As of 2018, about forty percent of the global population has a least one social media account. In the United States alone, there are approximately 209 million social media users, about three quarters of the population. Being a relatively new phenomenon, the youngest generations are the most involved and frequent users of these sites. User’s motivation for creating an account can range from a desire to be better connected to friends or have an easy medium to see information. The consequences of social media have extended far beyond anything the creators of the sites could have imagined. For instance, the “Arab Spring” uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain were all deemed to be “Facebook and Twitter revolutions”. Social media provided an easy, unregulated, and efficient space for free speech and civic engagement. Citizens couldn’t see the same content on news channels and newspapers as they could on social media. Aside from the extreme example of revolts, many scholars argue that social media has completely changed the levels political engagement and social capital around the world.
For students at W&L, one way to make social media’s effect on politics more tangible is to look at local politics. Rockbridge country is a unique case study for local politics. The county is very much split between city and country, with Lexington residents being mostly far left and those living in the country being far right. What interests me in this project is seeing how these groups interact on social media, particularly Facebook.
Social Capital- the term referring to level at which a society connects and forms networks, allowing it to function at a higher level. Social Capital is broken into bonding and bridging capital.
Bonding Capital – The type of capital built between previously connected groups like churches, schools, coworkers, and neighbors.
Bridging Capital – The type of capital built between previously unconnected groups, fostered by brokers.
Brokers – The individual actors that work to create social bridging capital between previously unconnected groups.
Closure – Closure refers to the level to which these group achieve higher function.
Thresholds/Boundaries – The boundaries keeping separate groups from connecting and achieving social capital.
Low Effort Participation – Low effort forms of participation could be defined offline or online. An offline example could be putting a lawn sign in your front yard, while an online example might be sharing a politically charged article.
High Effort Participation – High effort participation could also be defined in offline or online examples. An offline example could be organizing a political rally or group, while an online example could be starting a political Facebook group.
Democratic Headquarters Interview
This week I had the chance to interview two of the main administrators of the local Democratic Headquarters of Lexington about their knowledge of local politics and social media’s role in it. Find the audio of the interview below:
There were several important takeaways from my conversation with Gene Zitver and Michele Watkins. I entered the conversation with the assumption that the town of Lexington was completely democratic, while the rest of the county was completely conservative. They pointed out that the midterm election in 2018 showed more of the county shifting democratic, possibly due to a reaction to Trump’s first two years in office. They also highlighted that Lexington was a unique rural town, due to the liberal influence of two education institutions.
Most importantly, we discussed the role of social media in Lexington and American politics. They commented that while social media did have a role in local politics, it was relatively limited in comparison to the rest of the country. Many citizens of Rockbridge still absorb political information though newspapers or political forums. Michele commented that during a push to increase voter turnout in the past midterm they increased their social media presence, and it did not have much effect. Michele and Gene explained this through explaining how the area was more old fashioned than most, and more than that many locals don’t have to the resources or knowledge to increase their online presence.
I then began to ask Michele and Gene about their personal opinions and history involving local politics and social media. Both saw a major future for the connection between social media and politics. Michele added that she has two children in middle school, so she knows how important the internet and social media is with the youngest generations. For now, they both agreed that the amount of political information and banter online can at times be overwhelming.
Find the link to the Lexington and Rockbridge Area Democratic official Facebook page here.
Republican Headquarters Interview
I also got the chance to interview Doug Smith of the Rockbridge Area Republican Committee at the Lexington Republican Headquarters. He also gave his knowledge of local politics and social media’s role in it – find the audio below:
While the interview with Mr. Smith was shorter than my first, he reinforced many of my initial impressions and gave a new perspective on Rockbridge politics. Mr. Smith agreed that the county is heavily republican while the town is mostly democratic. He did not seem to see any significance in mentioning that the midterm showed more democratic votes in the county than past elections.
The local Republicans arguably have a more reserved online presence, that being said there is plenty of activity on their main Facebook page. Mr. Smith said most information, if its spread online, is spread through Facebook or an email chain service “mail chimp”. While he agreed the role of social media is growing, most locals prefer direct, physical mail to any type of online interactions. He commented that he expects the connection between social media and politics to grow in the future of Rockbridge and around the country. He highlighted the value of fundraising online, something the Trump campaign did well.
When I asked Mr. Smith about his personal habits online, he said he does not have a Facebook account and tends to avoid social media in favor of other ways of political interaction. After the interview he commented that while he avoids it, his son worked in the social media branch of the Trump campaign. So there is a clear generation gap showing that social media will be much more relevant in the future of local and national politics.
Find the link the link to Rockbridge Area Republican Committee official Facebook page here.
Analysis and Conclusion
Analyzing the connection between social media and Rockbridge politics using the components of social capital will help us gain some more context on the subject. Both interviews showed that the political landscape of Rockbridge is relatively unique in comparison to the rest of the country. While the county showed more blue in the latest midterm election, there is a stark difference in political leaning of the town and the rest of the county.
What is most intriguing and relevant to this project is how this unique political landscape manifests online. Just as the rest of the country, citizens of Rockbridge engage in all levels of political participation. However the interviews suggest that Rockbridge still prefers offline participation. Rockbridge voters would still rather put out a lawn sign and attend a political forum than accomplish these same goals online. This applies to political information as well, most people here would rather read the newspaper rather than weave through the mess of political information online.
While there is plenty of social capital being built in the Lexington and Rockbridge area, there is less of it online in comparison to the rest of the country. Brokers, like Doug Smith, Michele Watkins, and Gene Zitver, facilitate the connections within the county that lead to social capital and ultimately closure. All parties agree that the world of political interaction is changing as the role of social media grows in our lives.
Sajuria, Javier, et al. “Tweeting Alone? An Analysis of Bridging and Bonding Social Capital in Online Networks.” American Politics Research, vol. 43, no. 4, 2014, pp. 708–738.
Ekström, Mats, and Adam Shehata. “Social Media, Porous Boundaries, and the Development of Online Political Engagement among Young Citizens.” New Media & Society, vol. 20, no. 2, 2016, pp. 740–759.
Header Image: Jess Daddio “48 Hours in Lexington, VA” Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine