Understanding politics more thoroughly: How highly engaged young citizens use the Internet for civic knowledge integration
First Monday

Understanding politics more thoroughly: How highly engaged young citizens use the Internet for civic knowledge integration by Younei Soe



Abstract
When people first learn of news, the information often remains in their minds as a passing fact rather than something fully understood. They attempt to better understand such information when particular topics interest them. This study explores how young people who self-identify as highly interested in politics and public affairs use diverse online resources to more thoroughly understand those topics in order to form their own thoughts and views, a process referred to as civic knowledge integration. Analyzing focus group interviews and essay answers provides a nuanced, in-depth understanding of such processes. These youths practice monitorial scanning, opinion sampling, verification (cross-checking), comparison of differing viewpoints, and collaborative layering of ideas. This study expands on the existing knowledge about political learning by considering the process in which learners’ efforts to understand is the most important aspect.

Contents

Introduction
Media and political learning
Young citizens as active processors of political information
User traits, Internet use, and young people
Methods
Findings
Discussion and conclusions

 


 

Introduction

Research on the media’s influence on citizens’ knowledge of politics and public affairs has largely investigated the relationship between the amount of media-transmitted information and user-obtained knowledge (see Chaffee and Kanihan, 1997; Drew and Weaver, 1998). While the findings are useful, further effort is required to more comprehensively understand the ways that young people use media and communication technologies, particularly the Internet, to learn about and understand public issues. In fact, exposure to media does not necessarily equate to learning from its presentation (Philo, 1990), and measuring exposure does not fully explain whether or how individuals transform new information into useful “civic knowledge” [1]. Recent research also showed that political learning is not always expected to occur when people acquire political information using social media (Bode, 2016) and that the various characteristics of young Internet users affect the ways those users evaluate online information (Metzger, et al., 2015).

Today, many young people in the United States and around the world are obtaining information about politics and public affairs from the Internet. They express political views online and use the Internet to expose themselves to more varied ideas than can be found in other media (Bell, et al., 2012; Horrigan, et al., 2004; Marcelo and Lopez, 2007). They also perform multiple other media activities while online (Gottfried, et al., 2017; Nee and Dozier, 2017; Rainie and Wellman, 2012), and these processes are more dynamic and interactive than ever before. Thus, assessing the myriad ways young people use online resources to comprehend political information is critical to understanding how their political learning occurs today.

When a particular topic interests people, they often make efforts to more thoroughly understand it. Such behavior involves integrating new information with existing knowledge in order to form their thoughts and opinions. In this study, I call this process “civic knowledge integration” when such attempts are aimed at understanding a topic in the areas of politics and public affairs [2]. Here, I particularly examine how civic knowledge integration occurs when young people use the information resources available on the Internet.

Research showed that when young people process online information, the individuals’ online behaviors and capabilities vary between members of similar age groups (Hargittai, 2010). For example, young Internet users’ demographic characteristics affect how they evaluate online information (Metzger, et al., 2015). In this work, I focus on young people who have high interest in and are engaged in politics and public affairs. Participant recruitment targeted people in their early 20s who self-identify as highly interested in politics, public affairs, and media and who participate in political activities in a broad sense. These youth are referred to as “highly engaged young citizens” in this work. This study seeks to offer an in-depth, nuanced understanding of how civic knowledge integration occurs among highly engaged young citizens. For this aim, I present qualitative findings from focus groups and written answers that illustrate such processes.

This study contributes to existing literature by expanding on knowledge about individuals’ political learning by considering the process in which learners’ understanding is the most important aspect, specifically by analyzing a group of highly engaged young citizens. That is, the study addresses the efforts individuals make to better understand information after their initial exposure to it. As Sotirovic and McLeod (2004) argued, communication scholars should evaluate “what content is selected and how it is used” when assessing the Internet’s influence on political learning [3]. Ultimately, scholars need to “focus on helping citizens interpret and order the overabundance of messages that come from the mass media” [4]. Through this research, I suggest that research on individuals’ political learning must be evaluated beyond simply measuring the factual information gained and should consider how and why users integrate new information and transform it into their own political knowledge.

