often mistrust media and politicians, and view traditional elements of politics as inauthentic and without relevance for them. Instead, they favor loose networks of community action, which are often established or sustained through friendships and peer relations, or by interactive information technologies (Bennett, 2008; Bennett et al., 2009).
Political interest and engagement can take different forms, and if we draw the lines to narrowly for what constitutes political participation, we will miss numerous civic and political activities that young people actually engage in. We therefore need to be open and include other types of political activity beside engagement in conventional political institutions. According to Jones (2006), people also get into contact with political information and narratives in a large number of contexts. These meetings are not segregated in separate activities, as used to be the case for the duty-bound “good citizen”, but are embedded in people’s everyday life activities. Therefore, we also need to include more types of places where political participation can occur.
Bennett’s two citizen types as described above can be connected to preferences in media use. For example, Shehata, Ekström, & Olsson (2014) found that creative online media use was related to higher AC qualities, such as cause-oriented online political activism, cause-oriented offline political activism and internal political efficacy (the self-confidence in one’s ability to understand and participate in politics), while traditional news media instead promoted DC qualities. Citizen types are also related to how civic information is received. Building on Bennett’s model, Wells (2014) found that while dutiful citizens display more passive media consumption styles, actualizing citizens expect to take part in the production and sharing of information, in a way that resembles practices of produsage, as described by Axel Bruns (2008).
The Role of Online Media in Young People’s Political Participation
According to Hirzalla and van Zoonen (2011), civic participation is often conceptualized on the basis of Habermasian ideas of a public sphere, and it has been argued that self-presentations and discussions on web forums resemble an online public sphere. Consequently, researchers have explored the potential of online media for civic participation. It is, above all, interactivity that is ascribed the potential to encourage young people to participate in political and civic activities, thus overcoming traditional barriers to participation (Coleman, 2006). According to Xenos & Foot (2008), co-productive interactivity is foundational to the way young people engage with the internet. They seek for interactive features that allow them to exchange information of all sorts (messages, images, files) and to be active.
If researchers have seen the potential of online media for political purposes, so have actors from political institutions. However, when political institutions use online media to reach out to and reconnect young people, the results seldom meet the expectations. Researchers have argued that the disappointing outcomes are a result of the ways in which media have been used. Xenos and Foot (2008) found major differences between the material that political actors produced and the ways in which young people wanted and expected to participate. Since most online media that young people use are characterized by interactivity and co-production, say Xenos and Foot, this is what they expect from the platforms for youth engagement too. The young people in Xenos & Foot’s focus group expected the content to be wrapped up in a more creative and entertaining way in the online platforms, and they wanted more creative uses of web-based technologies, and more informal, playful presentations of political candidates. They experienced the online political forum used in the study as static and old-fashioned and said it was used like TV – except the possibility to submit questions to the political candidate. However, although young people wish for more informal and playful content in youth participation sites, it is not as simple as to say that all they want is to be entertained. Coleman (2008) tells the story of a certain e-citizen site that went through several redesigns as young people did not like it. It turned out that what they wanted was not fun and gimmicks, but they wanted the site to be serious.
It can be argued that formats and platforms have changed since Coleman’s and Xenos & Foot’s studies were published. For example, in the last two US elections, CNN and YouTube joined together to sponsor two nationally televised presidential primary debates. The debates generated a large audience, and attracted young viewers in particular. McKinney and Rill (2009) set out to investigate whether the two YouTube debates enhanced young citizens’ attitudes to civic engagement, as measured by their political cynicism and political information efficacy (trust in their knowledge), and if the effects were different from those of a traditional journalist-led debate. They found that all three analyzed debates were successful in decreasing cynicism and increasing political information efficacy, and that the format seemed to make little difference. Based on the results, McKinney and Ril argue that the belief that new technology is necessary to engage young people may be exaggerated, and that it does not seem to matter whether one watches old-fashioned debates or debates using online media. Another factor to consider is that even when new media are used, the way of addressing the audience may not be that different. An analysis of the form and content of 570 political and civic websites in seven European countries showed that although civic and political websites aimed at youth often employ linguistic and visual characteristics to make them look youthful, beneath the surface the content is very conventional and addresses youth in an authoritarian or even patronizing way (Banaji & Buckingham, 2013).
