Social media and political communication in the United States

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The emergence of social media has changed the way in which political communication takes place in the United States. Political institutions such as politicians, political parties, foundations, institutions, and political think tanks are all using social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, to communicate with and engage voters. Regular individuals, politicians, "pundits" and thought leaders alike are able to voice their opinions, engage with a wide network, and connect with other likeminded individuals.[1] The active participation of social media users has been an increasingly important element in political communication, especially during political elections in the 2000s.[2] From 2010 to 2014, there was a 15% increase in the number of Americans who use their cellphones to follow political campaigns and/or campaign coverage and that number continues to grow today.[3]

Social media is changing the nature of political communication because they are tools that can be used to inform and mobilize users in new ways. Users are able to connect directly to politicians and campaign managers and engage in political activities in new ways. Each social media platform is programmed in code by developers, creating a unique digital architecture that influences how politicians and citizens can use the platform for political ends.[4] For example, by simply pressing the "like button" on Facebook or by following someone on Twitter, users have the ability to connect with others and express their views in new ways. The option for users to share, like, or retweet political messages instantly has opened up a new avenue for politicians to reach out to voters. At the same time, social media campaigns can carry risks that are not present on traditional platforms, such as TV or newspaper ads. Whereas the political party controls all of the messaging on a TV or newspaper ad, in a social media campaign, critics and opposing party supporters can post negative comments immediately below campaign messages.

Politicians have a platform to communicate with that is different from the mainstream media. Politicians have the ability to raise large amounts of money in relatively short periods of time through social media campaigns. One in five adult Twitter users in the United States follow President Trump’s Twitter account.[5]  President Obama has 26% of adult Twitter accounts following him.[5]  In 2012 President Obama raised over a billion dollars for his campaign, which broke the fundraising record. Around $690 million was raised through online donations including social media, email, and website donations and more money was raised from small donors than ever before.[5]

Influence on elections[edit]

Early history[edit]

Democrat Howard Dean is credited with being the first politician to use the Internet for political purposes.[6] Dean served as the Governor of Vermont from 1991 to 2003 and decided to run for president for the 2004 election. Dean is credited with organizing the first campaign website, acting as a virtual headquarters for fundraising and volunteer recruitment.[7] Dean’s website had a number of online metrics of success including the hits on his homepage, weblogs, campaign sign-ups, house parties and meet ups.[8] Dean’s supporters hosted house parties and invited individuals to learn about Dean’s campaign. Dean also encouraged use of the website Meetup for his upstart presidential campaign in 2002, making it easy for people "with a common interest to find each other and arrange to meet, face to face".[9] Individuals would attend face-to-face meetings to learn more about his campaign.[10] The number of people coming out to Dean's Meetups in 600 location across the country ultimately reached about 143,000.[9] About 75,000 individuals attended these meet-ups and more than 96% of respondents reported that they wished to become actively involved in Dean's campaign. The engagement in face-to-face local groups "dramatically affected how involved volunteers got with the campaign. The more Meetups people attended, the higher their average donation to the campaign".[9]

Dean won a "digital" primary election that was held on with 44% of the votes. His success in the primary generated positive coverage by the news media. This early victory was important to the momentum of the campaign. Dean's campaign was able to raise large amounts of money in small increments. In January 2004, his campaign had raised $41 million from supporters mostly online. A total of 318,884 individuals contributed to his campaign, with over 61% of the contributions under $200. Less than 1% of individuals gave $2,000, which was the federal limit.[11] Dean's fundraising behavior was opposite of his rivals. George Bush raised $130.8 million in 2003 and 68% of his donations were the maximum donation limit.[12]

Political Origins of Facebook[edit]