This study defines “Internet use” as the use of any available online information, including information provided by atypical media organizations. This study does not focus on one particular type of online media or one specific platform. Examples of online information resources were given to study participants at the beginning of focus group interviews: Internet-based news Web sites; political blogs; online forums; civically motivated blogs; Web sites run by political candidates, parties, or governments; user-created sites; vote-based information and news sources; podcasts provided by organizations or independent individuals; aggregate online news portals; and major news organizations’ Web sites.

The data reported in this article only pertain to the specific questions asked for this study and have not been used to make further explanations of study participants’ extended political behavior, such as later political participation. Here, I solely focus on the civic knowledge integration process through which highly engaged young citizens assimilate new information and interpret it to form their own ideas.

 

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Media and political learning

Learning about politics has been regarded as the most important element of political socialization — a holistic process through which individuals acquire knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors related to society (Greenberg, 1970). In the early research, families, schools, and community-based organizations were known as socialization agents (Davies, 1965; Kahne and Westheimer, 2003; Sherman, 2002), and media were regarded to merely support other agents (Dawson and Prewitt, 1968). However, since Chaffee, et al.’s (1970) research showed that there is a positive correlation between media use and political knowledge gain, media have received attention as an important socialization agent affecting people’s political knowledge gain and communication, and socialization research focusing on political learning, especially young people’s political learning, has flourished in communication studies (Kiousis, et al., 2005; McDevitt, 2005; Moeller and de Vreese, 2015; Ridout, et al., 2004).

Studies have largely focused on the effects of media on political learning by investigating the relationship between exposure to news and individuals’ political knowledge acquisition (e.g., Gottfried, et al., 2017; Partheymüller and Faas, 2015). Others analyzed the content of a particular media format (Fox, et al., 2007) or speculated a program’s effect on viewers’ knowledge (McKain, 2005). Research in this area has been extensive and findings are inconclusive; thus, some have suggested that the relationship between communication and political knowledge is “best described as causal and not the result of spuriousness” [5], but other research found differential effects of different media formats on political information gain (Weaver and Drew, 1993) or showed limited effects of different digital media formats on political information gain (Dimitrova, et al., 2014).

 

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Young citizens as active processors of political information

Underlying the notion that political learning equates to political knowledge gain is the assumption that young people are passive receivers of information delivered by the media. However, another perspective has portrayed young citizens as “active gatherer[s] and processor[s] of information” who not only build their own political knowledge base, but also participate in the making of politics [6]. Therefore, greater emphasis should be placed on “what leads people to various media as opposed to taking the content as given and studying strictly its effects” [7]. Media use is a conscious choice that influences users’ attitudes and behaviors (Buckingham, 1997).

In this view, young citizens are actively changing, re-conceptualizing, and reevaluating their opinions as they come to understand political information acquired from media (Just, et al., 1996; Neuman, et al., 1992). Marchi (2017) found that teens develop deliberative skills in seeking and critiquing online information, and in fact, adolescents desire a “more balanced understanding of news” [8]. In other words, young citizens select, construct, and interpret political information to form their own ideas and views (Cohen, 2010; Levinson, 2012; Zukin, et al., 2006). In this sense, Torney-Purta and Amadeo (2011) suggested that when studying the political engagement of today’s youth, young people’s everyday activities involving civic matters should be treated as potentially important even if media messages lack explicitly political content, especially when such activities are performed using the media as participatory agents. Similarly, Clark (2016) suggested that even if the youths’ engagement in media occurs in a small circle of social media, their act of using the media matters and could potentially gather support for political actions.

 

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User traits, Internet use, and young people

Research on media use and political learning found that the various characteristics of media users — such as capabilities, interests, motivations, and behaviors — influence how they process information from the media. For example, individuals interested in politics more readily respond to news coverage than those with less interest do, and older adults with more sophisticated information-processing capabilities learn more from print news than younger adults do (Garramone and Atkin, 1986), and individuals exposed to online information show less ambivalent attitudes toward politics than those are not (Partheymüller and Faas, 2015). Robinson and Kohut (1988) also found that people who have sophisticated knowledge about the operation, information production, and ownership of major news organizations evaluate media messages more critically than those who do not. Similarly, young people differ in their online abilities and activities depending on socioeconomic status and background factors, such as parental education and gender (Hargittai, 2010), and young people’s developmental and demographic characteristics also affect their awareness and information evaluation skills online (Metzger, et al., 2015). A report by Horrigan, et al. (2016) confirmed that the degree of individuals’ “preparedness and comfort in using digital tools” varies among different groups of technology users [9].

