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Online civic engagement is not always a positive experience, say researchers

Wednesday, 03/27/2019

You solicit donations from your Facebook friends for a worthy cause. You use Snapchat and Twitter to encourage followers to register to vote. You’re engaging with your community in a positive way, and it feels good. 

Online civic engagement is generally viewed as a positive way for individuals to improve the quality of life in their community. 

But new research from University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI) associate professor Libby Hemphill’s research group suggests that online civic engagement doesn’t always feel good, and it doesn’t always improve the community. 

Hemphill and her team, including UMSI postdoctoral fellow A.J. Million and Anders Finholt, a student at Kalamazoo College, interviewed 40 nonprofit employees and their affiliates, exploring nonprofit social media adoption, feelings of community attachment, and civic engagement.   

They found the interview subjects view online civic engagement as “frequently uncomfortable.”

“Most literature on civic engagement centers on ‘Yay! Engagement is great! It makes the world a better place!’” says Hemphill. “But sometimes these engagements don’t feel good. Sometimes they are disruptive or destructive. Sometimes they make things worse.”

The team took examples from the interviews and classified each according to two metrics: Whether the engagement was prosocial or antisocial; and whether it would improve situations or make them worse. 

Hemphill says an online engagement could be considered antisocial if it did not conform to democratic norms, but being antisocial does not necessarily mean that the engagement is harmful for the community. For example, labor strikes or other collective acts of protest, which are often organized online, are purposely disruptive and are effective in part because of the disruption they create. 

Conversely, some actions considered prosocial are ineffective forms of civic engagement. Hemphill gives the example of users changing their profile photos on Facebook to support survivors of a terrorist attack.

Engagement Examples

Engagement Examples

Social Media and Civic Engagement Matrix with examples

Social Media and Civic Engagement Matrix with examples

Hemphill says the goal of the poster, scheduled to be presented on April 2 at the annual iConference in Washington, D.C., is to see if plotting these positions on a matrix is a useful theoretical tool to help people think about the interactions that occur online. 

“We’re not sure yet that the matrix will work,” says Hemphill. “We want to put it out there to see what the reactions are.”

The research group’s next steps are to launch a national panel survey about online experiences with civic engagement. 

“The survey will present a variety of scenarios to see what people think belong on these axes,” says Hemphill. “We want to see how those responses vary by age, region and political ideology.”

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1822228.

 - Jessica Webster, UMSI Public Relations Specialist