Facebook is a place where people can freely interact with each other. "This means, for example, on Facebook, an individual creates multimedia content like a video on the cognitive level", which allows for mass interaction between hundreds of people.[13] This free interaction between people on Facebook allowed the use of social media by political figures to help promote their own ideals. The creator of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, served as a field organizer for Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.[14] Zuckerberg was responsible for Get out the vote and mobilization efforts. Facebook was launched the same year. The Facebook Platform relies on group formation and constant communication, both of which are goals for any political campaign.[14] Chris Hughes, a founding member and developer at Facebook, left the company to work as an adviser for President Barack Obama. While working at Facebook, Hughes designed a Facebook profile for the then presidential candidate. Following his departure, Hughes worked on Obama's Facebook page and utilized his knowledge of content management and new developments to outpace other candidates in relation to their online presence.[15] Hughes created the website which had a similar layout and concept as Facebook.[14] In the 2008 elections Facebook was used by candidates. The main user during this election was former president Obama. The other user Mitt Romney used Facebook as well for his campaign, but not as much as Obama had. It is reported that well over 1,000 groups on Facebook were created supporting one of the two sides.[16] In recent years, political figures have been using Twitter more often, but Facebook still remains to be a much used social media platform.

2008 Presidential Election[edit]

The 2008 presidential election was the first election in which candidates utilized the Internet and social media as a tool for their campaigns. Nearly three quarters of internet users went online to learn about the candidates in the election; this equates to 55% of the entire adult population.[17] Then President-elect Barack Obama was the first to use the Internet to organize supporters, advertise, and communicate with individuals in a way that had been impossible in previous elections. Obama utilized sites like YouTube to advertise through videos. The videos posted on YouTube by Obama were viewed for 14.5 million hours.[17] Obama led McCain voters in all categories of online political activism, which is considered by some to be a major factor in his victory.[17]

Young voters are much more active in online politics.  30% of all those who posted political content online were under the age of 25.[18]  66% of that same demographic voted for Obama while 33% voted for McCain, showing that Obama's prominence in online politics greatly increased his chances of winning.[18]

In the aggregate, the Democratic websites got more views than the Republican websites (at least in the primaries).  This was due in part to the younger voters being more inclined to be in favor of the Democratic candidate as well as being more likely to go on the internet and research or show support for a candidate.[19]

2012 Presidential Election[edit]

By the 2012 election more candidates were utilizing a wider array of social media platforms.[20] Politicians were now on social networking sites like Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other new social media tools and mobile apps. Some of the candidates used social media sites to announce their candidacy. Barack Obama emailed a video to 13 million when he announced his intention to run for re-election and Mitt Romney sent out a tweet.[20] Obama produced a seventeen-minute long video, composed of video clips and interviews that documented Obama's first term in the office. This video was published on YouTube, allowing the audience to contribute to the campaign by donating without having to leave the website. This efficiency and convenience was the key point to further extend his fundraising target. This target would not have been achieved without the existence of YouTube, as sharing the link would have been more challenging. The campaign also heavily relied on social media sharing the video that included the donation link aiding in the fundraising.[21] Other candidates posted on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to announce their candidacy.

Each candidate ran their campaigns with more of an emphasis on the internet.  Obama and Romney each hired third party companies to pull, track, and analyze data from their websites.  This data drove them each to spend nearly $100,000 on online advertisements (Obama spent $93,400 and Romney spent $82,200).[22]  Though these numbers are close, in the aggregate, Obama spent more than Romney did on digital campaigns by a factor of ten. Romney spent $4.7 million and Obama spent $47 million.[23]

There is a clear difference between the Obama and Romney campaign's presence on social media throughout the 2012 campaign. In October 2012, President Obama had over 20 million followers on Twitter and Romney had 1.2 million. On Facebook Obama had over 29 million likes on his page and Romney had 7.9 million. On Instagram Obama had 1.4 million followers and Romney had 38,000 followers. President Obama had higher followers on all of his other social media accounts including Spotify, Pinterest, and YouTube,[24] though research suggests merely following Obama or Romney on social media sites such as Facebook may have had little influence on voter behaviors.[25] President Obama also utilized his social media accounts more than any other candidate online.[26] He actively posted more on Twitter, YouTube and on his personal website blog.

