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So Much for "Slacktivism": Youth Translate Online Engagement to Offline Political Action

Our pre-election poll finds that young people who engage in political activity online are also more likely to engage in person.

Young people have often been labeled as “disinterested” or “disengaged” from the political process. While part of this criticism comes from lower voting rates among youth, some of it stems from the ways that youth choose to engage politically. With a broad uptake of social technologies among young people came the ability to easily express their political identities in digital spaces. Social media especially allows for young people to easily support, promote, and engage in causes of interest. Some have termed this type of engagement “slacktivism” with the idea that supporting a campaign or a politician online doesn’t count as “true” activism. That framing never told the whole story about Millennials’ political engagement, and our poll finds that it’s even less true for a younger generation that is increasingly taking to the streets, engaging in other forms of “offline” political activities, and connecting their activism to voting.

Our data show that young people, ages 18-24, are now three times as likely to have attended a demonstration or march than in 2016—5% then, 15% now—and other types of engagement, like signing a petition, are also up from two years ago. Young Democrats are more than twice as likely to have engaged in offline activism as young Republicans: 37% vs. 14%. Youth who signed a petition (online or offline), and youth who followed a candidate or campaign on social media, were about three times more likely to attend a protest or engage in other forms of offline activism as those who did not. And that engagement is leading people to the ballot box: more than half (51%) of youth who have participated in offline activism say they are “extremely” likely to vote, compared to less than a third (30%) of youth who have not participated.

On the March: Number of Youth who Protest has Tripled since 2016

Across all of the indicators of political engagement we measured, youth activism has increased since the 2016 elections. Most striking, however, was the increase in offline political activism from two years ago to today. Nearly one fourth (22%) of all youth in our current poll say they have engaged in at least one form of offline activism such as attending a march, sitting in or occupying a place as an act of civil disobedience, walking out of school or college to make a statement, or participating in a union strike. In 2016, the top three political actions taken by youth were signing a petition (which for many now happens online), following a candidate or campaign on social media, and displaying a sticker or sign supporting a candidate. In 2018, the top two actions remained the same; however, displaying a sticker or a sign was replaced with attending a demonstration or march. In fact, the percentage of youth saying they attended a demonstration or march has tripled since 2016, from 5% to 15%. Now, the percentage of youth who have attended a demonstration or march is about the same as the percentage who said they followed a politician or campaign on social media in 2016. This is a fairly remarkable increase, since following a Facebook page or Twitter account takes a few seconds and one mouse click, while going to a protest demonstrates a substantial commitment of time and energy.


Our data also suggest that, not only are forms of political engagement traditionally labeled as “passive” giving way to more direct activism, but that there is a strong relationship between both types of civic participation. Youth who signed a petition were more three times as likely to have engaged in at least one form of offline activism (35%) as those who had not signed a petition (11%). Following a candidate or campaign on social media, the second most common form of activism among youth, which is often seen as a prototypical example of slacktivism, is related  to more active forms of engagement: youth who followed a candidate or a campaign on social media were almost three times more likely to engage in at least one form of offline activism (43%) as those who did not follow a campaign (16%).

These findings suggest that we should not be quite as dismissive of so-called slacktivism, which can serve as an entry point to political expression and engagement for youth and either lead to or complement more direct forms of civic and political activism. They also highlight the importance—as we have previously noted—of giving youth multiple pathways and opportunities to engage, online and off, that can be mutually reinforcing as young people build a political identity and strive to make a difference on issues they care about.

From the Streets to the Polls: More Likely to March = More Likely to Vote

The impact of this online to offline activism pathway does not seem limited to demonstrations. As we reported in the first post about our poll, youth overall indicate a likelihood to vote in the 2018 midterms at unusually high levels approaching those of a presidential election. That intent to to vote is even higher among activist youth: we found that youth who engaged in at least one form of offline activism were significantly more like to say that they were “extremely” likely to vote in the midterms (51%) than those who did not engage in at least one form of offline activism (30%). These results parallel our finding that youth actively engaged in the post-Parkland movement for gun violence prevention are significantly more likely to vote. That movement is notable because it has been largely led by young people in our poll’s age group (18-24) and because, unlike some other recent activist campaigns, it has explicitly encouraged electoral participation and incorporated voter registration as a critical strategy.

Engaging in activism is also connected to electoral politics in one additional way: party identification. Youth registered as Democrats were more than twice as likely to engage in at least one form of offline activism (37%) as Republicans (14%) and Independents (15%). While it’s in many ways natural for there to be more activist energy among members of the party that does not currently hold political power, we also find that—perhaps counterintuitively—the likelihood to engage in activism is also strongly related to cynicism about politics. Overall, 60% of youth in our poll report that they are feeling more cynical about politics than they were two years ago, with a larger percentage of Democrats (73%) than Republicans (55%) and Independents (53%) feeling more cynical. However, as we discussed when reporting that young people who are more cynical about politics are actually more likely to say they’ll vote, young people’s cynicism appears to be drawing them toward political engagement instead of away from it. The same holds true for activism: a significantly higher percentage of youth who reported being more cynical engaged in offline activism (28%) than those who were less cynical (14%).

The Campus Connection: College Students Report Higher Levels of Activism

Interestingly, while we found significant differences by race and ethnicity on which party they intend to support in the upcoming midterms, there are no such differences when it comes to activism. Black (25%) and Latino (23%) youth were about equally likely to engage in offline activism as white youth (23%). But we did find that, as most previous civic engagement research has shown, college education is associated with higher levels of participation. That said, because our survey followed 18 to 24-year-olds, most of whom have not completed their planned education, we explored how access to environments that provide opportunities for political engagement can promote activism.

Our data find that youth who were full-time undergraduate students at either a community or four-year college were more likely to have engaged in both offline and online activism. For example, 28% youth who are enrolled full-time reported engaging in protests or others forms of offline activism, while only 19% of those not enrolled in college full time said the same. In terms of online activism, 27% of full-time students reported following a candidate or campaign on social media (compared to 20% of those who aren’t full-time students), while 56% reported signing a petition (compared to 42% who aren’t full-time students). As with all youth in our poll, college students’ activism relates to action at the ballot box: 39% of those who are enrolled full-time say they are extremely likely to vote in the midterms, compared with 31% of those who aren’t enrolled in college full-time.

These findings underscore the value of schools and colleges as spaces for civic education that encourage engagement and activism. Youth-focused voter engagement efforts often happen on and near college campuses, some of which are initiated by universities while others are efforts by outside groups such as well-funded campaigns. These activities often include dialogue sessions, guest speakers, voter registration drives, and debate watch parties. Furthermore, colleges and universities are frequently the centers of student activism, some of which may be focused on internal issues within their institution while others are responses to national movements that call for walkouts and sit-ins—and even the physical layout of many campuses provides effective, centralized locations for activism. All of these elements combine to create myriad opportunities for political engagement on campus, and students who are enrolled full time in community and four-year colleges can meet and join politically active peers who can further encourage their activism. As we explored in our previous post, seeing other young people talk about and act on issues can be a strong motivating factor for youth to get involved.

About our 2018 Pre-Election Poll

The survey of young people, ages 18-24, was developed by CIRCLE at Tufts University. The polling firm GfK, which collected the data from their nationally representative panel of respondents between September 5 and September 26, 2018. The study surveyed a total of 2,087 people aged 18 to 24 in the United States, with representative over-samples of Black and Latino youth, and of 18- to 21-year-olds. The margin of error is +/- 2.1 percentage points. Unless mentioned otherwise, data above are for all the 18 to 24-year-olds in our sample.