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As digital media use of various kinds has rapidly increased in prevalence and diversified in form, the long-term mobilization versus reinforcement debate in research on political participation remains unresolved. The theoretical terms of the debate are well-established, namely: Does digital media activity play a causal role to mobilize less engaged people to become more politically active; or alternatively, does digital media activity simply reinforce the political activism of those who are already politically active? Although the vast majority of research on this topic has analyzed cross-sectional data that cannot yield insights regarding causal relations, a growing body of evidence has accumulated in recent years based on analyses of repeated-wave panel data. In this paper, we conduct the first meta-analysis of published panel data studies on the mobilization versus reinforcement debate, taking into account moderating factors of standard control variables (e.g., political interest, efficacy and knowledge) and research design elements (e.g., length of time between waves, type of panel data analysis method used).
Our meta-analysis findings based on 39 survey-based repeated wave panel studies (339 coefficients) shed new light on the association between digital media use and political participation, as well as the causal direction of this relationship. Regarding the association between digital media use and political participation in these repeated-wave panel studies, we find that 77% of all coefficients are positive and 33% of all coefficients are statistically significant at the .05 level. These meta-analysis findings of repeated-wave panel studies suggest that the overall relationship between digital media use and political participation is positive and significant. The implications of these findings are an important contribution to the ongoing debate about whether digital media use may be associated with political disengagement. Given the rigorous repeated-wave panel designs employed in the diverse studies that serve as the database for our meta-analysis, these findings provide new, definitive evidence of a positive relationship between digital media use and political participation.
Regarding causal direction of the relationship, the prevailing assumption in this field of research is that digital media use has a causal effect on participation. Our preliminary findings do indeed support this presumed mobilization effect. Specifically, when the relationship is modelled as a mobilization process, 73% of the coefficients are positive and 31% reach statistical significance (at the .05 level). Along with this expected finding of support for a mobilization effect, an intriguing and unexpected finding emerges of even stronger evidentiary support for a reinforcement effect (i.e., that political participation increases future digital media use). The findings show that when the relationship is modelled as reinforcement 87% of the coefficients are positive and 40% of the coefficients reach statistical significance. This finding contradicts the assumptions in the bulk of the literature, which models mobilization effects, instead of reinforcement effects.
We conclude by discussing the implications of this unexpected strong causal effect from offline political activities to online digital media use. Further, as panel data studies are rapidly becoming more common in cross-national survey designs, we also preview further research on these topics that leverages our database to conduct meta-analysis studies on digital media use and related topics, such as political efficacy (internal and external) and political knowledge.