Still, more research is necessary. For example, further explanation is needed about how individuals at different levels of political interest or information efficacy — the level of confidence one has in one’s political knowledge (Kaid, et al., 2007) — process online information. As Bennett, et al. (2008) contended, a careful, measured approach is required to accurately investigate media use of young Internet users, the so-called digital natives, and the potential educational implications. In response, Hargittai (2010) suggested that scholars need to study the “differentiated Internet uses among those online” [10]. In light of this discussion, this study seeks to understand how young citizens interested in politics, public affairs, and media use diverse online resources to process new information and incorporate it into their understanding of politics and public affairs. Because carefully understanding individuals’ efforts to assimilate acquired information is the most important aspect, this study takes a qualitative approach to revealing participants’ behaviors, thoughts, and perceptions.

 

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Methods

Data collection and participants

Data were collected primarily through focus group interviews, a suitable method “when the area of concern relates to multifaceted behavior or motivation” [11]. Focus groups provide rich data about participants’ thoughts and behaviors “in their own words” [12]. Focus group interviews were conducted at a large, four-year Midwestern public university and two four-year East coast private universities in the United States in 2008. Eleven focus groups were formed based on participants’ availability, not by gender, ideology, or student status (i.e., participants were grouped according to their schedules). Each focus group consisted of five to seven participants. To make data vary in richness and detail, additional supplemental were collected through essays at another large, four-year Midwestern public university in 2010. The essay questions were simpler versions of the questions asked in focus group interviews in order to be more suitable for written responses, and essay responses were returned by e-mail (For a list of essay questions, see Appendix) [13].

A total of 65 participants were recruited. Recruiting attempts were made by contacting professors who taught media or political science courses at those universities. The recruiting advertisement targeted those who self-identify as highly interested in politics, public affairs, and media and who participate in politics in a broad sense, such as by attending community events. Participants were offered course credit or a small monetary incentive as compensation.

Participants were guided to complete an online survey and answer demographic questions before coming to their interview sessions or answering essay questions. Participants’ ages ranged from 20 to 25 years (M = 21.3, SD = 1.27). Fifty-eight of the 65 participants were undergraduate students, and seven were graduate (master’s) students. The most common undergraduate majors of participants were political science, communication studies, and cultural studies. The most common graduate majors were communication studies and technology studies. Some graduate students were part-time professionals who worked at non-profit organizations, technology companies, research think tanks, and as university staff members. Twenty of the 65 participants labeled their political ideology as centrist, 31 as either liberal or strongly liberal, and 14 as either conservative or strongly conservative. Nineteen were male, 43 were female, and three chose not to reveal their gender. Three were freshmen, two were sophomores, 20 were juniors, 33 were seniors, and seven were in graduate programs. Fifty-six were white/Caucasian, one was black/African-American, six were Asian/Pacific Islander, and two chose not to reveal their race/ethnicity. The questionnaire also included an item that asked about the participants’ levels of interest. When asked to respond to the question, “How interested are you in news and politics generally?” by ranking their interest on a seven-point Likert scale (where 1 = not interested and 7 = very interested), 59 of the 65 participants answered 5 or higher, and six answered 4.

Focus group interviews. Each session lasted about 70 minutes, and discussions were recorded with a digital voice recorder. Following introductions, the moderator began the focus group sessions with questions designed to elicit discussion [14]. Then, the discussion progressed with a series of prepared interview questions:

  • Have you visited political blogs or Web sites?
  • Have you ever posted to a blog or become involved in an online discussion?
  • When you learn something from media (particularly about social or political issues) and want to know more about it, how do you go about learning more?
  • In what ways do you think online information resources deliver news and information (particularly about social or political issues) better than traditional media (such as newspapers)?
  • Do you think online information resources provide you with useful and relevant information? Why and why not?
  • When you learn something from online information sources, what features of them appeal to you compared to those of traditional media — the news, issues, or events?

The order of the questions varied from session to session as the moderator adjusted the line of inquiry to fit participants’ answers and maintain a natural conversational flow. Participants were encouraged to talk freely and interrupt when others were talking as long as they were courteous. When multiple participants wanted to speak at the same time, they were encouraged to raise their hands and allow the moderator to decide the order in which they would speak.

