Abstract

Purpose - Following the outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), many forms of bottom-up civic action emerged as ways to collectively "flatten the curve" and tackle the crisis. In this paper, the authors examine to what extent local online and offline social integration contributes to civic participation, above and beyond typical predictors such as news consumption and civic talk.Design/methodology/approach - An online survey was administered among 7,137 users of the online neighbourhood network (ONN) Hoplr in Flanders (i.e. the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium) from 8 May to 18 May 2020. Regression analyses were used to examine how local social integration, in addition to news consumption, civic talk and political antecedents, predict different types of civic participation.Findings - The results show consistent positive associations between news consumption, civic talk and civic participation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, the role of political antecedents varied across different forms of civic participation. Further, the results point to the importance of both offline and online local social integration in explaining civic participation.Originality/value - This study provides much-needed insight in the societal and democratic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The results confirm the importance of local social integration in explaining civic participation, while also advancing theoretical understanding of more established predictors of civic participation, such as news consumption and interpersonal communication.


Authors

Waeterloos, Cato;  De Meulenaere, Jonas;  Walrave, Michel;  Ponnet, Koen

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    Decision Letter
    2021/02/25

    25-Feb-2021

    Dear Waeterloos, Cato; De Meulenaere, Jonas; Walrave, Michel; Ponnet, Koen

    It is a pleasure to accept your manuscript OIR-08-2020-0379.R1, entitled "Tackling COVID-19 from below: civic participation among Online Neighbourhood Network users during the COVID-19 pandemic" in its current form for publication in Online Information Review. Please note, no further changes can be made to your manuscript.

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    Reviewer report
    2021/02/04

    The paper is well written with a clear organization of the contents. It leads to consistent evidences, thanks to a wide sample. The analysis shows interesting correlation between civic participation and news consuptions, offering an original contribution to the generale debate about the interwaven word of "on-off line participation".

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    Author Response
    2020/12/18

    Dear editor, dear reviewers,
    Thank you for allowing us to revise our manuscript entitled “Tackling COVID-19 from below: civic participation among Online Neighbourhood Network users during the COVID-19 pandemic”.
    First of all, we would like to thank you for taking the time to read our manuscript and to provide us with extensive feedback that helped us to improve the manuscript.
    In the text below, we address the provided feedback step-by-step by giving an answer on unclear aspects and each time indicating where we made adjustments in the revised manuscript. We have subdivided the comments of the reviewers to answer the questions that were integrated in the review.
    In the revised manuscript, the changes are also highlighted.
    Best wishes,
    The authors

    Reviewer 1:

    Comment: I think the paper is well written and clearly organized. The sample is consistent and support the conclusions of the work. My suggestion is to enhance and giving more relevance to the role of online civic participation in relation to the off line one, in the specific case of pandemic. In my understanding, at the moment, the online platform of neighborhood appears above all as the "space" for the collection of data. Moreover, I'd reduce the section focused on "predictors" in favor of an enhance of the discussion about results.

    Comment: Moreover, I invites the author/s to give more space to the connection between online environment practices and civic participation (that is left on the background).

    Comment: Moreover, I think that more attention can be focused on the relation between online and off-line civic participation, problematizing the connection with the specific circumstances of the pandemic. I think this paper could be more effective if the role of online sources, spaces, environments and practices would be more valued.

    Response
    Thank you very much for your comments. While our study did focus on users of the ONN Hoplr to conduct our survey, we aimed to emphasize the potential of these online spaces in several ways. First, to the authors’ knowledge, this study is the first to capture civic participation through an ONN as an outcome variable. Thus, while previous work on similar local social media use mainly investigates whether the overall use of these local networks can predict civic participation (e.g. Kwon et al., 2020; Nah & Yamamoto, 2017), our study acknowledges the relevance of ONNs as a distinct space for participation by including a separate measure, specifically designed to capture civic participation through Hoplr (which is now explained in the measures section on p. 13 of our revised manuscript). In addition, our study also adds to the literature on online local spaces by using several indicators of online local integration as key predictors for civic participation during the pandemic (i.e. online sense of community and overall ONN use), as explained on p. 8 and on p. 17-18 of our discussion:

    “Similar to offline local social integration, citizens using ONNs can develop an online sense of community. Not only do ONNs provide a local space to interact and share information, but it also allows neighbourhood residents to acquire a community awareness. Still, the extent to which online indicators of local social integration produce similar civic participation outcomes as offline indicators is currently unknown”.