President Obama's campaign thrived on online donations in both 2008 and 2012. In 2008 3.95 million people donated to president Obama's campaign.[27] That number reached 4.4 million people during his 2012 campaign. The total online donation also rose from $500 million in 2008 to $690 million in 2012.[27]

Political figures can use social media to accomplish tasks such as raising donations for their campaign. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie tweeted his support for Barack Obama in the 2012 election. He, at the time, boasted an 80% approval rating which led voters who were on the fence to support President Obama.[28]

2016 Presidential campaign[edit]

The presidential elections of 2016 saw heavy use of social media across all candidates. The main three candidates were Donald Trump (Republican), Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton (Democrats). Research reports that, " In January 2016, 44% of U.S. adults reported having learned about the 2016 presidential election." [29] At this point, social media was being heavily used across all platforms including YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Specifically in the 2016 elections, Twitter was the main source which Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the 2 potential presidents, used to convey various things. Several reports and statistics show that several people received information about the election via social media.[29] Roughly, "24% say they have turned to the social media posts" for information regarding the election.[29]  All presidential candidates used social media in a different way. While Trump's posts focused on links to news sources, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders focused on "highlighting official campaign communities." [29] During the campaigns of these main 3 candidates, Trump had a lot more response from users compared to the two democratic candidates. This is most likely due to the fact that Trump already had more followers at the beginning of the campaign. This election showed that several strategies could be used with social media. This is reflected in Trump's, Clinton's, and Sanders' use of social media. On Twitter, Trump mainly retweeted tweets from the general public, and Clinton and Sanders mainly retweeted tweets about their own campaign.[29]  The main two rivals of the campaign, Trump and Clinton, made several tweets directly talking about each other, Clinton used the @ feature of Twitter linking users to Trump's page. Trump referred to Hillary Clinton several times, but he almost never used the @ feature.[29]  You can see that Trump's main focus in his campaign on Twitter was the media such as Fox news or New York Times. On the other hand, Clinton and Sanders mainly focused on their own campaign. Another part of the strategy used by the Democratic side, Clinton and Sanders, is that some of their posts in Spanish.[29]  These two candidates had a focus on reaching out to the minority community which is reflected in these posts in Spanish. Donald Trump did not make any posts in Spanish. The use of videos on Twitter were used in different ways in the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders mostly posted videos sponsoring their own campaign while Donald Trump posted videos related to news media (a very common theme in the candidates' strategies).[29]

Overall, Donald Trump (Republican) focused his strategy in social media in news media. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton (Democrats) focused their social media strategy on promoting themselves. Social media such as Twitter continues being used by politicians today, and continues to grow more popularity in American politics.

Limitations and constraints[edit]

Social media has been used in political campaigns ranging from small local elections to larger-scale presidential elections. According to Wael Ghonim, social media can reinforce pre-existing beliefs rather than promote new ones. While social media can be used to raise donations, several candidates focused on using it to promote their own campaign.[30] Politicians cannot control the conversation in social media. According to a study by Miguel del Fresno García, Alan J. Daly, and Sagrario Segado Sánchez-Cabezudo, regular friends and followers hold high levels of influence on social media, instead of blogs and campaign pages. Users with the most influence over social media fall into three different categories: users who disseminate knowledge, those who engage other people, and those who lead conversations. These three types of users are the ones who others tend to follow and listen to through social media. Therefore, for political campaigns to truly reach as many people as possible, political groups first need to get those three users talking about their campaigns on social media.[31] However, despite the many ways that social media can be utilized in political campaigns, many U.S. social media users claim that they are drained by the influx of political content in their feed.[32]

People worry that too much use of social media might cause less policy making in government. Instead of doing things such as making new laws, presidents might focys too much attention on social media to try to win over more supporters.[33]


Scandals have been a part of the American political system since its inception (see List of federal political scandals in the United States). Political scandals are events that capture a lot of attention and eventually disappear over and are the source of intense public communication. The media has been heavily involved in reporting the scandals that have happened in the past. In recent decades there have been an increased number of scandals relating to the Internet and social media.[34] The first political scandal related to social media has been the demise of Congressman Anthony Weiner in 2011. Weiner, a Democrat from New York, sent a link of a suggestive photograph to a woman on his public Twitter account. The tweet and picture were then sent to Andrew Breitbart , a conservative blogger, who posted them to his website before Weiner had a chance to take the tweet down.[35] Within days the Anthony Weiner incident became national news. The scandal, nicknamed Weinergate, is considered to be the first sex scandal on social media involving a politician.[36]