It seems to be the case that political organizations have not fully realized what young people want and expect, but adhere to traditional views of political participation in forms that dutiful citizens engage in. When political actors use online media for reconnecting youth, they also use them in accordance with old communication patterns, described as broadcast one-way communication and brochure-ware. If interactivity is allowed, the communication is in most cases quite restricted, and in addition, governed by moderators (Bennett et al., 2011; Coleman, 2008, 2010; Wells, 2014).
Coleman (2008, 2010) discusses what he calls managed and autonomous citizenship. With managed citizenship, the internet is seen as an anarchic realm and an unsafe place for young people. Young people’s social innocence, it is believed, might be exploited by predators and they may also be vulnerable to misinformation and misdirection. Proponents of managed e-citizenship instead favor the establishment of “safe, civilized, moderated enclaves in which youth can learn and have their say” (Coleman, 2008, p. 192). However, Coleman argues against these protected safe zones, stating that it is not real politics that young people get into contact with. Democratic fora, he argues, should not be protected communities. “Being a democratic citizen is about disagreement as well as consensus, contestation as well as norms – and the best way to do this is to encourage online interactions that go beyond the cozy simulations of managed e-citizenship” (Coleman, 2006, p. 259).
According to the overview of previous research above, the design of online platforms for political purposes directed to youth should use interactive features. Such design should be playful and allow for user activity and creativity, but content should still be serious and enable access to “real” politics, rather than offering fun and gimmicks. Participants should be given more opportunities to decide for themselves what questions to engage with and what questions to discuss – questions that are relevant to them. They should also be allowed to choose their forms of participation, instead of communicating top-down, more horizontal communication between participants should be allowed and encouraged. Some researchers argue that to reach these goals, instead of creating new platforms, one should make use of the media that young people already use for co-productive activities, such as social media (see, for example, Rheingold, 2008). The discussion above suggests that social media are especially suitable as a platform for youth political participation. They have also been ascribed this potential due to being an informal arena where people can freely express their opinions, discuss with others and feel empowered (Vesnic-Alujevic, 2013). The question, then, is how young people themselves see this potential.
This article is written within as part of a Swedish Research Council funded project that studies how Swedish youth use media to orientate themselves, integrate and interact in civic matters in their everyday lives. The project uses a qualitative multi-method approach, including media diaries, class room observations, semi-structured individual interviews, and group interviews1. By using different methods we aimed to grasp different aspects and get a more comprehensive view of what our participants do, how they understand what they do, and how they talk about it with their peers. The 26 participants were high school students from a medium-sized2 Swedish city, at the time of data collection (2012-2013) aged 17 and 18 years. The project explores the experiences of “ordinary” young people, i.e. what Harris et al. (2010) call the large group of young people who are neither apathetic, nor activists but somewhere in-between. The informants were sought through their schools: one with theoretical programs of study, and one with technical ones. We chose two different types of schooling in order to reach young people with varying backgrounds and attitudes to civic issues. However, one criterion was that all targeted programs of studies should include social science, to allow for observations of how the participants worked with political and civic issues in class.
Because participation required a commitment over time, sampling was done through self-selection, and participants were given remuneration for fulfilling all tasks. Five different classes – different branches of the social science program and the construction program – were invited to participate in the study. Twenty six students were selected: 18 studying on a social science program and 8 on a technical one. This article uses material from 20 individual interviews, and 8 group interviews with 21 participants. All data are in Swedish, and the quotes are translated into English. Participants were informed about the aim of the study, what participation meant, that it was voluntary and that they could choose to withdraw at any time. Informed consent was sought in the form of a signed declaration. All participants' names have been changed to protect their privacy.
The list of participants below shows the composition of interview groups. All participants in the groups also kept media diaries and all but one participated in interviews.
