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Speaking Up Online: Civic Identity and Expression in the Digital Age

Social Movements and Media

ISBN: 978-1-78743-098-3, eISBN: 978-1-78743-097-6

Publication date: 22 December 2017


Digital and social media have arguably altered the civic landscape, creating not only opportunities for civic voice and engagement but also distinct challenges. How do youth who are civically active think about activism and their own civic activities in this landscape? How does their sense of themselves as civic actors – the strength and salience of their civic identities – shape decisions to “speak up” online? In this chapter, we draw on data from interviews with civically active youth to explore connections between their civic identities and uptake of opportunities for voice online. Drawing on data from a follow-up study conducted two years after initial interviews, we also examine reported changes in online expression over time. We find that many – though not all – youth in our study appear to have strong civic identities, as indicated by their self-identification as “activists” and the centrality of voice to their conceptions of activism. We also observe connections between activist identification and online civic expression over time. Youths’ narratives about what informs their online voice decisions further suggest the relevance of forces that have influenced persistence in civic participation (such as life transitions, work, and family demands) in addition to pressures unique to the digital context (including online conflict and surveillance). This qualitative study suggests that strong civic identities may support uptake of, and persistence with, online civic expression and tolerance of related challenges. In the discussion, we consider implications for youth civic development and for the vitality and diversity of the digital civic sphere.




The authors would like to thank Margaret Rundle, Howard Gardner, and Emily Weinstein for helpful comments as we developed this chapter. We are also grateful for valuable suggestions from Jennifer Earl, Hava Gordon, Jessica Beyer, and other participants in the Consequences of Youth Activism convening at the University of Arizona, January 2015, as well as comments from Deana Rohlinger and anonymous reviewers. The research reported here was supported by the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network.


James, C. and Lee, A. (2017), "Speaking Up Online: Civic Identity and Expression in the Digital Age", Earl, J. and Rohlinger, D.A. (Ed.) Social Movements and Media (Studies in Media and Communications, Vol. 14), Emerald Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 119-146.



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