Other political scandals have emerged as a result of social media. Joe Miller a Senate candidate from Alaska tweeted about decorating his office prior to any announcement that he had won the race. Miller deleted the tweets, but not before a blogger was able to screen shot them. Miller eventually lost the election.[37] Meg Whitman a Republican candidate in California was embarrassed following a tweet sent out by her press secretary that included a YouTube video of a cross-dressed musician. Whitman lost the election to Jerry Brown.[37] Pete Hoekstra, a Michigan Congressman, got into trouble after tweeting throughout a trip to Iraq, in which he breached security by posting confidential details about the visit.[34] Politicians have become more vulnerable to scandals due to their lives becoming more public on social media.[38] Political scandals are shifting from illegal or corrupt activities towards personal missteps no longer about illegal or corrupt activities.[34] On October 26, 2018 social network Facebook announced that it has deleted 82 accounts created in Iran that included posts advocating harsh issues such as race, immigration, and U.S. President Donald Trump, just before U.S. congressional elections on November 6.[39]

One of the political scandals of Trump's presidency was the Russian interference in the election through social media.[40] There is broad agreement that Russians working for the Internet Research Agency used a variety of social media platforms to try and have an influence on the elections.[40]

The impacts of the social media scandals can be seen in the polarization of the country on this issue.  90% of Democrats were reported to have no confidence in Trump being able to handle the investigation of Russia effectively, whereas only 23% of Republicans were reported to have no confidence in Trump being able to do so.[41]  On the other hand, 36% of Republicans said that the Mueller investigation is important whereas 87% of Democrats said that it is important.[42]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kearney, Michael (2013). Political Discussion on Facebook: An Analysis of Interpersonal Goals and Disagreement (Thesis). University of Kansas. hdl:1808/12975. Cite has empty unknown parameter: |1= (help)
  2. ^ Eli Skogerbø & Arne H. Krumsvik, "Newspapers, Facebook and Twitter: Intermedial agenda setting in local election campaigns," Journalism Practice (2015) 9#3 DOI:10.1080/17512786.2014.950471
  3. ^ Smith, Aaron (2014-11-03). "Cell Phones, Social Media and Campaign 2014". Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. Retrieved 2019-09-25.
  4. ^ Bossetta, Michael (March 2018). "The Digital Architectures of Social Media: Comparing Political Campaigning on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat in the 2016 U.S. Election". Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. 95 (2): 471–496. doi:10.1177/1077699018763307.
  5. ^ a b c "Can Trump handle Mueller probe appropriately? Most in US not confident". Pew Research Center. Retrieved 2019-10-29.
  6. ^ Leuschner, Katy. "The Use of the Internet and Social Media in U.S. Presidential Campaigns: 1992-2012". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  7. ^ Hindman, Matthew. “The Real Lessons of Howard Dean: Reflections on the First Digital Campaign.” Perspectives on Politics, 2005, p.121-128.
  8. ^ Rospars, Joe. “How Howard Dean’s Scream Helped Obama Land The Presidency.” Time Magazine. July 1, 2014.
  9. ^ a b c Sifry, Micah. "From Howard Dean to the tea party: The power of". CNN. Cable News Network. Retrieved 17 December 2016.
  10. ^ Cornfield, Michael. “The Internet and Campaign: A Look Back at the Campaigners”. Pew Research Center, 2005, p. 2
  11. ^ "Contribution Limits for 2003-2004". FEC.
  12. ^ Justice, Glen. “Campaign Fund-Raising; Financial Firms are Bush’s Biggest Donors, Study Reports.”The New York Times. January 9, 2004.
  13. ^ Fuchs, Christian; Trottier, Daniel (2015-01-01). "Towards a theoretical model of social media surveillance in contemporary society" (PDF). Communications. 40 (1). doi:10.1515/commun-2014-0029. ISSN 1613-4087. S2CID 151988747.
