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The Online Citizen: Is Social Media Changing Citizens’ Beliefs About Democratic Values?

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Abstract

Social media websites are rapidly changing the way that Americans live and communicate with one another. Social media sites encourage individuals to constantly share information about one’s self (and constantly seek information about others) that would have been private in the past. This experience can alter how an individual views the world in ways that political scientists have not been able to fully capture. In a cross-sectional survey of the American public I find a strong correlation between the use of Facebook and personal blogs and support for civil liberties. Individuals who spend more time self-publicizing on the Internet seem to value freedom of expression more, but also value the right to privacy less than individuals who use social media less often. This pattern suggests that technology may be altering American attitudes on basic democratic values and highlights the need for dynamic research designs that account for the causal effect Internet use may have on individual political development.

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Notes

  1. In other words, the institutions that political scientists are most frequently concerned with were the ones that adolescents were least likely to be concerned with.

  2. Respondents are a pre-selected group of adults chosen by Qualtrics, Inc. and invited to participate in survey research in exchange for gift certificates and coupons. The sample is fairly diverse ideologically, with a slight liberal lean. The sample did have a substantially larger number of female (57 %) and Asian-American (9.2 %) respondents than the general population and a lower percentage of Latino respondents (4.7 %), though it is not clear how these differences would have affected the results.

  3. Scale items were drawn from Davis and Silver (2004). The full questionnaire is available in Appendix as Supplementary Material.

  4. Earlier analyses also looked at each item on an individual basis rather than combining items into scales. Examining each item separately does not alter the substantive results of the analyses.

  5. Respondents also filled out questions to capture their beliefs about conformity, autonomy and social cohesion as in Feldman’s (2003) work on authoritarian personalities. The results of the logit models are substantively no different when authoritarian personality measures are used in place of the Big Five personality traits.

  6. These results are robust across a number of different models. The age of 25 seems to be the “cut-off” point for a significant effect from social media use. Breaking down age by various categories or using an interaction term between age and social media reveals that it really is only the 18–25 group that shows a significant relationship between social media use and support for civil liberties.

  7. Even if respondents over 50 are excluded, there is still no statistically significant relationship between online self-publicizing and support for democratic values among adults over 25.

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Acknowledgments

I would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers as well as the editors for their comments and suggestions. I would also like to thank Jessie Swigger, Michael Neblo and William Minozzi for their encouragement and insight. Any remaining errors are my own.

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Correspondence to Nathaniel Swigger.

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Swigger, N. The Online Citizen: Is Social Media Changing Citizens’ Beliefs About Democratic Values?. Polit Behav 35, 589–603 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-012-9208-y

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