Social media and social capital

Today, my GOV 336 class talked about trust in government and social capital. We specifically discussed Robert Putnam’s famous Bowling Alone book. He argues that participation in voluntary civic organizations (the elks club, bowling leagues, etc.) has been declining for several decades and that this is an indicator of lowering levels “social capital” (civic engagement, interpersonal trust, etc.) among the American population. Lower levels of social capital are also associated with lower levels of trust in government.

This book was written in 2000, in the days before Facebook, Twitter, and various other types of social media became widespread. I asked my students today if they felt that social media could be a substitute for real-life participation in civic organizations. In other words, can social media foster civic engagement and interpersonal trust the same way that participating in a bowling league can? With only a few exceptions, my students felt VERY strongly that the answer is “NO”. Their experience has been that civic discussions in the online community is harsh and divisive, certainly nothing that would encourage them to trust their fellow citizens to a greater degree.

Based on that, we concluded that the promulgation of social media will likely be associated with a further decline in social capital and thus ultimately contribute to lower levels of faith/trust in our national governmental institutions. They tended to agree that increasing, or at least encouraging, face-to-face civic interaction is the only way to reverse this trend.

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