New Open Access Article on Digital Political Talk and Participation across Established and Third Wave Democracies

Sage Open, an interdisciplinary open access journal, has recently published an article, coauthored by myself and Augusto Valeriani, in which we explore the relationships between different forms of online political talk and different modes of political participation across seven Western democracies. We have written this paper for a special issue, currently under development, edited by Pablo Barberà that will present research on social media and politics by members of the SMaPP Global Network, a great interdisciplinary initiative sponsored by New York University that I am honored and grateful to be part of.

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In the article, we distinguish between online political talk that occurs on social networking sites (SNS) (such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram), where users interact with broad audiences across public, semi-public, and private spaces, and mobile instant messaging services (MIMS) (such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Snapchat), where users interact with narrower audiences in mostly private spaces. We also distinguish between institutional political participation, which occurs in and around the structures of representative democracies (elections, parties, and public officials), and extra-institutional participation, which occurs outside of the representative circuit and involves protest repertoires. Finally, following Samuel Huntington, we distinguish between established democracies (Denmark, France, United Kingdom, and United States) and “Third Wave” democracies (Greece, Poland, and Spain). The key theoretical difference for us is that levels of political trust are generally higher in established than in Third Wave democracies.

We find that use of both SNS and MIMS for political discussion is positively associated with institutional political participation. However, while political talk on SNS is positively associated with extra-institutional participation as well, political talk on MIMS is not. Finally, we show that the positive relationship between political talk on SNS and institutional participation is significantly stronger in established than in Third Wave democracies, while there is no significant difference between these groups of countries when it comes to the relationship between political talk on MIMS and participation. The chart below summarizes these latter findings:

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As we discuss in the article, there are three key take-away points from this study. First, online political talk is a relevant piece of the puzzle of political participation. Secondly, technologies and their affordances matter, as different types of online environments create better or worse opportunities for types of informal political talk that may be conducive to participation. Thirdly, institutional legacies shape the relationship between online political talk and participation, which is stronger in high-trust, established democracies than in low-trust, Third Wave democracies. Thus, we argue in our conclusions, “technology interacts with
individual predispositions and political institutions—including the legacy of those that are now history—in shaping political outcomes.”

Here is the full citation and abstract:

Vaccari, C., & Valeriani, A. (2018). Digital Political Talk and Political Participation: Comparing Established and Third Wave DemocraciesSAGE Open8(2), 2158244018784986.

We investigate whether and how informal political talk on digital media contributes to citizens’ political participation with unique surveys based on samples representative of Internet users in seven Western democracies. We show that political talk on both social networking sites and mobile instant messaging platforms is positively associated with institutional and extra-institutional political participation. However, the relationship between talk on social networking sites and both types of participation is significantly stronger in established democracies (Denmark, France, United Kingdom, and United States) than in “third wave” democracies (Greece, Poland, and Spain). By contrast, the strength of the relationship between political talk on mobile instant messaging platforms and participation is not significantly different when comparing established and more recent democracies. These findings suggest that informal political talk on digital platforms can contribute to citizens’ participatory repertoires and that different institutional settings, in combination with different technological affordances, play an important role in shaping these patterns.

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