To ensure anonymity throughout the interview sessions, participants used nicknames written on nametags; all names in the results of this study are pseudonyms. To respect participants’ wishes for privacy, they were allowed to provide only the information that they wanted to have disclosed.

Data analysis

The transcripts of the focus group discussions and essay responses were combined into a single document and imported into QDA Miner, software used for organizing and coding data. Applying the techniques of grounded theory — the “discovery of theory from data” [15] — the analysis proceeded in two phases.

In the first phase, a subset consisting of several paragraphs and containing one to three comments was defined as a sustained conversational exchange about a single topic. From the single master document, 120 analyzable subsets were identified. In the first phase, open coding of 30 percent of randomly selected data (36 subsets) was performed to identify the themes that make up civic knowledge integration. Then, the identified themes were grouped, regrouped, modified, and renamed through an axial and selective coding process. The themes that emerged were monitorial scanning, opinion sampling, verification (cross-checking), comparison of differing viewpoints, and collaborative layering of ideas.

In the second phase, all 120 subsets were coded to identify themes that make up civic knowledge integration, and 65 subsets were identified. An open, thematic coding of these 65 subsets was performed to identify comments that included the most notable, or most frequently found, themes. The reported findings are those comments that demonstrated the most notable themes.

 

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Findings

Coding of data in the first phase allowed for creating an operational definition of civic knowledge integration: the process by which individuals incorporate new information into their understanding of politics and public affairs. Data analysis shows that study participants use self-guided strategies for civic knowledge integration. They start with monitorial scanning and opinion sampling processes, then perform verification (cross-checking), comparison of differing and opposing viewpoints, and collaborative layering of ideas. Additionally, some participants’ comments revealed the feelings and other experiences they have when they reorganize and re-evaluate online information. Although these findings are not the main expected findings, some of these worthwhile additional findings are reported in instances deemed to help readers understand the main findings of this study.

Monitorial scanning and opinion sampling

When asked how they proceeded with researching a topic, the study participants explained that their use of search engines and other information resources is not random. Participants confessed that they contend with a fast-paced culture and a rising tide of information. Thus, they are less likely to read long, in-depth news stories unless they confirm beforehand that they can relate to something in the presentation. Typically, they start by scanning and monitoring the news to know “what’s going on” rather than reading commentary on or interpretations of events and issues. As Jackie said, they “just sort of scan the headlines to see what jumps out” at them. After quickly scanning summaries or brief explanations of topics, they determine their potential levels of interest.

During the monitorial scanning process, they also use search engines and Web-based encyclopedias to perform secondary searches or to gain a quick understanding of an issue’s related points or background. One of Dee’s comments suggested that she sometimes finds the linked references at the end of each Wikipedia search result as not only helpful, but also more authoritative than the original:

I do use Wikipedia a lot ... because I will come across things that I have no familiarity with and I just want a quick explanation of what it is. Wikipedia is great for that. If I need to dig deeper, what is great about Wikipedia is [that] there seems to be a real push for people not to just write a description of something, but to cite where they’re getting their facts.

When participants are moderately interested in an issue but lack knowledge about it, they then skim news to collect information. Opinion sampling starts when they look for sources they can trust, then perform a sorting process. That process involves comparison, evaluation, and reorganization of the material they collect from alternative sources. As Krupa explained:

[For election-related information,] I plan on looking at both candidates’ Web pages and finding their stance on specific issues that concern me. I have been keeping up with the news, so I believe I know enough personal information about the candidates — not that this should be too important when making my decision. I will also go through news archives to see what the candidates have said about any issues in particular. I also watch political news entertainment shows, which try to cover some of the important issues regarding the political race.

During the opinion sampling process, participants considered information acquired from user-created Web sites, such as blogs, important information sources, as Jay stated:

I read blogs ... Everything from LiveJournal to ones on Blogger to Wordpress, all that stuff ... Any of the political sites, it seems like now, one of the things they’re trying to do is have the new media, or Web 2.0 component ... what I do every day is read those blogs. Because, you’ll find, sometimes more information on there than you will in a regular, standard story.