    “Taken together, our results confirm the importance of local social integration in explaining civic participation, even when established indicators of civic participation such as news consumption, civic talk and civic attitudes are taken into account. Our study adds to the literature by introducing the potential role of online local integration and ONNs. Offline and online local integration seem to complement each other in terms of the types of participation they spark, while ONNs show the potential of providing a safe space for civic participation that allows citizens to move freely across various types action, especially in times of crisis (Kwon et al., 2020; Ortiz and Ostertag, 2014)”.

    Nonetheless, we agree with the reviewer that the unique role of online spaces (and specifically ONNs) for civic participation could have been highlighted more, especially in the context of the pandemic. Therefore, we have now added a specific section in our revised manuscript (as a separate ‘chapter’ on p. 3 - 5) where we elaborate on the concept of civic participation and the emerging online spaces in which these practices occur. Moreover, in the revised version of the article, we also discuss the importance of online spaces, such as social media and ONNs, in crisis and disaster situations and in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic specifically. In addition, we have enhanced our discussion section to further highlight how our study adds to the existing literature concerning online local integration and the role of ONNs as spaces for participation. Finally, we have removed and altered several phrases with regard to the introduction of our hypotheses, as suggested by the reviewer.

    Comment: I suggest to enrich the references with more recent papers and articles (most of the cited papers are published before the 2014).

    Response
    We wish to thank the reviewer for these suggestions. We added the following recent references throughout our literature review and discussion.
    • Sairambay, Y. (2020), “Reconceptualising political participation”, Human Affairs, De Gruyter, Vol. 30 No. 1, pp. 120–127.
    • Talo, C. and Mannarini, T. (2015), “Measuring participation: Development and validation the participatory behaviors scale”, Social Indicators Research, Springer, Vol. 123 No. 3, pp. 799–816.
    • Boulianne, S. (2015), “Social media use and participation: a meta-analysis of current research”, Information Communication and Society, Routledge, Vol. 18 No. 5, pp. 524–538.
    • Ekström, M. and Shehata, A. (2018), “Social media, porous boundaries, and the development of online political engagement among young citizens”, New Media & Society, SAGE Publications, Vol. 20 No. 2, pp. 740–759.
    • Nah, S., Namkoong, K., Chen, N.-T.N. and Hustedde, R.J. (2016), “A communicative approach to community development: The effect of neighborhood storytelling network on civic participation”, Community Development, Taylor & Francis, Vol. 47 No. 1, pp. 11–28.
    • Theocharis, Y. (2015), “The Conceptualization of Digitally Networked Participation”, Social Media + Society, SAGE Publications Ltd, Vol. 1 No. 2, p. 2056305115610140.
    • Vromen, A., Loader, B.D., Xenos, M.A. and Bailo, F. (2016), “Everyday making through Facebook engagement: young citizens’ political interactions in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States”, Political Studies, SAGE Publications Sage UK: London, England, Vol. 64 No. 3, pp. 513–533.
    • Xenos, M., Vromen, A. and Loader, B.D. (2014), “The great equalizer? Patterns of social media use and youth political engagement in three advanced democracies”, INFORMATION COMMUNICATION & SOCIETY, ROUTLEDGE JOURNALS, TAYLOR & FRANCIS LTD, 2-4 PARK SQUARE, MILTON PARK, ABINGDON OX14 4RN, OXON, ENGLAND, Vol. 17 No. 2, SI, pp. 151–167.
    • Theocharis, Y., de Moor, J. and van Deth, J.W. (2019), “Digitally Networked Participation and Lifestyle Politics as New Modes of Political Participation”, Policy & Internet, Wiley Online Library.
    • Kaun, A. and Uldam, J. (2018), “‘Volunteering is like any other business’: Civic participation and social media”, New Media & Society, SAGE Publications Sage UK: London, England, Vol. 20 No. 6, pp. 2186–2207.
    • Park, C.S. (2019), “Does Too Much News on Social Media Discourage News Seeking? Mediating Role of News Efficacy Between Perceived News Overload and News Avoidance on Social Media”, Social Media+ Society, SAGE Publications Sage UK: London, England, Vol. 5 No. 3, p. 2056305119872956.
    • Schmitt, J.B., Debbelt, C.A. and Schneider, F.M. (2018), “Too much information? Predictors of information overload in the context of online news exposure”, Information, Communication & Society, Taylor & Francis, Vol. 21 No. 8, pp. 1151–1167.
    • Ohme, J., Vanden Abeele, M.M.P., Van Gaeveren, K., Durnez, W. and De Marez, L. (2020), “Staying Informed and Bridging ‘Social Distance’: Smartphone News Use and Mobile Messaging Behaviors of Flemish Adults during the First Weeks of the COVID-19 Pandemic”, Socius, SAGE Publications, Vol. 6, p. 2378023120950190.
    • Carlsen, H.B., Toubøl, J. and Brincker, B. (2020), “On solidarity and volunteering during the COVID-19 crisis in Denmark: the impact of social networks and social media groups on the distribution of support”, European Societies, Taylor & Francis, pp. 1–19
    • Ortiz, D.G. and Ostertag, S.F. (2014), “Katrina Bloggers and the Development of Collective Civic Action: The Web as a Virtual Mobilizing Structure”, Sociological Perspectives, SAGE Publications Inc, Vol. 57 No. 1, pp. 52–78.
    • Verelst, F., Kuylen, E. and Beutels, P. (2020), “Indications for healthcare surge capacity in European countries facing an exponential increase in coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases, March 2020”, Eurosurveillance, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Vol. 25 No. 13, p. 2000323.
    • Armitage, R. and Nellums, L.B. (2020), “COVID-19 and the consequences of isolating the elderly”, The Lancet Public Health, Elsevier, Vol. 5 No. 5, p. e256.
    • Kwon, K.H., Shao, C. and Nah, S. (2020), “Localized social media and civic life: Motivations, trust, and civic participation in local community contexts”, Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Taylor & Francis, pp. 1–15.
    • Marston, C., Renedo, A. and Miles, S. (2020), “Community participation is crucial in a pandemic”, The Lancet, Elsevier, Vol. 395 No. 10238, pp. 1676–1678.
    • Nah, S., Namkoong, K., Chen, N.-T.N. and Hustedde, R.J. (2016), “A communicative approach to community development: The effect of neighborhood storytelling network on civic participation”, Community Development, Taylor & Francis, Vol. 47 No. 1, pp. 11–28.

    Comment: Great space is addressed to explain the hypothesis with a specific focus on predictors and the relation with civic participation. this section could be reduced and organized in bullet points to semplify the description and focus more energies and words describing how the concept of civic participation is operationalized in the questionnaire.

    Response
    Thank you very much for these suggestions. We have now reduced the sections in our literature review where our hypotheses are introduced.

    We agree that more information could have been provided on how the concept of civic participation was translated into our subconstructs and items. In the original version of our manuscript, we referred to table II which included all of the civic participation items. As to provide more insight in the construction of these items and how our different theoretical constructs (volunteering, consumerism and ONN participation) were conceptualized, we have now included additional paragraphs on p. 12 and 13 in our measures section:

