A 2009 Pew Research Center study indicates that 10 percent of internet users ages 18 and older have used a social networking site for some sort of political or civic engagement. With just younger voters, 18 to 29, that number jumps to 37 percent.
Audio: Autumn Caviness' story for KUT News
That's not exactly a tidal wave of civic engagement. But Thor Lund, the University of Texas at Austin's student body president, says that for college students, it feels like marching in the streets.
“Social media is a huge tool to get people interested in things, and honestly, the biggest way to create interest — to spur the civic engagement — is numbers, people being involved,” Lund said. “So whether or not someone thinks it’s a civic engagement issue that they’re starting out and that they’re trying to do, when people get behind an idea, the power of people is amazing.”
And when you've got a full semester and an evening job, being able to click "like" before studying can make you feel engaged without taking up too much time.
“When we’re tabling and fliering, we let folks know, hey, like us on Facebook, even if you can’t come at every meeting, even if you can’t be there physically, at least be aware of what we’re doing,” said Huey Fischer, president of the University Democrats at UT. “So that way, when you do have time, when you can make a commitment, you’ll know what’s up.”
Morley Winograd, co-author of Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation Is Remaking America, views hitting the "like" button as comparable to putting up a traditional political yard sign. So when friends visit your Facebook page, as when dropping by your house, they'll see who and what you support.
Winograd says making these initial statements of support online can then lead to a stronger outward showing of support.
“Certainly there is that level of engagement at that point, but I think real engagement involves translating that online enthusiasm into offline activity," he said.
And with the Texas primaries less than two weeks away, these digital connections can remind people about civic engagement. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, has 1.6 million "likes" on Facebook. Rep. Ron Paul has more than 900,000. Supporters in Texas will likely get digital reminders to vote ahead of the May 29 primary.
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