The participants consider this self-guided opinion sampling process as a critical starting point to better understanding politics and public affairs. Dan’s comment indicated this as well: “I think candidates’ speeches tend to be pretty generic, and they don’t really go that in depth. So, I just try to do my own research and try to find as much in-depth information as I can.” The participants also cited the availability of raw information on the Internet as an important reason for opinion sampling. For example, Angela explained:

I almost always take to the Internet because there’s a ton of good Web sites. I mean, you can look at the candidate’s Web sites to see what they actually say their positions are, which I think you don’t hear clearly in the debates half the time. And then, you can go on Web sites and see what their voting records were, and there are a lot of places to just get raw information about what they’ve actually done that you don’t really get when you’re reading the news and all you hear is about their new ad or whatever.

The opinion sampling process continues until participants feel they have obtained sufficiently diverse sources of news and opinions. By consulting enough diverse sources, they gain confidence that they are not limited to a single perspective and that they have developed a good understanding of topics and news events. In this way, they feel confident that they have consulted enough balanced, in-depth, and broad sources to make sensible judgments and informed decisions. Participants agreed that the sheer availability of information on the Internet helps them to perform self-guided monitorial scanning and opinion sampling faster and more efficiently than ever before.

Verification (cross-checking)

The participants go through a verification process of cross-checking information collated from various sources. When they hear stories about certain issues, they sometimes seek additional information about the issues, regardless of the original medium. Checking multiple sources occurs after they have watched or read a news item and want more information about it. Jim explained, “You definitely can find all the information you want, but it’s in the way they want it presented, so you have to take that into consideration.”

Although verification begins with checking facts from multiple websites that provide political information [16], this process often leads young citizens to more thoroughly understand the issues. For example, Logan stated:

After watching The Colbert Report, I made it an important issue that week that I had to watch The O’Reilly Factor because I wanted to see how they played off each other on their different shows. ... Then I went on CNN.com ... just to make my own idea of what I thought they were really trying to get at and what they were talking about on each of their shows.

In this way, participants became confident that they more thoroughly understand content they initially found complicated. This confidence persists even when major news outlets, such as network news programs or major national newspapers, attempt to distort issues. Participants admitted that they appreciated such opportunities. For example, Senia explained:

Going to the [political] candidate’s or party’s Web sites lets me explore their views as they [emphasis added] see it, not as the media see it, or at least closer [emphasis added] to how the candidates see it ... So if the media make a certain candidate seem like they have the wrong view, I can get on their Web site and see how they justify their view as right. If I do or do not like how they justify it, I can then better form my own opinion.

During this self-guided verification process, participants reported that they experienced a serendipitous knowledge gain: They begin not knowing how much or what type of information they will acquire and then encounter a wider variety of news platforms and sources than expected, which possibly changes their already-held political opinions or attitudes (Soe, 2014). Darrah explained this process in her essay:

In a Google search, my attitude could be changed by what I read first. It’s set up by the most relevant search, but I could come across something I didn’t expect to get in the first place that could change my view of the candidates, politics, or party. The way Google sets up its search engine doesn’t necessarily give you what you wanted to read, and if it shows you a site that goes against what you typed in, like opposing views, it could definitely easily persuade and change my view or attitude about politics.

Thus, through the abundance of information resources, the Internet helps participants assimilate information from various resources and solidify their ideas by enabling them to perform a series of search queries followed by cross-checking the information.

Comparison of differing and opposing viewpoints

Participants often benefitted from learning more about a topic by comparing different perspectives. For example, to find information about political candidates, they researched the other candidates’ views, not just the view of the one who initially drew their interest. Then, after acquiring enough information about the candidates, they could select the views that they wanted to examine in more detail. Angela mentioned that she always reads the opinions of a columnist with whom she disagrees. She feels that this helps her to evaluate her own opinions. Ultimately, that enables her to solidify modify her own views because she can understand both points of view. Jen said, “It is a lot easier to figure out candidates’ points of view once you read the opposition’s Web sites as well and then figure out where you lie.”

Comparison of differing and opposing viewpoints, a form of critical thinking, is the process of evaluating differing and opposing views to justify one’s own opinions. Jamie said that comparing different perspectives on a key issue is “a good way for me to look at both sides.” Participants are concerned that exposure to a single point of view may mislead them. Jean recalled her own experience:

I visit several Web sites of major newspapers — New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Financial Times — and of famous politicians and political commentators ... I visit Web sites that show different political perspectives from mine for two reasons: first, I would like to make sure that I correctly understand their policies and political views. If I follow only the media, blogs, or politicians’ Web sites that I like, I could be misguided or biased. Thus, I try to be as fair as possible by reading points of opposite politicians and media. The second reason to visit Web sites with opposite views is to make my argument clearer. By understanding the logic of opposite parties or candidates, I can set up better logic to counter their arguments.