    “We included three different measures for civic participation based on the work of Theocharis and van Deth (2018). Based on their taxonomy of political participation, we designed several items to reflect three different forms of civic participation: volunteering, consumerism and ONN participation. The items were specifically constructed to fit our conceptualization of civic participation and the context of our study, being the COVID-19 pandemic. Volunteering refers to activities where time is given freely to benefit another person, group or organization (Wilson, 2000) and is considered an important form of civic participation (Kaun & Uldam, 2018). During the COVID-19 pandemic, many such actions emerged to help disadvantaged social groups, such as elderly who were prone to social isolation, as well as healthcare workers who were lacking medical equipment in the early stages of the pandemic. Consumerism refers to making purchasing decisions based on ethical or political reasons (Stolle et al., 2005), often as a way of acting on one’s sense of civic concern (de Zúñiga et al., 2014). During the first wave of the pandemic, many local shop owners were confronted with forced shut downs. Therefore, in this study, we employ the concept of consumerism to refer to purchasing decisions made to support local shop owners. Lastly, we aimed to capture civic participation through the ONN Hoplr. Drawing from literature on for example Digitally Networked Participation (Theocharis, 2015) and the unique and independent nature of civic participation in digital spaces, we constructed several items to capture these behaviours (Gibson & Cantijoch, 2013; Vromen et al., 2016)”.

    To clarify our conceptual understanding of civic participation, we have added a separate section in our literature review on p. 3: “Throughout the literature on participatory behaviours, different conceptualizations exist to describe the ways in which citizens engage in community and political life. As pointed out by Theocharis and van Deth (2018a), lines between civic participation and related concepts have become blurred, and some scholars have called for conceptual clarification in the field (Ekman and Amnå, 2012; Sairambay, 2020; Talo and Mannarini, 2015). Therefore, the current paper follows the guidelines set out in the work of Theocharis and van Deth (2018a) and considers civic participation as voluntary citizen activities, with the aim of solving shared and collective problems. In contrast to other forms of participation (such as voting or protesting), they are not located in, or targeted directly at the sphere of government or state. Rather, they are targeted at processes of problem solving, often on a community level (Nah et al., 2016). In addition, civic participation consists of activities that are intended to influence circumstances in society that are of relevance to others outside one’s own close peers such as family or friends. As such, civic participation means getting organized to solve local problems and hereby, improve conditions for certain groups in society (Ekman and Amnå, 2012). As civic participation fosters norms of reciprocity and faith in others, it is considered a critical behavioural marker of democratic health (Shah et al., 2005)”.

    Based on these theoretical foundations as well as the taxonomy of Theocharis and van Deth (2018), our items were designed to fit both our conceptualization of civic participation as well as the specific context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, as explained on p. 13, we conducted an exploratory factor analysis to explore the factor structure of our items and to assess whether our data represented the theoretical constructs. As can be seen in table II, this was the case.

    Comment: I expected to find more considerations about the meaning of the correlations described in the "results" section.
    Response
    Thank you for this suggestion. In the first version of the manuscript, we deliberately kept this section relatively brief, to be able to elaborate on the findings in the discussion section. To meet with the concerns of the reviewer, we have added several phrases throughout the results section which further interpret the meaning of the beta’s from our regression analysis (p. 14):

    “Interestingly, age was a negative predictor of volunteering, but a positive predictor when looking at consumerism and ONN participation. In other words, volunteering seems to be a civic act that mostly appeals to younger citizens, while the propensity to participate in consumerism and ONN participation increases with age”.

    “Income and degree were only significantly associated with ONN participation, with respondents with a lower income being more likely to engage in this specific type of participation. Additionally, educational attainment was negatively associated to ONN participation. This suggests how ONNs might have an equalizing effect on participation, providing a safe and low-threshold space for citizens with a lower educational attainment and disposable income to engage in civic life (Kwon et al., 2020; Xenos et al., 2014)”.

    “First, H2a predicted that collective efficacy would be positively associated with civic participation. Our results support this hypothesis only for consumerism: citizens who believed that as a collective, they could tackle the COVID-19 crisis and cope with its negative consequences, were more likely to engage in initiatives to support local shop holders”.