Being self-selected and studying on programs that include social science means that our participants are more interested in politics and civic issues than the average 17- or 18-year-old Swede (Statens medieråd, 2013). Once recruited, participants were asked to list their interests. Six participants said they were very interested, twelve moderately interested, and two not at all interested in politics and civic issues. According to a previous, quantitative, study conducted in the same city (Amnå, Ekström, Kerr, & Stattin, 2009), 25% of young people were very or rather interested in politics, 29% were not particularly interested, and 45% not at all interested in politics. A large and understudied group is what Amnå and Ekman (2014) call standby citizens – people who are interested in politics and prepared to engage if necessary. Most of the participants in the project represent this group; they are very or rather interested in politics, but very few are engaged, either in formal or activist politics.
Interviews and group discussions were subject to a thematic analysis, a method inspired by grounded theory, however, without its explicit aim at creating theory (Braun & Clarke, 2008). Rather than working with hypotheses and pre-existing code frames, the analysis was inductive, or data-driven, and aimed at identifying recurring themes in the data set.
The results section opens with background information that describes participants’ relationships with social media as used for political discussion. Following this background, four major themes are presented that cast a light on why they feel disinclined to use social media for political purposes. The main findings are then summarized and discussed in the final section of the article.
Taking Part but Not Participating
As discussed above, our participants describe themselves as rather or very interested in politics. They are interested in keeping updated on what happens in society and they follow the news in several media: conventional news media and social media. Most of the participants follow at least some politically active persons on Twitter; a politician, or more often, a celebrity who engages politically, especially in feminist, gay or human rights issues. However, they mostly follow friends from their offline social network. Although not politically engaged, these friends sometimes share political opinions, retweet others’ postings or links to articles with political content.
Most of participants enjoy discussing politics and civic issues with friends and family. They also follow public discussions, especially when they occur in social media such as Twitter and Facebook. They feel that these discussions are visible and ubiquitous; it is something that surrounds them most of the time.
Lina: You know like the public debate, because it is quite open in Sweden, and – you know, I’m thinking of Twitter and Facebook. You know, you’re always surrounded by it because people are quite open.
Marie: Or we are anyway.
Lina: Yeah. Like, you’re kind of always involved in it, even if you’re not engaged yourself.
Isabell: No, but you’re interested in others’ opinions too.
Lina: Yeah exactly. And people are quite good at showing their opinions.
Isabell: Although you kind of read more than you write.
Lina: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
Marie: Yeah exactly.
Lina: Yeah, you – at least I watch more than I participate myself.
Isabell: God, yes! Like, you may have a discussion on the side, but it’s not like you’d write a debate article.
As the excerpt above shows, even if participants enjoy taking part in political discussions on social media, and finding out about friends' and acquaintances' opinions, they seldom participate themselves – at most they can have a private discussion with someone on the side.
Social media have been ascribed the potential to increase youth political participation, being an informal arena where people can freely express their opinions, discuss with others and feel empowered (Vesnic-Alujevic, 2013). Why, then, is it that participants choose not to participate? In the thematic analysis, four themes were identified, the first three concerns perceived risks: of conflict, misunderstandings and deceit. Our participants also think that online political activities are not as authentic as their offline equivalents.
Risk of Conflict
The first and most important reason why our participants feel disinclined to participate in political discussions on social media has to do with a perceived risk of getting into conflict with others.
Interviewer: Why is it that you observe more than you participate, could you elaborate on that?
Lina: Well, it’s so much easier.
Lina: It’s like, I think it’s scary how fast things spread. Like I’m not engaged in a party but how easy it is to screw up, like doing...
Marie: If you write something that someone calls into question.
Lina: Yeah, exactly.
Marie: And then it gets public all at once and you have to defend yourself in front of a lot of people.
Interviewer: How do you others feel about that?
Nora: Well, I would never write about anything political on social media because I don’t know enough to be able to defend myself. But if we’re in the canteen, then I can say something. Because then it’s easier to debate. You know, some people are quite aggressive and I can’t ...
Isabell: Yeah and then it’s more like a discussion, it’s not that you get attacked.
Several groups talked about the risk of getting attacked because of their opinions, and of having to defend themselves. They are not sure they would manage to do this, because they feel they are not knowledgeable enough (Sveningsson, 2013). Most participants do like to discuss politics and express their opinions, but they would rather do this in contexts that they perceive as safe – typically in face-to-face meetings, and in private or semi-private settings. In general, these discussions take place among peers (classmates and friends) or benevolent adults (family and sometimes teachers). This is similar to what Banaji and Buckingham (2013) found – while the young people in their focus groups discussed civic and political issues with family members, friends and in school, they felt uncomfortable at the thought of doing it online, partly for fear for being patronized for not knowing enough about traditional political issues.
