Don't Be Too Quick to 'Like' Online Political Activity

On Tuesdays and Thursdays YOUR VOICE features political commentary from students and young professionals.

President Barack Obama is barely 100 days into his second term, but the next race for the White House is already heating up.

We all know what that means: Brace yourselves—the political posts are coming. And if online political activity during the last election cycle is any indication, we’re about to see a lot more of those often-annoying posts in the not-too-distant future.

Political activity on social networks increased 600 percent between the 2008 and 2012 election cycles, according to new report from the Pew Research Center. The report, titled “Civic Engagement in the Digital Era,” also indicates that nearly three in four of Millennial social network users participate in political activity online. That’s good news, confirms Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project: Civic participation isn’t decreasing among our generation.

But the data in Pew’s latest report aren’t worthy of a wholehearted ‘like’ from Christians. As Pew illustrates, the promise of online political activity is vast and—to date—still largely untapped. Yet, a world in which social networks are the primary medium for our political associations falls far short of a just society. Christians who are concerned about citizenship and political community “have the responsibility to create the organized institutional means of upholding and enforcing justice for all.” We certainly can use online structures to support that aim, but we may need to be the ones who get involved by logging off the computer.

After all, it’s no surprise that being logged on impacts the way we do politics: Young adults are most likely to participate in online political activity, with 72 percent of SNS users ages 18 to 24 saying they do so. SNS users who are politically active online are more likely to engage offline; more than 8 in 10 political SNS users say they also get involved in causes outside the bounds of social networking sites themselves. It’s a self-sustaining cycle, in some ways, because politically active Millennials don’t see social networks as a “separate realm of political activity,” Pew states. “They are frequently active in other aspects of civic life.” The only catch? It’s a cycle that hasn’t gone viral quite yet; 37 percent of all social network users reported that they engage in political activities offline. Overall, less than 1 in 2 American adults reported taking part in a civic group or activity last year.

Of course, online participation is better than none at all. Millions of Millennials are serving society marginally better through the Internet than they would be if they were completely unengaged. The Internet also lowers the bar for participation, which encourages more people to commit a few minutes of their time. These small commitments, which most often come in the form of shareable data points (a statistic, a status, a tweet), allow us to join the communities around a wider variety of causes more easily. Plus, Pew found that 43 percent of social networking site users said they decided to learn more about a political or social issue because of something they read about on a social networking site. Of those, 18 percent said they have decided to take action involving a political or social issue because of something they read online. The more we identify with online communities, the more likely we are to support structural pluralism by exploring those same communities offline as well.

But online avenues ought to drive us toward causes in which we would otherwise not participate, because simply settling for a shared status fails to provide a firm foundation for a just society. In other words, the promise of online political engagement is matched by potential pitfalls as well. For example, consider the impact of a generation that believes online political participation replaces actual civic participation in real-life communities. One easily observable consequence would be decreased attendance at town halls and local government events—the places where each citizen’s voice likely would have the greatest impact.

In addition, we may end up being held less accountable to others for our online political activity; the ease of participation could lead many to inadvertently voice their support for causes with which they don’t actually agree. Moreover, online political activity actually leads people to take the most extreme positions possible, narrowing the possibility of negotiating a more moderate, shared point of view. Twitter forces us to reduce complicated issues to 140-character blurbs, barely enough to introduce some topics, let alone conduct a civil discussion on them. That, coupled with Pew’s finding that “Americans’ day-to-day political conversations mostly [still] occur offline,” should prompt many of us to rethink whether we’ve really participated in a helpful political discussion anytime recently.

Those discussions can still exist—in both on- and offline forms—if citizens are truly committed to building a just society, rather than just ‘liking’ a political cause for the appearance of it. CPJ believes a just society forms when citizens do more than just abide by the law and enjoy the freedoms that come as a result. In addition, citizens must participate in the political process in order to “shape the political community to conform to the demands of justice.” Unfortunately, true justice is rarely—if ever—achieved through Facebook ‘likes’, tweets, or hashtags, even ones that go viral. True justice requires that we sign off the Internet and sign in at real-world events, rallies, and service opportunities.

-Melissa Steffan is a 2012 graduate of Seattle Pacific University with degrees in Communications – Journalism and Political Science. She is a former intern of the Washington Post and the Center for Public Justice, and she is the 2012-13 Editorial Resident for Christianity Today magazine. You can follow her on Twitter at @melissasteffan.