  14. ^ a b c Slotnick, Allison. “Friend the President”. 2008.
  15. ^ McGirt, Ellen. “How Chris Hughes helped launch Facebook and the Barack Obama Campaign.” Fast Company Magazine. April 2009.
  16. ^ "Facebook | Overview, History, & Facts". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2020-02-19.
  17. ^ a b c "19% of U.S. adults on Twitter follow Trump". Pew Research Center. Retrieved 2019-10-29.
  18. ^ a b "The Internet's Role in Campaign 2008". Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. 2009-04-15. Retrieved 2019-10-29.
  19. ^ "Social Media's Role in Politics". USC.
  20. ^ a b Fouhy, Beth. “Elections 2012: The Social Network, Presidential Campaign Edition.” Huffington Post. April 17, 2011
  21. ^ Ricke; LaChrystal, D. (2014). The impact of Youtube on U.S. politics. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books. pp. 36–37. ISBN 9780739183496. Retrieved 9 November 2019.
  22. ^ Payne, Ashley (2009). "The New Campaign: Social Networking Sites in the 2008 Presidential Election" (PDF). S2CID 150577210. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  23. ^ Dalton-Hoffman, Maggie. "The Effect of Social Media in the 2012 Presidential Election".
  24. ^ Wortham, Jenna. “The Presidential Campaign on Social Media.” The New York Times. October 8, 2012.
  25. ^ Pennington, Natalie; Winfrey, Kelly; Warner, Benjamin; Kearney, Michael (2015). "Liking Obama and Romney (on Facebook): An experimental evaluation of political engagement and efficacy during the 2012 general election". Computers in Human Behavior. 44: 279–283. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.11.032.
  26. ^ “How the Presidential Candidates Use the Web and Social Media: Obama Leads but Neither Candidate Engages in Much Dialogue with Voters.” Pew Research Center Journalism & Media. August 15, 2012 http://
  27. ^ a b Scherer, Michael. “Exclusive: Obama’s 2012 Digital Fundraising Outperformed 2008.” Time. November 15, 2012.
  28. ^ Smith, Shay. "Limitations on the Media and its Effects On the Political Process" (PDF).
  29. ^ a b c d e f g h "2016 presidential candidates differ in their use of social media to connect with the public". Pew Research Center's Journalism Project. 2016-07-18. Retrieved 2020-02-19.
  30. ^ Baumgarten, Matthew (3 February 2016). "Part One: Social Media's Influence on War & the Political Mind". WDTV. Retrieved 29 February 2016.
  31. ^ Garcia, Miguel Del Fresno; et al. (2016). "Identifying the New Influences in the Internet Era: Social Media and Social Network Analysis". Reis Revista Española de Investigaciones Sociológicas.
  32. ^ "55% of U.S. social media users say they are 'worn out' by political posts and discussions". Pew Research Center. Retrieved 2020-09-23.
  33. ^ Eilperin, Juliet. "Here's how the first president of the social media age has chosen to connect with Americans". The Washington Post. Retrieved 17 December 2016.
  34. ^ a b c Arsenault, Amelia. “Scandal Politics in the New Media Environment” Analytical Note: Scandal Politics Review. 2008.
  35. ^ Altman, Alex. “Weinergate: Anatomy of Social Media Scandal” Time. May 31, 2011.
  36. ^ Bradley, William. “Weinergate’s Lasting Impact: The First Big Social Media Political Sex Scandal.” Huffington Post. June 7, 2011.
  37. ^ a b Bosker, Bianca. “The Most Embarrassing Politician Twitter Scandals.” The Huffington Post. August 3, 2011.
  38. ^ Lunt and Livingstone. Media and Communications Regulation & The Public Interest. Sage Publication. April 4, 2011
  39. ^ "Facebook Deletes Iran-Linked Accounts Followed By 1 Million In U.S., Britain". RFE/RL.
  40. ^ a b "How Obama Won the Social Media Battle in the 2012 Presidential Campaign". Retrieved 2019-10-29.
  41. ^ "Senate Report: Russians Used Social Media Mostly To Target Race In 2016". Retrieved 2019-10-29.
  42. ^ "Views turn more partisan on Mueller investigation, Trump's handling of it". Pew Research Center. Retrieved 2019-10-29.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bennett, W. L. (2012). The personalization of politics political identity, social media, and changing patterns of participation. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 644(1), 20–39.