Thus, comparing differing and opposing perspectives enables participants to incorporate what they know into their own understanding and solidify their own thoughts. This finding expands on previous findings introduced in the book Crosstalk (Just, et al., 1996): “Counterarguing against media messages is particularly strong during the general election when citizens draw on a richer knowledge base derived from mediated and personal experience and partisan interpretation” [17]. The participants showed that they not only use the Internet to avoid being misled by limited resources, but also to compare divergent perspectives to form counterarguments.

Collaborative layering of ideas

Participants mentioned that interactive opportunities provided by the Internet motivate them to build ideas and listen to others. Jane wrote:

I sometimes leave comments and express my opinions by participating in online forums ...I am not fond of engaging in political discussion with people in everyday conversation, but I can be more eloquent and logical when I write something about politics on online forums ... In addition, I read comments in online forums and get some information. By getting more knowledgeable and engaging in political discussion, I feel that I contribute to something about political and social issues.

This comment reveals how participating in online forums leads users to feel an increased sense of intelligence and participation and spurs their learning by allowing them to collect and express their thoughts in a reasoned manner. George stated that he liked the “sort of town hall feel” of online discussion spaces, where he feels he can learn better and more comfortably about any topic.

Furthermore, online users feel that they are communicating globally, not just with people in their local communities. Chintan mentioned, “I believe these windows of new media allow me to reach a bigger audience, whereas before, I would talk to only a few people and they would engage in conversation ... I can reach the whole world and I can learn from them as well as they can learn from me.” Other reported forms of collaborative layering of opinions include creating and commenting on YouTube content, and as writing and modifying Wiki entries. Sarah added that she liked “the way that the Wikipedia’s run as far as people being able to edit it in a free for all.” Related forms of perceived collaboration include completing surveys and multiple-choice tests on political Web sites.

Participants mentioned that they hope this collaborative exchange of ideas will potentially bring practical changes, when necessary. They value the opportunity for hands-on participation in civic activities, such as those offered through social media sites. Facebook pages maintained by national and international organizations were initially intended to keep their members informed about issues and to serve as rallying hubs for events and activities. However, these Web sites have extended that premise to encourage members to also voice their ideas and opinions. Patty described how she and other students could form an organized opinion on a school issue. In one instance, they persuaded the school administration to decide in favor of students’ ideas. The school responded by transferring the university’s graduation to a particular location. Patty commented:

I think there is the ability for people our age to make change, but I think it also needs to be in a structured way that makes sense to politicians ... Had there not been Facebook groups that actually had a quantifiable number of people in them, it would have been just sort of a fleeting annoyance that [campus administrators] weren’t willing to address.

Other participants in Patty’s focus group agreed that they learned why they wanted to effect change through expressing and exchanging ideas with other students on Facebook. Katie added, “I’m part of a few groups. But, I mean, I think one of the most interesting things is that grassroots organizations can start up on Facebook ... I think it’s a great outlet where messages can spread.” Thus, the interactive possibilities created by layering ideas, arguably, make both learning and participation more effective.

 

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Discussion and conclusions

Drawing on evocative interview data, this study explored how young people in the United States with a high interest in politics and media use the Internet to learn more about politics and public affairs. Data analysis shows that study participants develop self-guided learning strategies to assimilate new information with their own knowledge and form their own views. Although the aim of this research was not to compare this group to other typical American young adults, the findings enrich existing knowledge by providing an in-depth, nuanced understanding of how and why some young people use various online information resources to more thoroughly understand politics and public affairs. The findings also invite communication scholars to speculate on the implications of the strategies for civic knowledge integration practiced by some young people today.

