Meet Rebecca Yu. Not only did she just graduate from the University of Michigan, earning a Ph.D. in Communication Studies, but she recently completed a stellar dissertation. Even the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication agreed. Their Political Communication Interest Group (PCIG) division, whose “mission is to explore the interplay between communication and politics,” awarded her the Top Student Paper Award (PCIG). In other words, the award is a big honor.
Yu has always been fascinated by organized political action, such as the Arab Spring, and how social media is used as a tool in which to do so. Not surprisingly, her dissertation reflects this interest of hers. Her paper, “When the personal becomes the political: The relationship between passive and active non-political and political social media use,” seeks to understand the implications of social media use for political engagement.
Yu found that prior research on social media and political engagement often focused on the idea that people purposefully utilize social media for certain outcomes. “It’s based more on uses and gratifications,” she explained. “Most research focuses on how political and informational social media uses influence political outcomes.” While Yu recognized that most people do not use social media for solely political purposes, it is likely that political engagement may arise from everyday, non-political social media use.
Yu elaborated, “Research shows that we want to use Facebook and Twitter for personal matters: to consume entertainment information, to connect with friends, family, and other social ties. Thus, my argument is that when we consume entertaining and personal information on social media, we are likely to be exposed to all kinds of information, including political information.” Yu characterizes this exposure to political information as incidental.
At the same time, as people actively generate content about private interests, they are more likely to express their political views when opportunities arise. So, do people use social media to pursue their political interests? Absolutely. Most people use it for their personal purposes, but as Yu discovered, that can be extended to the political realm.
For example, in 2013 the Human Rights Campaign launched a pro-gay-marriage movement that went viral on Facebook. As a symbol of support, 2.77 million Facebook users changed their profile picture to an equal sign. Referencing this example, Yu believes that when individuals witness other people taking political stances on social media, they may grasp a better understanding of the issue. Thus, this political engagement online may be a way for those typically deemed “not interested” in politics to be exposed or even compelled to engage in political issues.
Yu noted that the research for her dissertation would not have been possible without the “amazing” and “supportive” community of the Department of Communication Studies. She praised advisors and professors for providing insightful comments regarding the direction of her research and pointing out possibilities she may have overlooked. Yu humbly remarked, “When we see an award we see this person spotlighted as if it’s all about her or all about him. But actually, I don’t think so. It’s a team. It’s a whole village behind this person. It’s about the support, not only just financial, but emotional support from the college and department. They’re all behind it.”
Rebecca Yu recently graduated from the University of Michigan and will be presenting her award winning work at AEJMC’s conference in San Francisco this August.
“About.” AEJMC RSS. AEJMC, 12 Nov. 2009. Web. 11 June 2015.
Chokshi, Niraj. “Facebook Breaks down the Geography of a Viral Pro-gay-marriage Campaign.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 10 Dec. 2013. Web. 11 June 2015.