Cheap talk: the gap between social media political engagement and voting

Joshua Wu, PhD
3 min readOct 7, 2020

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic shifted the majority of our social lives online, social media has been the arena where many Americans expressed their political activism, advocacy, and anger. But does social media politicking translate into the ultimate political outcome of voting? My analysis of data from the 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) reveals that many Americans engage in cheap talk, following, sharing, and discussing politics on social media, but then do not vote. And while online political activism and advocacy may be a necessary and important part of the political process, it is not sufficient if it does not then translate into the necessary act of voting.

1. Americans more engaged in politics on social media than traditional advocacy or voting. In 2018, nearly 6 in 10 (59%) of Americans read, follow, share, comment, or post about politics on social media. By contrast, less than 4 in 10 (36%) were involved in traditional political advocacy such as attending a local political meeting, putting up a political sign, working for a candidate, attending political protests, contacting public official, or donating money to a political candidate. But while turnout was historically high for a mid-term election in the modern era, as more than half of Americans voted (52%), Americans are still more likely to engage in politics virtually than at the ballot box.

2. Social media politicking does not predict voting. But social media political engagement does not seem to affect likelihood to vote. 51% of Americans who do not engage politics on social media voted while 52% of Americans who engage politically on social media voted. The social media “bump” of 1 percentage point reveals the weak effect of social media political engagement on voting.

3. Engaging in traditional political advocacy does significantly predict voting. By contrast, participating in traditional political advocacy is a significant predictor on voting. While only 41% of Americans who do not engage in political advocacy voted, more than 7 in 10 (71%) of Americans who engaged in traditional political advocacy voted. In other words, Americans who attend a local political meeting, put up a political sign, work for a candidate, attend political protests, contact public official, or donate money to a political candidate are nearly two times more likely to vote than someone who does none of these.

4. Younger Americans most likely to engage politically on social media are least likely to vote. The disparity between social media political engagement and voting is most evident in Americans 18–34 years old. While 70% engage politically on social media, less than 3 in 10 (29%) vote. By contrast, while less than 1 in 2 (49%) older Americans 55 years or older engage politics on social media, they are most likely to vote as more than 7 in 10 (71%) vote.

5. Democrats are more likely to be politically engaged but less likely to vote. Democrats are more politically active on social media and traditional political advocacy than Republicans. However, though more than 6 in 10 (63%) of Democrats engage politics on social media and 4 in 10 (40%) engage in traditional advocacy, they are less likely to vote (56%) than Republicans (58%) who are less politically active. Independents are the least politically active on social media, least likely to engage in political advocacy, and also least likely to vote. Thus, online political engagement, while important, must also translate into voting for enthusiasm to lead to desired electoral outcomes.