Political Science Today: Want to Build Students’ Civic Engagement? Teach Them How to Use Social Media

This article was featured in the March 2022 issue of Political Science Today, a new member magazine of the American Political Science Association. Read the full article in Political Science Today here.

Want to Build Students’ Civic Engagement? Teach Them How to Use Social Media

by Jennie Sweet-Cushman, Chatham University

As political information and civic engagement levels have deteriorated, social media has been touted as a potential solution to the decline of both. However, I doubt anyone would argue this positive influence is what we are witnessing on social media. My own research (2019) suggests the failure of social media to capitalize on its promise of greater civic engagement may lie in its concurrent failure to capitalize on its promise of enhanced political information. Political science, as a discipline, with its commitment to enhancing civic engagement, should consider training students to use social media more effectively as a not-insignificant part of this responsibility.

Undergraduate education in other fields may wish to encourage civic engagement but fail to offer training in the realm of politics and citizenship.

This leaves this essential component of civic engagement to political scientists, many of whom seek ways to deepen their ability to foster civic engagement (Thomas and Brower Reference Thomas and Brower2017; Matto et al. Reference Matto, McCartney, Bennion and Simpson2017). Some, like myself, have turned to Twitter as a resource for making this connection between information and action.

Jennie Sweet-Cushman, Chatham University

Woodall and Lennon (Reference Woodall and Lennon2017) find online political engagement and knowledge are higher among students who used Twitter in their political science classes than those who did not. But “real-world” civic engagement is harder to come by. Caliendo et al. (Reference Caliendo, Chod and Muck2016) find Twitter use in political science courses did not affect efficacy, political interest, and civic engagement. However, consider the following quote from one of my students, a sophomore education major, in a recent Introduction to American Government course:

“Before having class on Twitter, I had no idea that there was even an impeachment inquiry against President Trump. I do not watch the news, or follow any political figures on social media. The only political news I get is from Buzzfeed—which is very left—and my father on the off-chance that we actually engage in conversation about it. Politics is not something I have ever really been comfortable sitting down and talking about, which is why I usually stray away.”

The student is acknowledging a disconnection between her ability to find and understand good information about politics and her willingness to engage. This may be the missing link: students are not taught the social media literacy they need to draw on for meaningful civic engagement.

The student offered this confession in a reflection she wrote following an exercise I do in the course called “Class on Twitter” (COT).

Each semester for the last five years, I have hosted a synchronous class session on Twitter—where I prompt students to use the platform to learn about an issue of US government or policy. In previous years, we have covered issues ranging from the federal budget to health care reform.

This year, the news that Congressional Democrats were launching an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump broke the day before COT was scheduled. The topic we would discuss was essentially chosen for us. It was remarkable how many students had little to no understanding of the impeachment process and some, like the student quoted above, were so insulated from political news they didn’t even know it was happening.

I do this exercise on Twitter because, as the quote from my student exemplifies, approaching 90 percent of young adults (18-29) report actively using social media, but looking for news and information is hardly the primary motivation (Smith and Anderson, Reference Smith and Anderson2018; American Press Institute, 2015). However, I maintain it is possible that college students would use social media to learn about politics and government if they had an opportunity to experience how to do so constructively. Students have been mostly allowed to learn how to structure their use of social media on their own and, in doing so, made assumptions about how effective social media is (or can be) as a place to learn about their political environment. In surveying students, they know an echo chamber is one problematic way of curating their social media, but most (89.1%) felt they were at least somewhat comfortable discerning diverse viewpoints, but this confidence was less pronounced around their ability to discern trustworthy or objective sources (39.4 and 33.3 percent, respectively). They avoid using it to learn about their political environment; only 18 percent believe social media is a good resource for news (Sweet-Cushman Reference Sweet-Cushman2019).

Political Science Today  is a new member magazine of the American Political Science Association. The magazine includes news about the discipline, member spotlights, association updates, and other content previously featured in PS: Political Science & Politics. Political Science Today is released quarterly in February, May, August, and November in print and online. All APSA members will receive a print copy of the first issue in February 2021.