Our participants feel that discussions in public imply more risks of conflict than private discussions. The risk of being attacked is experienced as greater, and attacks are also expected to be harsher.
Linda: On Facebook, discussions become so huge; it can be like a hundred persons who comment.
Linda: And then you don’t feel so smart anymore because then there are too many people against you.
Linda: I can’t... Like, it just becomes like the worst ... Well, it can get totally out of hand and then it shows up on everybody’s Facebook walls, people I don’t even know but who know someone who knows me. And then they can start to meddle with the discussion.
Ida: But there are settings that you can...
Linda: And I don’t have a clue about who those people are and then I get a whole bloody crowd of people against me if I happen to say something wrong.
The excerpt above shows an awareness of the characteristics of social media. Danah boyd (2008) lists four specific properties that she sees as unique in computer-mediated public sites in comparison with un-mediated ones: 1) persistence (what is written online may be accessible for a long time afterwards), 2) searchability (people and their online activities can be found online), 3) replicability (conversations can be copied and pasted into other contexts) and 4) invisible audiences (online communicators do not know who may overhear conversations or observe their online actions). In the excerpt above, it is mainly the fourth point that the participant is concerned about. What one writes, others can retweet or share, thus the message may reach people far beyond one’s imagined audience.
An invisible audience is difficult to handle – one does not know who will read one’s postings, what background and opinions they have, and how they will react. Maybe, as Linda says, one will get attacked by a “whole bloody crowd of people”. Our participants are also aware that posted material will remain and be searchable online (what boyd calls persistence and searchability), and they acknowledge that the opinions they have today may change in the future. Therefore, they say, one must be very careful about what one posts. This is interesting, considering the wide-spread view of online media as a space for experimentation with different identities and positions. On the contrary, our participants seem to understand the political utterances made in social media as a stand that they are expected to answer for considerably more extensively than in a face-to-face conversation where they can try out different ideas, change their mind, or conform to the specific social context. It is likely the persistence of discussions that is crucial here; unless deleted, postings in a Facebook discussion remain present far longer than something uttered in a face-to-face conversation (or for that matter applications like Snapchat).
When Linda talks about Facebook discussions that “get out of hand” she refers to postings that get spread to unknown audiences. However, on several occasions, participants also express the idea that on social media, discussions per se often get out of hand.
Interviewer: Does it happen that you discuss politics with others on social media?
Natalie: Not much I’d say.
Natalie: Actually hardly at all.
Interviewer: Do you discuss with friends or at school then?
Natalie: Yeah, with friends, then it’s easier to talk.
Interviewer: But that’s when you meet them?
Natalie: It’s when we meet in person because I feel it’s easy for things to get out of hand, so to speak, online.
Interviewer: What do you mean when you say out of hand?
Natalie: Well, online, it often becomes like personal attacks or just attacks. Among people who express their opinions.
Natalie: And it often gets very aggressive. Even though it may be quite innocent at the start, an innocent question that becomes very aggressive and then people burst out, sort of ...
Interviewer: Have you experienced this yourself?
Natalie: Yeah. I’m usually the person who reads secretly what people have written but I don’t dare participate myself. I’m afraid that I’ll get angry mails, that sort of stuff.
In the excerpt above, Natalie talks about how innocent questions may develop into inflamed debates and fights. Other participants address this question too, stating that internet debates are like a storm in a teacup, where people fuss over nothing. Several groups discuss trolls and the appearance of persons who actively look for trouble and instigate fights just for fun. Even if these persons are not serious, they often manage to get fierce discussions going among others. This makes participants feel ill at ease, to the extent that they choose to remain silent, just in case.
As the excerpts above show, our participants perceive the risk of conflict as quite serious. There is also a perceived risk of hate and threats. Hate online is something that has received much media attention lately, for example, in reports on threats directed towards journalists. However, the phenomenon has existed since the early days of the internet.