  • Bimber, Bruce, et al. (2015) "Digital Media and Political Participation The Moderating Role of Political Interest Across Acts and Over Time." Social Science Computer Review 33#1 (2015): 21–42.
  • DiGrazia, J., McKelvey, K., Bollen, J., & Rojas, F. (2013). More tweets, more votes: Social media as a quantitative indicator of political behavior. PLoS ONE, 8(11), e79449.
  • Gil de Zúñiga, H., Molyneux, L., & Zheng, P. (2014). Social media, political expression, and political participation: Panel analysis of lagged and concurrent relationships. Journal of Communication, 64(4), 612–634.
  • Graber, D. A., & Dunaway, J. (2014). Mass media and American politics. CQ Press.
  • Halpern, D., & Gibbs, J. (2013). Social media as a catalyst for online deliberation? Exploring the affordances of Facebook and YouTube for political expression. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(3), 1159–1168.
  • Hendricks, John Allen & Lynda Lee Kaid (Eds.), "Techno politics in presidential campaigning: New voices, new technologies, and new voters. (Routledge, 2010).
  • Himelboim, I., Lariscy, R. W., Tinkham, S. F., & Sweetser, K. D. (2012). Social media and online political communication: The role of interpersonal informational trust and openness. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 56(1), 92-115.
  • Hinson, M. D. (2012). Examining how social and emerging media have been used in public relations between 2006 and 2012: A longitudinal analysis. Public Relations Review.
  • Klinger, U., & Svensson, J. (2014). The emergence of network media logic in political communication: A theoretical approach. new media & society, 1461444814522952.
  • McChesney, Robert W. (2015) Rich media, poor democracy: Communication politics in dubious times (New Press, 2015), A critique from the left
  • Pennington, N., Winfrey, K.L., Warner, B.R., and Kearney, M.W. (2015). Liking Obama and Romney (on Facebook): An experimental evaluation of political engagement and efficacy during the 2012 general election. Computers in Human Behavior, 44, 279-283. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2014.11.032
  • Rubenzer, Trevor. "Social Media Foreign Policy: Examining the Political Use of Social Media by Ethnic Identity Groups in the United States." Politics (2015).
  • Shirky, Clay. (2011) "The political power of social media." Foreign affairs 90#1 (2011): 28–41.
  • Sobkowicz, P., Kaschesky, M., & Bouchard, G. (2012). Opinion mining in social media: Modeling, simulating, and forecasting political opinions in the web. Government Information Quarterly, 29(4), 470–479.
  • Stieglitz, S., & Dang-Xuan, L. (2012, January). Political communication and influence through microblogging—An empirical analysis of sentiment in Twitter messages and retweet behavior. In System Science (HICSS), 2012 45th Hawaii International Conference on (pp. 3500-3509). IEEE.
  • Stieglitz, S., & Dang-Xuan, L. (2013). Social media and political communication: a social media analytics framework. Social Network Analysis and Mining, 3(4), 1277–1291.
  • Stromer-Galley, J. (2019). Presidential campaigning in the internet age. Oxford University Press.
  • Vromen, A., Xenos, M. A., & Loader, B. (2015). Young people, social media and connective action: from organisational maintenance to everyday political talk. Journal of Youth Studies, 18(1), 80-100.
  • West, D. M. (2013). Air Wars: Television Advertising and Social Media in Election Campaigns, 1952–2012. Sage.
  • Wolfsfeld, G., Segev, E., & Sheafer, T. (2013). Social media and the Arab Spring politics comes first. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 18(2), 115–137.
  • Xenos, Michael, Ariadne Vromen, and Brian D. Loader. (2015) "The great equalizer? Patterns of social media use and youth political engagement in three advanced democracies." Information, Communication & Society 17#.2 (2014): 151–167. Covers United States, United Kingdom, and Australia
  • Yamamoto, M., Kushin, M. J., & Dalisay, F. (2013). Social media and mobiles as political mobilization forces for young adults: Examining the moderating role of online political expression in political participation. New Media & Society, 1461444813518390.