    In addition, we have also expanded our discussion section (p. 16-19):
    “Based on our results, we argue that these experiences of information overload and the subsequent evasion of news might also hamper democratic functioning and numb civic participation. Therefore, as has been suggested by Park (2019), policy makers and educators could make efforts to boost citizens’ confidence in their news finding and handling as to counter possible experiences of news overload. In times of crisis, this seems even more important. Not only do news media play a crucial role in informing citizens on the evolution of the pandemic and government measures, but they also allow citizens to identify opportunities and needs for civic participation (Boulianne, 2016; Ohme et al., 2020). In addition, news media could look for ways to balance their supply of information during crisis situations, as to avoid perceptions of news overload and thus safeguard civic initiatives. For example, receiving push notifications has shown to be related to perceived information overload (Schmitt et al., 2018). As such, media outlets could assess whether and when push notifications are an appropriate strategy for disseminating information”.

    “Our study adds to the literature by introducing the potential role of online local integration and ONNs. Offline and online local integration seem to complement each other in terms of the types of participation they spark, while ONNs show potential of providing a safe space for civic participation that allows citizens to move freely across various types action, especially in times of crisis (Kwon et al., 2020; Ortiz and Ostertag, 2014)”.

    “Given that the target of the civic participatory behaviours was a global health crisis, it is possible that context-specific indicators of these behaviours were at play (such as fear of the virus or personal confrontation with COVID-19). It would be valuable if future work could consider these factors, as to provide more detailed insight in the processes that explained civic participation in this specific context. Relatedly, it seems plausible that some of the relationships found in this study would change during the course of the pandemic (e.g., a changing role for news use due to experiencing information overload) or when studied in other samples. Future research could address the questions raised in this study in other samples and other timeframes. Nonetheless, the context of crisis caused by the pandemic has shed light on the different processes that work to foster civic participation and the importance of local, online spaces such as ONNs. Whereas the rapid spread of COVID-19 has amplified conditions of need, frustration and collective trauma, these background conditions are not entirely unique to the pandemic. Rather, the COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered various social problems and dynamics in community participation that were possibly already present. As such, the processes identified in this study remain relevant beyond this paradigmatic case (Carlsen et al., 2020; Ortiz and Ostertag, 2014). In this regard, the presented insights can be used to establish high-quality, inclusive disaster response in the future and in the long-term, a healthy and resilient civil society (Marston et al., 2020)”.

    Reviewer 2

    Comment: The paper provides a timely and original contribution to the literature on the role of online neighborhood networks (ONN) in the creation of citizen engagement in local communities. Since the survey was fielded during the corona lockdown in Belgium, the Authors had to take this specific context into account. However, this also appears to me as a major limitation regarding the generalizability of the study findings beyond this highly uncommon crisis situation. At the time of the survey, there seemed to be wave of social solidarity across the country, which partly eroded during summer and now seems to be much weaker. I would encourage the Authors to reflect more on this aspect.

    Response
    We thank the reviewer for this comment. We have included our reflection on the notion of ‘social solidarity’ in the response to the comment below.

    Indeed, our study was conducted during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, which provided an unprecedented context of crisis in Belgium and Europe at the time. During the first months, healthcare workers in Belgium were overwhelmed by a sudden surge in hospitalizations while shortages in medical equipment (such as masks and respiratory systems) grew. Soon, a strict lockdown ensued, severely limiting possibilities for social and physical contact. Several at-risk groups suffered from the measures taken: nursing home residents were denied hospital treatment (Amnesty International Belgium, 2020), students and adolescents suffered from anxiety, depression and loneliness (Ponnet et al., 2020) and vulnerable households were confronted with a sudden and accelerated digital transformation, often without easy access to Internet or digital devices (Taskforce e-inclusion, 2020).

    As such, the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in Belgium created a context where many different social groups were confronted with conditions of amplified need (e.g. shortage of medical equipment, loss of social contact), shared frustrations (e.g. about the handling of the crisis by the government) and especially, collective trauma. These conditions form a crucial breeding ground for civic participation to emerge, as has been argued by Ortiz and Ostertag (2014), but they are not necessarily specific to COVID-19. Rather, these conditions have been amplified due to the unique context of the pandemic. Therefore, we would like to argue that while our findings are indeed not readily generalizable to a broader context, they shed light on some of the processes that work to stimulate civic participation, that would maybe not be observable in other contexts. As is often the case in times of crisis, the needs and frustrations that emerge are not new. Instead, a crisis often uncovers existing dynamics and problems, as the possibilities for civic action are often limited whereas community needs are magnified. This makes the lessons learned from disaster situations relevant also beyond the context in which they were identified. Thus, as noted by Carlsen et al. (2020), the COVID-19 pandemic provides a paradigmatic case for the study of the dynamics between participation in civil society, community integration and new media (such as ONNs). In this regard, it seems important to focus on a case such as the COVID-19 pandemic, because the insights drawn from this exceptional situation can be used to establish high-quality, inclusive disaster response in the future and in the long-term, a healthy and resilient civil society (Marston et al., 2020).