In the internet research of the 1990’s, aggressive behavior was often discussed. In computer-mediated communication, researchers found, it was possible to express oneself in ways that were much less formal and hierarchical than in face-to-face settings (Dubrovsky, Kiesler, & Sethna, 1991; Sproull & Kiesler, 1986, 1991). However, the drawback was that users showed fewer inhibitions, and engaged in ’flaming’ (sending messages with hostile and/or offensive content) (see, for example, Dery, 1994). Experiments were done that showed that people who communicated via computers showed more aggression than those who communicated face-to-face (Dubrovsky et al., 1991; Sproull & Kiesler, 1986).
Moor et al (2010) studied flaming on YouTube, and one of their research questions concerned the extent to which flaming discouraged users from posting videos. They found that it did, to some extent. Most of their participants did not see flaming as a problem and did not refrain from uploading videos because of it. However, most participants believed that flaming was a problem for other users. Although a minority, several participants did report refraining from uploading videos because of flaming, or mentioned that they knew other people who had done so. From the discussions and interviews, it seems that young Swedes in our study are more afraid of conflict than Moor et al.’s YouTube users. This may be related to the context and the topic of contributions – political discussions are probably more likely to stir up emotions than personal videos.
Risk of Misunderstandings
As discussed above, participants prefer discussing with people they know from their offline context. The fact that they are acquainted in “real life” leads to social control, and they know, roughly, what to expect from each other. Another contributing factor is that computer-mediated contexts are seen as implying risks for misunderstandings. The fact that one cannot see others’ gestures and facial expressions, say participants, increases the risk that conflicts arise and/or escalate.
Marie: Then, online, it’s too awfully hard to, interpret like the tone. Because there are different tones you know and it can become like an attack even if it wasn’t meant to be so harsh. But it becomes... Well, I take care not to... I try not to have so many opinions at all online…
Interviewer: Do all of you feel this way?
Lina: I don’t know, I ... It’s not like I’m careful to not express my opinions online, but I’m still not the person who…
Lina: No, exactly. I rather discuss than confront people , sort of.
Isabell: Yeah, and that’s what’s difficult on the internet. It’s easy for others to think you’re confronting them even though you’re like open for a discussion.
Lina: If you don’t know each other.
Like the theme of conflict, hate and threats, the risk of misunderstandings can also be connected to early internet research. One important strand in this research was the cues-filtered-out perspective, exemplified by social presence theory (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976) and social context cues theory (Sproull & Kiesler, 1991). These theories stressed that nonverbal cues regulate social interaction and provide information about the communicators. They are necessary for forming impressions of others, and understanding their messages. The lack of contextual, visual and auditory information in computer-mediated communication leads – in comparison to face-to-face communication – to an ambiguous communicative situation, hence the increased risk of misunderstandings. Social context cues, it was argued, are also necessary to determine the reliability of other participants.
Our participants state that misunderstandings can cause discussions to get out of hand. Their view is supported by research – Moor et al. (2010) list miscommunication as one of three types of explanations for flaming. In a review of previous research, they point out the ease with which messages are misinterpreted in computer-mediated communication. However, the relation between misunderstandings and flaming is two-sided. Flaming may be a consequence of miscommunication, but it may also be a form of miscommunication itself – flames that are perceived as offensive by the receiver may not be intended as such by the sender. The results that Moor et al. got supported their hypothesis. While receivers often thought that comments were meant to be offensive (49.2%) or provoking (42.9%), senders indicated these purposes less often (24.2% and 15.8%, respectively). Moor et al. conclude that while there are YouTube users who intentionally offend others for fun, most of the flaming is done to express disagreement or opinions, thus miscommunication seems to play an important role in conflicts. In contrast to Moor et al.’s YouTube users, our participants seem very aware that flaming may not be intended as such, but a consequence of misunderstanding. However, this insight does not make them more prone to participate in discussions.
Risk of Deception
The third theme is related to the idea that one can never be certain of the degree of truth behind what is written and posted online, who has posted it and for what purpose. Several groups discuss the film Kony 20123, which many participants shared before they began questioning where the film came from and why it was created.
Louise: I never shared it.
