Studying Student Civic Engagement in Election Years

If the 2020 U.S. presidential election was like previous cycles, plenty of young people scanned political news on social media but didn’t contribute to the political conversation. And that’s a problem for civic life given the importance of social media as a place for political expression.

Research I co-authored about the 2018 election cycle,  “Shouting matches and echo chambers”: Perceived identity threats and political self-censorship on social media, was published in the International Journal of Communication. From the abstract:

This mixed-methods study, conducted during the highly polarizing and uncivil 2016 U.S. presidential election, examines how college students’ conceptions of audience and the tone of discourse on social media informed their decisions to express or withhold political opinions. A pre-election survey found that students (N = 198) preferred to discuss political views offline rather than on social media. Post-election focus groups (N = 196) found near consensus that posting political opinions on social media was an ineffective way to persuade others or break new ground in political dialogue. Participants perceived no benefit to sharing opinions that had already widely circulated within their politically homogenous social network, and sought to avoid conflicts they witnessed when outspoken members of their networks engaged with people with whom they disagreed. We explore how students’ impression management and perceived identity threats led them to limit political expression on social media despite having strong interest in and feelings about the election.

This study is a follow-up to research I conducted, split into two parts and published separately, that examines youth civic engagement during the 2012 election cycle. One part, “Political Engagement During a Presidential Election Year: A Case Study of Media Literacy Students,” was published in the Journal of Media Literacy Education. From the abstract:

This exploratory, mixed-methods study uses data gathered during the previous U.S. presidential election in 2012 to evaluate student political engagement and digital culture. Survey results and media diary entries revealed that college students enrolled in a media literacy course during Super Tuesday or Election Day gravitated toward low-barrier political actions and expressive modes of citizenship, and they were most engaged when there was a social component to following election news. These results, coupled with recent data on political engagement and media consumption, present an opportunity to consider the role of digital platforms and online communities in the 2016 election.


To quote our research questions:

RQ1: To what extent are media literacy students engaged in politics during a presidential election year?
RQ2: How do students demonstrate dutiful and expressive forms of political engagement?
RQ3:How do students use traditional and new media to track and share political news?

We found that students were far more engaged during the general election than during the primary and were interested in expressive modes of political engagement, largely thanks to opportunities to connect with people in their personal networks through social media, digital technologies and election watch parties. As the paper found:

Data suggest that one of the predictors of youth political engagement is whether a political issue or candidate is perceived to be of personal interest and

benefit…This study suggests that another key predictor of civic engagement during a presidential election year is whether a political event or campaign has a social component and has interest for students’ peer groups…

According to this study, college students today are not engaging in the kind of classic grass-roots community and political action as generations past. Politics for students today is first about reaching out to engage with their own personal networks. This study suggests that community has become an anachronistic word in an era of social media. Students do not use the term. In its place the term “network” has emerged. That shift in language suggests not only the technological underpinnings of today’s communications but the geographical deracination of a sense of community. Students do not think about “building” a community as much as they are concerned with “maintaining” their network.

Back in 2012, while I was lead teaching assistant in a media literacy course at the University of Maryland, I led a team that conducted this study. We asked a range of questions: How do students demonstrate political engagement? What mediums and news sources do they prefer to follow election coverage? What topics most interest them?


The focus of part one of the study appeared in the December 2014 edition of the Journal of Digital and Media Literacy. To quote our research questions:

RQ1: To what extent do students rely upon information push and pull to track political news in a presidential election year?

RQ2: How do students come across political news in an ambient news environment?

The short answer to RQ1  is that students during a major political event still rely primarily on information pull — that is, actively seeking out information rather than expecting that it will find them through push notifications or word of mouth. A major reason why: Watching live election coverage while discussing results with friends remains extremely popular.

The short answer to RQ2 is that students are awash in news. It is all around them (thus the ambient part). Facebook and Twitter are first alert systems that help students follow political news without having to pay full attention.

My takeaways? (Again, quoting the article):

This study shows that at a time of information abundance, when technology and social connectedness make it easier than ever to adopt a news-will-find-me mindset, students tracking a major political news event still seek out news as it is breaking. The increasing popularity of news apps and the ubiquity of cell phones is one explanation for the prevalence of students “pulling” news. Around Election Day, however, a significant number of students went beyond quick news searches on their smartphones in between classes. Across all time blocks, they investigated claims made on social media, researched political issues or candidates that came up in conversation, and played with electoral college maps.

The main storyline emerging from Super Tuesday was that students took little interest in an election in which few had a voting or a partisan interest. The vast majority of participants did not self-identify as Republicans. They commonly referenced feeling disinterested in news about the primaries because they did not see any personal relevance. The predominance of information pull was more a product of the lack of word-of-mouth conversations or buzz on students’ social media feeds than a sign of widespread active engagement. Put another way, Super Tuesday news did not come to—or find—students because people in their personal networks generally did not push news toward them or create an ambient news environment filled with election chatter. The few students who were motivated enough to follow Super Tuesday news found it on their own.

The ways in which fall students tracked political news in the thirty-plus hours before polls closed and the day after the election—tracking live blogs, scrolling through news feeds, texting with friends—is indicative of the modern media landscape. Students used social media and, to a much lesser extent, push notifications from news outlets to monitor trending stories and track commentary, particularly first thing in the morning as a daily tip sheet. When news found students, it was more commonly through social channels (Facebook, Twitter, word-of-mouth communication) than through official channels (news blasts from media outlets). Fall students sought out news of interest and relied on their social networks to remain peripherally aware of most political news. With news already surrounding them and with some complaining of information overload during the peak hours of general election coverage, students showed little interest in yet another way of receiving news: signing up for push notifications (i.e., opting in).

The ways in which fall students followed political news in the hours immediately after polls closed was strikingly traditional—gathering in front of a television to track election results. In the fall, 46% of students watched television in Tuesday primetime and 43.5% of these viewers only watched television to get news during this time slot. These findings show that Election Night is one of few national events in which appointment viewing is widespread and viewers give their full attention to one screen. Even with the explosion of digital media technologies, television still plays a central role in connecting audiences during a major political event. Results speak not only to the primacy of television but also to the limitations of social media, the use of which slightly decreased as television viewership rose. While users can monitor a flood of political news and commentary with little effort on social media, they cannot easily witness a live event of significant importance. Social media regained its primacy in the wee hours of Tuesday and early Wednesday, as students turned to (and often were turned off by) analysis from those in their social networks.

The long answer is in the study. Take a read — it’s online and free.