When people learn of news for the first time, the information often remains with them as a passing fact, not something they have fully understood. When a particular topic interests them, they make efforts to better understand it by integrating new information into their existing knowledge. For highly engaged young citizens, as reported in this study, self-guided learning solidifies topics of interest in their memories. Synthesis of the findings reveals some points of discussion. To start, the availability of diverse online information resources, which enable easy scanning of the news on typical days and the occasional sampling of information when interesting news develops, seems to help participants develop a type of monitorial citizenship (Schudson, 1998; Zaller, 2003). Although the reported participants do not pay significant attention to all public affairs issues every day, their search for relevant information begins when an alarming event happens. Monitorial citizens, though not fully informed (Bennett, 2003; Patterson, 2002), consult the news and the views of trusted leaders when they detect threats (Page and Shapiro, 1992; Schudson, 1998), make sound political decisions, and express sound opinions (Bartels, 1996; Kuklinski and Hurley, 1994). Monitorial citizens also make democratically sound decisions when necessary (Delli Carpini, 2000; Lupia, et al., 2000). As Graber (2004) contended, this is not necessarily a negative phenomenon. Monitorial citizens learn enough about public affairs to function in their roles as citizens, and as the amount of news and information rapidly increases, monitorial citizenship is a realistic model because citizens have a practical, manageable method of becoming informed about current affairs.

Participants reported that they not only cross-check information, but also choose to learn about opposing ideas and opinions; they compare differing viewpoints to construct their own ideas. This finding aligns with previous studies and, at the same time, confounds others. Some research shows that when people are online, they are more likely to listen to ideas with which they already agree (Best, et al., 2005), and more ideological fragmentation is created on the Internet (Pariser, 2011; Sunstein, 2001). However, while some researchers support this assumption (Iyengar and Hahn, 2009; McPherson, et al., 2001), others have found that there is little or no evidence of significant fragmentation (Baldassarri and Gelman, 2008; Fiorina and Abrams, 2008; Gentzkow and Shapiro, 2006; Webster and Ksiazek, 2012) and that online news consumption has only marginal effects on ideological segmentation (Flaxman, et al., 2013). Individual differences such as cognitive thinking styles also influence how people evaluate online information (Metzger, et al., 2015). Likewise, individuals with higher scores on neuroticism may read more political news with which they agree (Munson and Resnick, 2010).

Although interpretations of the nature of the thoughtful behavior shown by this study’s participants can vary, the information-reorganization and re-evaluation strategies found in this study confirm that these young people use excellent search strategies, enjoy seeking out alternative perspectives (Hampton, et al., 2011), and develop skills to evaluate online information (Marchi, 2017). In this sense, the findings support that young people actively interpret political information to build their own ideas (Dalton, 2008; Flanagan, 2013) and that “young people, themselves, can better learn how to use information technology and digital media skills to develop more effective public voices” [18].

The additional findings of this study are worthwhile in order to more accurately and comprehensively understand highly engaged young citizens’ Internet use for political learning. Monitorial scanning and opinion sampling, aided by a series of practices to verify and compare differing ideas, provide participants with confidence that they have consulted enough balanced and broad sources and that they can create informed ideas and make sensible judgments. What they also experience is a heightened sense of intelligence, participation, contribution, and the feeling that learning is more effective when they express ideas in online public spaces.

Although these perceptions are not necessarily true reflections of the Internet’s or users’ capabilities, these observations are important and raise implications for the wider youth population. For any political learning to become meaningful, citizens must, above all, first want to engage in the political process (Negrine and Papathanassopoulos, 2011). Importantly, then, future research could employ approaches such as the uses and gratification theory (Katz, et al., 1974; Ruggiero, 2000) to uncover how the enjoyment and incremental motivation generated by Internet-enabled civic knowledge integration further encourages users to even more actively conduct independent, self-guided research.

In addition to the above-mentioned contributions, this study makes further contributions due to its scope. While other studies on media, youth, and politics have largely dealt with the consumption of journalistic news (i.e., news provided by the media), this study broadly defined Internet use to include any available online sources of information, regardless of format or platform, including what the participants considered raw information. As indicated by participants’ comments, highly engaged young citizens regard finding unprocessed information and relating it to other types of information as an important part of civic knowledge integration. The expanded scope of how online political information was defined in this study signals a recognition that the future of news is on the Internet, which integrates all media (Costera Meijer, 2007), as well as that the Internet’s “future importance will be decided by how the technology comes to be used” [19]. Additionally, while studies on young people’s media use have commonly dealt with teens, this study’s focus on young adults in early 20s is noteworthy because political attitudes and behaviors do still change and develop after teenage years (Glenn and Hefner, 1972; Marsh, 1971; Niemi and Sobieszek, 1977).

