The Deliberative Potential of Social Media: Face Threat and Face Support in Online Political Expression

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Virginia Tech

Engaging in productive political discussion has long been a valued aspect of American democratic life. Due to ease of access and the potential for exposure to diverse views, the Internet and social media may support mediated political talk. Literature on the concept of face and politeness theory provides a framework for understanding interpersonal interactions, both online and offline. To understand if social media has the potential to host political discussion among millennials, a survey (N = 352) of undergraduate students examined social media use and political interaction experiences. Facebook was the most popular platform for exposure to others' political opinions and political self-expression. Facebook users with more diverse networks engaged in more political expression. Across numerous platforms, participants reported frequently being exposed to others' political opinions but infrequently sharing their own views. Negative and positive political interactions on Facebook and Twitter were explored for their threat to and support of negative face (need for autonomy) and positive face (need for validation). Findings indicate that engaging in negative interactions leads to more face threat while observing negative interactions solicits more face support. Engaging in positive interactions results in more face support and observing positive interactions leads to more face threat. Across interaction type and platform, participants who actively engaged in political interactions as opposed to merely observing them reported significantly more subsequent online political engagement. Future research on political interactions across various social media platforms and the application of interpersonal communication theory to the study of mediated political talk is warranted.

political expression, political talk, deliberation, face, social media