    To emphasize the argument made above, we have now included a separate section on the interplay between civic participation, crisis and emerging online spaces on p. 3-5 of our revised manuscript (under the title ‘Emerging spaces for civic participation’). In addition, in our discussion section on p. 18-19, we now state the following: “Lastly, the current study was conducted during the early stages of the global COVID-19 pandemic. (…) Relatedly, it seems plausible that some of the relationships found in this study would change during the course of the pandemic (e.g., a changing role for news use due to experiencing information overload) or when studied in other samples. Future research could address the questions raised in this study in other samples and other timeframes. Nonetheless, the context of crisis caused by the pandemic has shed light on the different processes that work to foster civic participation and the importance of local, online spaces such as ONNs. Whereas the rapid spread of COVID-19 has amplified conditions of need, frustration and collective trauma, these background conditions are not entirely unique to the pandemic. Rather, the COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered various social problems and dynamics in community participation that were possibly already present. As such, the processes identified in this study remain relevant beyond this paradigmatic case (Carlsen et al., 2020; Ortiz and Ostertag, 2014). In this regard, the presented insights can be used to establish high-quality, inclusive disaster response in the future and in the long-term, a healthy and resilient civil society (Marston et al., 2020)”.

    Comment: I think it would be relevant to reflect a bit more on the notion of ‘social solidarity’ in the literature review. The paper now only focuses on the concept of ‘civic participation’, which is defined and measured in terms of volunteering, consumerism and ONN participation, and related to collective efficacy, political interest, news use and civic attitudes as possible explanatory factors. However, I would argue that, on the one hand, a lot of initiatives were also influenced by feelings of compassion and fear (the fear of worse to come), rather than by civic attitudes or behaviors, and that, on the other hand, not all ‘consumerism’ can be considered as a form of (local) civic engagement. I would like to invite the Auhtors to justify why they decided not to focus on these affective components, but stick to the more rational approach of considering the actions taken by citizens during the first wave of the pandemic as a form of ‘citizenship’. In other words, the forms of civic engagement during the COVID-19 crisis seem to be more a form of emotional solidarity than a form of political participation, although one could argue that there is a relationship between political interest and solidarity (see for instance: Likki & Staerklé (2014) in Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology).

    Response
    We thank the reviewer for this comment. First, we agree with the reviewer that it is likely that more context-specific factors contributed to citizens’ participatory activities during the COVID-19 lockdown (e.g., fear, as suggested by the reviewer). Whereas we chose a specific set of indicators to include in our study (drawn from community development literature on online neighbourhood networks and civic participation), we strongly encourage future research to look into different possible predictors of civic participation related to this health crisis. Therefore, we have now included the following statement in our limitations section on p. 18: “Given that the target of the civic participatory behaviours was a global health crisis, it is possible that context-specific indicators of these behaviours were at play (such as fear of the virus or personal confrontation with COVID-19). It would be valuable if future work could consider these factors, as to provide more detailed insight in the processes that explained civic participation in this specific context”.

