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Current Events

61 million Facebookers can’t be wrong: Online mobilization leads to meaningful political participation offline

In this month’s edition of Nature, researchers at the University of California, San Diego (in conjunction with the Facebook Data Team) have released results from an online experiment with 61 million Facebook users.

The experiment assess the effect that a “social message” can have on the propensity to vote. During the 2010 midterm elections, certain Facebook users were chosen to receive a message that showed which of their friends voted in the election. Other users were given an “informational message” where they could click a link to look up their polling location. Finally, a control group was chosen to receive no message.

The results show that online political mobilization of this type can have a direct effect on political participation. Those people who received the social message on Facebook were 0.39% more likely to vote than those who received no message at all. In essence, seeing the faces of your friends and attaching participatory significance to that contributes to the propensity to participate.

For my own selfish academic reasons, this piece is well-timed and most-welcomed. A few colleagues and I published our own article about the effect of Facebook on political participation. In a survey of undergraduates at public universities in the state of California, we found that people who used Facebook for political purposes were more likely to vote. However, as somewhat of a cautionary tale, we also found that people who used Facebook did not learn from online political activity.

The study from UCSD is a landmark study for a couple of reasons. First, it acknowledges the role that online mobilization plays in offline participation. Most major journals have yet to give due attention to the capability of Facebook to encourage this type of engagement. Second, mainstream journalists have noticed and have widely reported the results of the study.

The intersection of social media and politics is still a relatively new field. Scholars are at a loss in terms of coming to a consensus about the effect of social media on politics. The UCSD makes significant strides towards reconciling different viewpoints, but other earlier research seems to suggest that this connection between online mobilization and participation is indeed viable.

This research agenda is rapidly expanding. Online social networks represent a frontier of research that is largely unexplored. My own research interests lie in this field and I am currently working on several projects that follow the idea that online network interaction matters.

The Exploitation of the Shirtless Male Politicians

With the introduction of Paul Ryan into the 2012 presidential elections, there seems to be even more evidence of a curious trend that has appeared in recent years. Male politicians, particularly those born after 1960, have become the subject of a new type of media interest:

Google searches for “Paul Ryan P90X” spiked more than 5,000 percent since he was introduced as Romney’s running mate on Aug. 11. “Shirtless” was the No. 2 search term associated with “Paul Ryan” in the 12 hours after word broke that Ryan was Romney’s choice. TMZ on Friday posted a picture of Ryan and his wife, Janna, in swimsuits, believed to be from a vacation several years ago. –The Associated Press, 8/17/12

I’m more jacked than Paul Ryan.

Ryan’s introduction has been of note since although he’s been considered an expert on policy matters, there seems to be more focus on trivial aspects of his personal life. The choice is interesting, because while his “wonkiness” is a potential weapon in the presidential election, it probably won’t ever come into play. In his first week as a vice-presidential candidate, we’ve even seen Ryan make critical mistakes about the budget, his supposed strength.

So why doesn’t it matter? First, vice-presidential candidates don’t help the polls. There’s an initial excitement around the nominee, which we’ve seen in the past week, but then it dies down after two weeks or so. Second, the American public and the average American could care less about intricate policy matters. Especially the budget. Most Americans are completely confused by the budget and have no idea how money gets spent. “Budget” is such an ugly word that most people place blame on all politicians, not just one political party.

So why choose Ryan: the poster child and Republican champion for a fiscally conservative budget? At best, the Romney campaign is hoping to promote divisiveness by promoting Ryan as a budget expert. And so far, the campaign has shown that they are not serious about policy discussions. Instead, both campaigns are resorting to negative campaigning. Choosing Ryan is only marginally about his expertise on the budget, it’s more about his potential widespread appeal.

First, there’s the technical targeted reasons. Ryan theoretically helps Romney win Tea Party loyalists, Wisconsinites, and pro-lifers. But research has shown that appeals based on social group identification do not take precedence over the personal characteristics of the candidates themselves. Issue voting is arguably ranked as an even lower priority. Regardless, the attention on Ryan, his fitness regimen, and his body is evidence that the personal characteristics of the candidate is of crucial importance, especially to unengaged citizens.