The limitations of this study should be noted. Any interpretation of the behavior exhibited by this study’s participants, as well as the reasons for such behavior, must reference this study’s historical and social context. The participants were young people who reported having a high interest in politics, public affairs, and media. Each had completed at least one semester at a four-year university in the United States, and most participants were majoring in political science, communication studies, technology studies, and cultural studies. This homogeneous participant background should be noted in interpreting the types of comments participants made. In addition, it should also be noted that this study’s findings were acquired within the social and political context of 2008 and 2010 in the United States. Finally, while I have mostly discussed the positive aspects of Internet use for civic knowledge integration, future research should also consider potential downsides and examine how individuals make efforts to overcome them. For example, investigating how feelings of confusion, caused by oversaturation of online political information from various resources, influence young individuals’ Internet use would allow scholars to create a more comprehensive and accurate picture of civic knowledge integration online. End of article

 

About the author

Younei Soe is Visiting Lecturer for Information and Library Science, and Informatics in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering at Indiana University Bloomington. Dr. Soe’s research focuses on understanding how individuals use media and communication technologies to make sense of the political landscape and the broader information environment. She conducts interdisciplinary research in communication and information studies, as well as in social informatics.
E-mail: ysoe [at] indiana [dot] edu

 

Notes

1. Galston, 2007, p. 109.

2. I provide an operational definition of civic knowledge integration, acknowledging that this term has been used in other disciplines (e.g., Dewey, 1915; Piaget, 1971; Schwab, 1978). For example, knowledge integration refers to ‘the process of adding, distinguishing, organizing, and evaluating accounts of phenomena, situations, and abstractions’ (Linn, et al., 2004, p. 30).

3. Sotirovic and McLeod, 2004, p. 361.

4. Dervin, 1976, p. 328.

5. Eveland, et al., 2005, p. 440.

6. Martin, 2012; Mutz, 2001, p. 232.

7. Mutz, 2001, p. 232.

8. Marchi, 2012, pp. 256–257.

9. Horrigan, et al., 2016, p. 2.

10. Hargittai, 2010, p. 93.

11. Krueger and Casey, 2000, p. 24.

12. Stewart, et al., 2007, p. 163.

13. This study received approval from the Institutional Review Board on 6 August 2007.

14. Sample general questions asked to elicit discussion included the following questions: (a) What are your main media sources for news and information? List your top three sources, and briefly mention why you like them. (b) How much attention do you pay to political issues, either through using media or by attending events? (c) What do you think about traditional media (for example, broadcast and print news)? Consider credibility, useful resources, right information at the right time, issues covered, etc. (d) When you engage with the Internet, what motivates you to use it (information, entertainment, or something else)?

15. Glaser and Strauss, 1967, p. 1; see also Corbin and Strauss, 2008.

16. To check facts, the study participants visit online versions of national and local newspapers. The following sources were mentioned as major starting points for fact-checking: local news channels, editorials from major newspapers, CNN, NBC, Yahoo, MSN, CNBC, Fox News, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Dallas Morning News, New York Times (including the Op-Ed page), Washington Post, Reuters, National Public Radio, Guardian, and the BBC.

17. Just, et al., 1996, p. 176.

18. Bennett, 2008, p. 8.

19. Buskqvist, 2010, p. 208.

 

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Appendix: Essay questions

  • What are your main media sources for news and information? List your top three sources and briefly mention why you like them.
  • To shape your voting decision in the election, how will you start your search for information about the candidates? For example, if you want to know how candidates deal with specific issues (of your interest), how will you start your own search?
  • When you feel you want to know more about certain issues, what is the first thing you do, and how do you proceed?
  • Has your Internet use (e.g., conducting your own Google searches or visiting candidates’ or parties’ Web sites) made you more knowledgeable about politics? If so, describe your experience.

 


Editorial history

Received 2 June 2017; accepted 21 May 2018.


Copyright © 2018, Younei Soe. All Rights Reserved.

Understanding politics more thoroughly: How highly engaged young citizens use the Internet for civic knowledge integration
by Younei Soe.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 6 - 4 June 2018
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/7923/7419
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v23i6.7923





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