DISSERTATION – Political participation on social media


Cato.pngOn 20 May 2022, Cato Waeterloos successfully defended her doctoral manuscript entitled “Political participation on social media: A multi-perspective inquiry into its occurrence, underlying mechanisms and associated political behaviours” to obtain a doctoral degree in Communication Sciences. A summary of her findings are listed below.

Political participation, broadly referring to citizens’ engagement in activities aimed at influencing government institutions, policies, or patterns of social behaviour, is a key aspect of a healthy democracy. Such behaviours can also occur online: think of sending an email to a politician or signing an online petition, which offer a low-cost alternative to their offline counterparts.  However, online participation increasingly takes place on social media platforms, where it is shaped by the unique characteristics of these digital networks, arguably creating an entirely new way of participating altogether. The forms in which these behaviours emerge are manifold, such as changing your profile picture to draw attention to a societal problem, sharing a petition with your Facebook friends, taking a stance on a political issue on Instagram, or using a political hashtag in your tweets. Over the past decade, increasing literature has come to recognize the relevance and distinct character of social media political participation. What makes these acts different from other types of political participation is their reliance on self-motivated expression and personalization, and the possibilities for mobilization and collective identity formation.

Despite the proliferation of user- and audience-based research on social media in communication sciences and the prominence of studies on citizen participation in political sciences, current understandings of citizens’ political uses of social media remain fairly limited. Because political participation on social media has rarely been studied as an independent mode of political participation, little is known about which different participatory behaviours exist on social media, how they can be explained and how they relate to other, offline forms of political participation.

In her dissertation, Cato Waeterloos set out to gain a more profound understanding of social media political participation by exploring (1) which different participatory behaviours exist on these platforms and how we can measure them in survey research, (2) how these behaviours can be explained and (3) how they are associated with other, offline forms of political participation. Through five different quantitative survey studies, Cato Waeterloos addressed these questions, drawing from both established political participation literature as well as scholarship on emerging citizenship norms and participation habits, new media affordances, local (online) community development, and communication mediation theory. Based on the results, several insights can be shared.

  • First, the findings of this dissertation indicate that social media political participation concerns a complex mode of political participation, consisting of different subtypes of behaviour. This more nuanced understanding of political participation on social media highlights the importance of paying attention to various ‘small acts of engagement’ within audience studies and acknowledging the particular affordances that shape them. Moreover, she found evidence for the fact that social media political participation is indeed a conceptually and empirically distinct mode of participation, when studied across different populations, contexts and platforms.


  • Second, the findings show that various cognitive processes that are usually associated with offline political participation (e.g., political interest, internal political efficacy, political grievances) also explain citizens’ engagement in social media political participation. Simultaneously, political participation on social media was also associated with particular cognitions that are specifically tailored to the social media context (e.g., psychological embeddedness in local online communities, belief in the political value of social media).


  • Third, she found that established communication mechanisms (i.e., news consumption and interpersonal political conversation) stimulate citizens’ engagement in social media political participation. We were also able to show that these mobilizing features remain, even when studied both in a multi-platform news environment (i.e., the importance of the presence and use of multiple media and technologies for news) and a localized media context (i.e., the role of online neighbourhood networks).


  • Finally, this research addressed the association between social media political participation and other, offline forms of participation. Not only did she find that social media participation often co-exists with offline participation, she also found evidence for the occurrence of online-only political participation. Similarly, across our studies, the mechanisms explaining social media participation were often similar to those of offline participation, while some unique pathways towards social media action were also uncovered (e.g., in terms of socio-demographics and platform-related cognitions). The latter suggests how social media might provide an additional political outlet for some citizens, who would otherwise refrain from taking action or might take longer to become mobilized.

In conclusion, Cato states that social media have given rise to a diverse and distinct set of participatory behaviours and have taken up an increasingly important role within current political participation habits, both complementing, diversifying and expanding citizens’ engagement in politics. Moreover, this dissertation has shed light on the mechanisms underlying social media political participation, with the results pointing to both the political nature of these behaviours (due to its association with established antecedents of offline political participation) and their unique, networked character (given its association with several cognitions and communication mechanisms tailored to the specific social media context).

Based on these findings, Cato suggests that policy makers acknowledge citizen participation emerging in these digital spaces and integrate them in a broader process of reconnecting citizens with their representatives. In addition, educational efforts could be made to integrate civic literacy with media literacy initiatives. Here, specific attention could be paid to stimulate critical evaluations of news and online content (i.e., news literacy), but also to encourage empowered and creative uses of digital media for political purposes. Finally, it is argued that policy makers should not be dismissive of what happens online, as these behaviours are rarely isolated from offline participation. Ignoring political participation and community formation in an online context might also pose a threat to current democracies, given the potential risks of online polarization.


This dissertation was funded by a Ghent University BOF Grant.

Read the dissertation here (only UGent network) or contact Cato Waeterloos.