Ryan does not set precedence for this. Aaron Schock, the youngest member of Congress, rose to national prominence after the entertainment website TMZ posted a shirtless photo of Schock. Schock has even gone as far to pose on the cover of a national men’s health magazine. Schock defended the media attention, saying:

People who watch TMZ or different mediums don’t expect to see their congressman on such a show. To see their hometown congressman on a show like this kind of raises their interest and gets them a little excited. – Aaron Schock, 4/23/09

And the attention has paid off for Schock. Schock earned a position on the House Ways and Means Committee only in his second term and is one of the Republican Party’s rising stars. Similarly, Scott Brown, governor of Massachusetts underwent similar treatment after it was discovered that he posed nude in Cosmopolitan magazine when he was a 22 year-old law student. The media attention is surprisingly similar to the focus on Ryan:

Nearly three decades later, as he campaigned for the Senate, that article drew widespread notice, as did the fact that Mr. Brown, at 50, seemed as plausible a centerfold as ever. An obsessive exerciser, he competed in more than six triathlons in the first half of 2009 alone. The muscular results of all that swimming and sweating explained an atypical addition to the Washington press corps that shadowed him during a visit to the nation’s capital just after his victory. A reporter for the gossip site TMZ was on hand to ask him if he was ‘bringing sexy back to the Republican Party.’ -New York Times Magazine, 2/27/10

Brown would go onto win that election. Even the President is not immune to cloying for such attention. After winning the presidential election in 2008 and amongst criticism that the new administration was fighting an uphill battle, Obama was snapped on vacation in Hawaii:

Buff-bodied President-elect Barack Obama put his chiseled frame on full display – as seen on Page 1 – during a stroll in Hawaii while on vacation with his family.Looking more like a relaxed beachgoer than the leader-to-be of the free world, Obama walked shirtless amid lush greenery with a water bottle in one hand, his eyes covered by shades, on Sunday. It’s a sight that Americans are increasingly getting used to – an extremely hard-bodied 44th president of the United States, whose toned pecs and abs have become as well documented during the transition process as have his policy positions. –New York Post, 2/23/08

The Internet had a field day with the Obama vacation. Like Ryan, the media focused on the president’s fitness regimen, with many concluding that Obama was fit in the gym and fit to run the nation. Nonetheless, in this instance and with the Ryan photos, there have been unfounded accusations that the photos were staged by the campaigns. The campaigns do understand and value the importance of these types of photos. In fact, they take advantage of it. And to illustrate the importance of these types of photos to the media, a shirtless photo of Ryan is probably valued in the “low five figures”.

As we move forward, I suspect that images like these will become more and more common. Ryan, Schock, Brown, and Obama are all young politicians. Schock was actually born in 1981 and is our youngest national politician. When the Millennials and Generation Z finally get into positions of national power, we’ll see the full ramifications of living your life on the Internet. If these four politicians are an indication, there’s a correct way to handle this publicity. And while I haven’t talked about other not-so-lucky politicans, there’s a definite wrong way to handle this publicity.

Gun Control and Gun Rights in the United States Today

In light of the events in Colorado, the gun control debate is beginning to amp up once again. As it should be, out of respect for the victims and their families, the debate has yet to reach its zenith. In fact, gun rights activists have been mostly quiet since the shooting occurred on Friday morning.

There is a lot of noise about the shootings and its only beginning to die down. However, there’s been a substantial amount of criticism focused on politicians, both liberal and conservative. Like the above tweet mentions, those in favor of gun control seem to believe that it’s a losing battle. The landscape of gun control is full of complexities beyond whether or not citizens should have the right to bear arms. In 2012, public opinion on gun control reveals a massively polarized public.

Across the electorate, supporters of gun rights and gun control are in a virtual dead heat. Around half the nation believes in gun rights, while the other half believes gun control is more important. In addition, guns are a politically polarizing issue. Around 70 percent of Democrats support gun control, while 70 percent of Republicans support gun rights. While the debate seems to be evenly divided amongst the American electorate, the discussion is clearly lopsided once lobbyists are taken into account.

Source: Opensecrets.org

The gun rights lobby has significantly and easily outspent the gun control lobby since 1998. Beginning in 1999, the gun control lobby began to increase its fundraising efforts. Led by the Americans for Gun Safety Foundation, the gun control lobby hit the $1 million mark in 2001. The organization went defunct in 2004, leaving the Brady Campaign and Mayors Against Illegal Guns as the two largest gun control lobbies. Mayors Against Illegal Guns has been primarily funded by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, but his donations pale in comparison to those made by gun rights activists. In the days after the Aurora attacks, Bloomberg has been vocal about starting a national dialogue about gun control.