Iris: I don’t know, it was something that a lot of people did. I thought it was... It was a half-hour long video, a YouTube clip.
Lisbet: What was it about?
Iris: Like, the power and how children…
Louise: It was an American who had…
Iris: Yeah, who’d been there for a long time, and you know, first when I saw the film, I just went “God, this is touching, and I just like…”
Louise: When I saw the film I thought it felt like propaganda so I never shared it.
Iris: But it was. I shared it, but then I started to reflect on it, you know I just clicked “share” first, because I thought it was so well done, it had a message, something that doesn’t get so much attention otherwise and I thought it was a good thing. But then afterwards I started to reflect on it, and we discussed it at school as well, like how ... maybe it was propaganda, but what did they want? You know…
Louise: Yeah, like, who’s behind this video?
In a discussion of the internet’s potential for civic participation, Banaji and Buckingham (2013) state that while the lack of intermediation might allow greater freedom of expression, concerns about the reliability of information could lead to cynicism and mistrust. This seems to be the case for our participants. They discuss the dilemma of not knowing the identity of senders, and talk about risk of deceit, and of being lured into taking sides with senders with shady intentions, and pass their messages on to others. One group told the story of a Facebook group against drunk driving, which turned out to be an experiment someone had undertaken to see what people were prepared to sign, like and share on social media. Other participants discuss the occurrence of Facebook groups created around seemingly benevolent purposes, which, once they get enough members, change name and purpose into more dubious ones, for example legalization of drugs.
Linda: I’ve been into exactly that. There was a site called... I don’t know, it was something about animals. “Save the bla bla bla”, something like that, or “Say no to bullying”. Something like that. And then suddenly it was renamed to “We who want to legalize cannabis in Sweden”.
Interviewer: Was that something that someone did because ...
Linda: Well, obviously someone had a motive behind it. And then when they got enough members they changed names.
It is true that much online content is unreliable. However, participants’ concerns sometimes seem exaggerated. Media literacy is a concept that encompasses many things, although in Swedish schools, it is above all a critical approach to sources that is stressed and taught (Oxstrand, 2013), for good and for bad. Participants talk a lot about class discussions about being critical of sources and they are very aware of the risk of being duped. Rather, the risk turns out to be them dismissing all social media content as unreliable, even the good bits.
A Question of Authenticity
Although our participants were disinclined to participate in online discussions on politics, most groups did not object to the phenomenon per se. They acknowledged that online activism could have benefits, such as increasing the potential range of campaigns, making it easier to find out about political issues and join with others in matters of public interest. Here, two participants stand out as contrasting in their nearly total repudiation of social media as used for political purposes. In the personal interview, Erik says:
Erik: I don’t like it and I think it’s useless, people discussing politics on the internet, you know. Or on Facebook at least.
Erik: Because it’s always so bloody.. I don’t know. It feels like.. I don’t like it anyway.
Erik was in a group interview with Daniel and they elaborated on the subject:
Daniel: Well, this Facebook activism, you know people who sit and share photos of some ... like starving children. It feels like ... it’s the same thing as “Well now I’ve separated my waste, so now I’m cool” sort of. “Now I’ve shared a photo on Facebook so now I’m engaged”. That’s what – that bothers me actually.
Erik: I guess it’s good in one way but I don’t know if it ...
Daniel: Like, exactly what you think you can achieve by sharing a photo. You know, I get kind of annoyed by people who are supposed to be so incredibly engaged on Facebook, in that kind of questions, and then they aren’t at all in society.
Daniel: Well, this Facebook activism, you know people who sit and share photos of some ... like starving children. It feels like ... it’s the same thing as “Well now I’ve separated my waste, so now I’m cool” sort of. “Now I’ve shared a photo on Facebook so now I’m engaged”. That’s what – that bothers me actually.
