Today’s college students are at the forefront of activism on some of the nation’s most pressing challenges. An overwhelming majority supported legalizing gay marriage before it became the law of the land. Majorities across all racial groups support the Black Lives Matter movement, and many attend rallies and work with local BLM groups.
But there’s still a strong perception that college students seem politically disengaged. Especially when it comes to electoral politics. It seems like every day there is a new article about youth turnout in this election or Clinton’s need to reach millennials.
At first glance, we can see why. Compared to their elders, college students vote at lower rates, and rarely contribute money to candidates for political office. And these unequal participatory patterns happen at a time when college students learn what it means to be a citizen in a democratic society.
How do we explain why college students engage in activism but seem disengaged in other parts of the political process? Better yet, what gets college students involved in the political process in the first place?
Our research shows that one of the keys to reaching college students and getting them engaged in the political process is a tool that has been around for their entire lives: social media.
In our newly-released book, Web 2.0 and the Political Mobilization of College Students, we uncovered substantial evidence that the politically motivated activities in which college students engage online lead to higher levels of civic activities away from social media.
Simple actions like following candidates and joining online political groups can lead to higher levels of civic activity offline. For example, those who report high levels of friending candidates and joining online groups, on average, engage in more than one additional civic activity away from the internet very frequently. Among others, these civic activities can take the form of political protests, volunteering for a political campaign, or encouraging others to vote for or against a candidate.
Online political activities also encourage college students to engage in other online political activities. For instance, those who blog about politics are more likely to friend or follow candidates, join online political groups, and tweet about that subject.
But online political activities also broaden who participates in politics. We find that African American college students are more likely to tweet about politics than those who self-identify with other groups. Relatedly, using Twitter in a politically motivated way makes one more apt to engage in other forms of participation.
To be sure, some dismiss online forms of political participation as “slactivism” because many forms require little from those who engage in them. If these observers are right, then there would be no evidence that tweeting, blogging, friending or following candidates, or joining online groups would be connected with offline forms of civic activity, or even with each other. But, our findings are consistent with the broader evidence that online forms of civic activity encourage participation, both in the online and offline spheres.
Online civic activities matter. They encourage college students to engage in greater levels of political activity and foster participation among groups who are traditionally underrepresented in the political process.
Organizations like the All-In Challenge have taken the next step by challenging the nation’s colleges and universities to take their civic mission seriously. Through using online and offline tools to engage college students and encourage them to become better informed, they can help develop more civically active citizens. That’s a good thing because our democracy is better off when all participate, not just a select few.
Kenneth W. Moffett and Laurie L. Rice are associate professors of political science at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, members of the Scholars Strategy Network, and authors of the book Web 2.0 and the Political Mobilization of College Students.