The gun rights lobby consists of several groups that have contributed millions of dollars over a period of several years. Of course, the most visible amongst these groups is the National Rifle Association. The Gun Owners of America and Citizens Committee for the Right to Bear Arms also raise close to or over $1 million dollars each year. That being said, the money raised by all these groups pale in comparison to the money raised by other lobbyist industries. Since 1998, both gun lobbies have raised $78 million. In comparison, the pharmaceutical drug lobby, has raised over $2.3 billion during that same time period.

Public Opinion on Guns & Potential Determinants

Given the interesting juxtaposition between public opinion and lobbying, it’s interesting to see public opinion on guns from the General Social Survey.

Source: General Social Survey

In the last 30 years, gun ownership of all types has decreased. This includes separate ownership of pistols, revolvers, shotguns, and rifles. In addition, an increasing amount of people believe that citizens should be required to obtain a police permit before buying a gun. Although less people have guns and gun permits have gained popularity, there has been a sensationalized amount of attention placed on the issue.

Source: Lexis-Nexis

Beginning in 1998, the news media began to place an inordinate amount of attention on school shootings. Between March and May 1998, three different school shootings occurred in three different states. It was these events (principally the Westside Middle School and Thurston High School shootings) that precipitated the attention that the media now places on shootings. The Columbine High School shooting in April 1998 brought massive attention to school shootings and the gun debate, culminating in an unprecedented 20,711 mentions of “school shootings” in the media that year. Since the late 1990s, the media has placed a significant amount of attention on such events.

In the aftermath of such horrific incidents, the media tends to offer a number of different explanations for why such events may occur. In the recent days, I’ve heard new arguments about how a “thirst for fame” may have led James Holmes to act. This argument seems particularly relevant in this “reality television/five minutes of fame/privacy threatened” atmosphere. While there is no “fame” indicator in the General Social Survey, the survey collects data about job satisfaction. For the last 40 years, job satisfaction amongst Americans has reliably landed between 80 and 90 percent. It seems realistic to assume that most Americans are not hoping to be suddenly be thrust into the national spotlight.

Source: General Social Survey

Other than the fame argument, most commentators tend to cite the decline of civic society for a presumed increase in gun violence. This argument is somewhat related to and supported by Robert Puntam’s thesis in Bowling Alone. I don’t argue against the assertion that our conceptualization of civic society is changing. To ignore changes brought on by communication and technological advances would be foolhardy. Americans are engaging more and more with technology and less with other human beings. In fact, a cursory overview of community indicators such as the amount of time spent with neighbors and neighborhood safety indicates a subtle decline in Americans’ interaction with their neighbors. But I’m not entirely sure the decline of civic society can explain a presumed increase in gun violence.

Increased Gun Violence?

This finally leads me to consider an argument made by many gun rights advocates. Is gun violence actually increasing in the United States? Before considering the statistics, it is important to emphasize that the only thing better than fewer gun-related deaths is no gun-related deaths. The National School Safety and Security Services has been collecting data on school-related homicides. Since 1992, the data show that approximately 21 students per year have died from gun-related violence.

Source: National School Safety and Security Services

In considering the national data, the picture is a little more clear. After peaking in the early 1980s and then rising again in the early 1990s, the number of gun related homicides in the United States has actually decreased. In fact, in the early 2000s, we saw less gun related homicides than from any other time period since 1976. This is not to say that the concern brought on by shootings like Aurora is not warranted.

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics

Policy Response on Gun Control 

The shooting in Colorado is as despicable an act as any human being could commit. There should and will be an adequate response from our justice system. Our government representatives need to respond by considering potential changes in public policy.

Source: Thomas.gov

Although Congress should be slow to act, the pace at which they have moved on legislation regarding school shootings and gun control has been glacial. Only 25 pieces of legislation have mentioned ‘school shootings’ since 1989. These 25 bills were only introduced after 1999, after the media began to extensively cover school shootings in the media. Gun control has received more attention in legislation, with 125 pieces of legislation mentioning ‘gun control’. These are relatively rough measures of the attention Congress pays to gun control. However, proponents of gun control would argue that congressional legislation should address the issue more readily.

I would argue that any decreases that we’ve seen in gun-related violence is not due to Congress or government legislation. Rather, our heightened awareness of guns, community vigilance, and changes in law enforcement procedure has probably done more to assuage gun-related deaths than any legislative action. The next couple weeks will be extremely crucial in determining how any future legislation can further alter gun-related violence in the US.