Daniel’s and Erik’s aversion to online activism can be interpreted from several perspectives. First, we can, again, see traces from early internet discourse, which separated online from offline activities. Here, everything that happened online was seen as less real, an idea that was accentuated by the use of the notion of real life to denote the offline world. This is exemplified by Daniel’s way of contrasting “engaged on Facebook” with “in society”, as if Facebook and social media were not part of society. In their article on online and offline participation, Hirzalla and van Zoonen (2011) found that young people combine online and offline civic activities in various modes of participation, where participation patterns are relatively dependent on mode and relatively independent of place. Consequently, they state that it is not fruitful to distinguish between on- and offline participation. The instead propose a distinction between different modes of participation, irrespective of where they take place. Hirzalla and van Zoonen’s view may be shared by young people who take part in online activism; however, for Daniel and Erik, who do not, the online and offline realms clearly represent two separate spaces holding different degrees of reality and authenticity.
Beside the view of online activism as less real than its offline equivalents, Erik and Daniel also seem to consider it to be a form of slacktivism, a concept that refers to “activities that are easily performed, but that are considered more effective in making the participants feel good about themselves than to achieve the stated political goals” (Christensen, 2011). Christensen exemplifies slacktivism with online petitions, which are easy to distribute and can be signed with a simple click. Another example is liking and sharing stories on social media, which Louise talks about in her individual interview:
Louise: You know there was quite a fuss about it. There was this film [Kony 2012] on Facebook and I wrote something about it but then I deleted it.
Interviewer: What did you write about it?
Louise: I wrote it was lame.
Interviewer: That the film was lame?
Louise: Yeah, or not that the film was lame but that it became so hyped. Because I already knew about these things and I’m like... Now I sound like the world’s most pretentious person but I’m a member of Amnesty [International].
Interviewer: I see.
Louise: And it’s like... We fight against all that kind of things and I’m like... You know. I don’t know, I didn’t even watch the whole video.
Louise: Because I was so mad, like, “Is this what it takes for people to start to care?” And then, it was so bloody... People said that if you didn’t share it you were like mean and heartless and I just “In what way does it matter if you share a film on Facebook?”. I say it’s better to do something concrete like being a member of Amnesty.
Judging from what previous research says about how young people want to participate in political and civic matters, one would have expected our participants to be more open vis-à-vis social media as a potential outlet. It is also surprising that they draw such clear lines between what occurs on- and off-line, as young people today tend to be described as viewing the internet as a natural extension of their everyday life spheres (Banaji & Buckingham, 2013). One possible explanation is a particular characteristic of our participants – being very or rather interested in politics and civic issues, in the traditional sense. The three participants quoted above are also among those in the sample who most often use conventional mass media. This suggests that they may be leaning towards the dutiful end, and share at least some of dutiful citizens' ideas of what politics and participation mean, and what forms they should take (see also Sveningsson, 2013).
In his literature review, Christensen sets out to answer the question of whether online activism should be seen as slacktivism or rather a genuine venue for citizens to vent their political preferences. He identifies two central critiques: 1) that online activism is less effective; and, 2) that online activities replace traditional offline participation thereby leading to lower overall levels of participation. We can see both critiques expressed by participants above. While Erik and Daniel talk about a perceived lack of efficacy, Louise is more concerned about replacement resulting from successful viral campaigns. When asking “is this what it takes for people to start to care?”, she also expresses a concern that it takes more and more spectacular stories to inspire people to take action, which social media are good at providing, while the less glamorous hard work of real life organizations may be overshadowed.
Christensen concludes that it is difficult to determine whether internet campaigns lead to real-life engagement, however, he found no evidence for the substitution thesis. Online activism does not replace or decrease offline participation. If anything, says Christensen, it helps mobilize citizens by increasing their awareness of contemporary issues. This view is supported by Holt, Shehata, Strömbäck and Ljungberg (2013), who found that attention to political news in traditional media as well as political social media use increase political engagement over time. They conclude that frequent social media use can function as a leveler in terms of motivating political participation among young citizens. Similarly, in a survey involving 3307 young people in seven European countries, Banaji and Buckingham (2013) found a strong correlation between offline and online participation, leading to the conclusion that online and offline participation complement rather than replace each other.
The aim of this article was to explore participants’ experiences and understandings of social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, as used for political discussion. Judging from previous research on youth and political participation, social media should be very suitable for engaging young people; to awaken, or strengthen, their interest in politics. Previous research has above all promoted interactive features where young participants are allowed to discuss among themselves. However, the young people in this study are less convinced of the suitability of social media for political discussions. In the analysis, four themes were identified, three of which have to do with perceived risks: of conflict, misunderstandings and deceit. There is also an idea of online activism and activities as being less authentic and valuable than their offline equivalents. Taken together, the themes make the participants disinclined to use social media for political discussions.
One expression that often recurred during interviews and discussions was out of hand, where the common understanding was that discussions on social media are unruly and frequently hostile. Instead, our participants prefer discussing politics in safe zones, typically in private and semi-private settings offline. For the discussions to be held online, they would have to be safer, for example in the form of rules and guidelines that steer the interaction. Coleman (2010) discusses what he calls managed and autonomous citizenship, where managed platforms are often preferred, to protect young people from anarchic and potentially harmful content on the internet. He argues that democratic fora should not be protected communities, the “cozy simulations of managed e-citizenship” (Coleman, 2006, p. 259) should be avoided in favor of authentic online interaction that allows for disagreement and contestation – because this is what democracy is about. However, for our participants, the potential gain in making one’s voice heard in an authentic setting does not weigh up the risks of being attacked, misunderstood or deceived. If risks like these silence young people, we are facing a threat to democracy that I believe is far more serious than the managed fora’s tendency to be overprotective.
Beside the perceived risks, participants express an understanding of online activism and activities as being less authentic and less valuable than their offline equivalents, where online political activities are classified as slacktivism. Especially in this theme, our participants voice quite traditional ideas of political participation. To a large extent they proceed from dutiful ideas of what politics is and how it should be engaged in, and social media do not fit this picture. According to the participants, political activity above all means working in political parties and civic organizations, participating in protest marches and handing out leaflets (Sveningsson, 2013), i.e., traditional political activities that take place in the physical offline world. As mentioned above, it is likely that the specific characteristics of the sample are reflected in the results. One possible interpretation is that it may even be the participants’ relative knowledge that works against their becoming engaged in politics on social media. Although they express a lack of confidence in their knowledge, the interviews and discussions clearly show that they are up-to-date on what happens in their society and in the world. This means that they understand the complexity of issues, and that discussions on social media will not be enough to solve anything. Here, young people with a lower interest in politics may be less negative about social media as an outlet for political discussions. Despite this reservation, we can see that there is a need to put the question of young people’s preferences for participation into perspective.
Young people are often ascribed a technological competence that adults are believed to lack. These ideas are expressed in metaphors such as digital natives or the internet generation (see, for example, Prensky, 2001). However, there are important differences between young people in their access and use of the internet (Banaji & Buckingham, 2013). Livingstone (2005) also argues that narratives on digital natives tend to be overconfident in young people’s media literacy – even if young people are accustomed to using digital media and mastering the technology, they are not necessarily competent in handling contents. In a similar vein, the image of young people as always being the proponents of new technology and preferring it in all matters can also be questioned. Young people do not necessarily want everything to take place via modern social media applications – some of them prefer more traditional channels while others show a mix of preferences.
The idea that young people want and expect something that political organizations cannot (or will not) live up to is one of the most dominant discourses that characterize the discussion on youth political participation today. However, as this article has shown, it is not as simple as just creating spaces for political discussion on social media. Young people may be used to social media, and some of these media's characteristics involve what young people prefer in political online venues – as suggested in previous research. At the same time, other traits make them less suited for political discussion, to the extent that at least our participants choose to remain silent. This illustrates the importance of being critical when it comes to claims based solely on theories. What we need is more empirical research on how young people actually experience political discussions that they take part in. We need to take into account various contexts in order to find a way of satisfying their desire for creativity and freedom of expression, while at the same time making them feel safe enough to be willing to speak their mind, and to participate.
1. The group interviews were similar to focus groups in their aim to minimize interviewer effect by encouraging discussion among participants, rather than relying merely on the researcher’s questions. However, because we wanted the participants in each group to know each other, the groups were small, only two to four persons.
2. 140,000 inhabitants.
3. Kony 2012 is a film produced by the organization Invisible Children, to raise awareness of the militia leader Joseph Kony. The film attracted significant attention and was one of the top international events of 2012.
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Department of Journalism, Media and Communication
University of Gothenburg
SE-405 30 Gothenburg