    We agree that it is likely that the forms of civic participation that emerged during the first wave of the pandemic are influenced by feelings of compassion, or as suggested by the reviewer, by notions of ‘social solidarity’. In this sense, we would argue that social solidarity works in tandem with civic participation and is very likely to be an indicator for the emergence of the different acts considered in the study. While we did not elaborate on the affective components in the literature review by using the concept of social solidarity, we did add a paragraph to clarify our conceptualization of civic participation, based on prominent literature in the field (p. 3):

    “Throughout the literature on participatory behaviours, different conceptualizations exist to describe the ways in which citizens engage in community and political life. As pointed out by Theocharis and van Deth (2018a), lines between civic participation and related concepts have become blurred, and some scholars have called for conceptual clarification in the field (Ekman and Amnå, 2012; Sairambay, 2020; Talo and Mannarini, 2015). Therefore, the current paper follows the guidelines set out in the work of Theocharis and van Deth (2018a) and considers civic participation as voluntary citizen activities, with the aim of solving shared and collective problems. In contrast to other forms of participation (such as voting or protesting), they are not located in, or targeted directly at the sphere of government or state. Rather, they are targeted at processes of problem solving, often on a community level (Nah et al., 2016). In addition, civic participation consists of activities that are intended to influence circumstances in society that are of relevance to others outside one’s own close peers such as family or friends. As such, civic participation means getting organized to solve local problems and hereby, improve conditions for certain groups in society (Ekman and Amnå, 2012). As civic participation fosters norms of reciprocity and faith in others, it is considered a critical behavioural marker of democratic health (Shah et al., 2005)”.

    By adding the section above in our revised manuscript, we aimed to clarify how the participatory behaviours included in the study (conceptualized as ‘civic participation’) are a distinct set of behaviours, different than more conventional forms of participation such as voting or protesting as citizens. The conceptualization employed in our manuscript highlights the importance of collectively addressing community issues and shared problems. While we did not explicitly employ the concept of social solidarity in our manuscript, we would like to argue that it is integrated in our work in several ways. First, our understanding and conceptualization of civic participation shows similarities with how Likki and Staerkle (2014, p. 407) define social solidarity: “forms of reciprocity and collective responsibility among group members that allow taking care of the more vulnerable members of the group, such as the old or the sick”. As such, the notion of social solidarity is implied in the conceptualization of Elman and Amna (2012) as mentioned on p. 3 of our revised manuscript: civic participation consists of activities that are intended to influence circumstances in society that are of relevance to others outside one’s own family or circle of close friends. As such, civic participation means getting organized to solve local problems and hereby, improve conditions for certain groups in society. Relatedly, solidarity seems to be an essential component of civic participation as it is often argued that through these problem-solving processes and community actions solidarity is acquired (Nah et al., 2016). Furthermore, as we argue on p. 3 of our revised manuscript, civic participation fosters norms of reciprocity and faith in others, which again is similar to the definition of social solidarity as proposed by Likki & Staerkle (2014).

    Apart from the similarities between the concepts of civic participation and social solidarity, we also included rather indirect indicators of social solidarity in our study. In this regard, we kindly disagree with the reviewer that our approach towards civic participation was a rather rational one. First, our measure of civic attitudes refers to beliefs and feelings about citizens’ involvement and responsibility in their community (as referred to on p. 7 and 11 of our manuscript). Again, this is similar to various understandings of ‘solidarity’ in the literature, and especially the definition by Likki & Staerkle (2014), where this collective responsibility is highlighted. In addition, as Nah and colleagues (2016) have argued, the concept of solidarity as defined in community development literature shows similarities with concepts of neighbourhood belonging as well as collective efficacy. Both concepts have been included in our study. Thus, whereas we fully agree with the reviewer that the notion of solidarity is relevant in the context of our study, we chose different concepts to refer to similar processes that work to establish civic participation. We would argue that civic participation can be considered an essential process to reach solidarity and sustainable community building. Similarly, solidarity as an overarching concept seems essential for fostering various types of civic participation itself. For reasons of parsimony, we aimed to carefully and consistently use our central concepts, without referring to different adjacent concepts from various literature fields.

    With regard to the comment on ‘consumerism’ as a form of civic participation, we would like to refer to our response below, where we explain how we conceptualized and included consumerism in our study.

    Comment: As my previous remark suggests, the central concepts of this study require a clearer definition. Notions of ‘citizen participation’, ‘civic participation’, ‘civic engagement’, etc. seem to be used interchangeably, which makes it difficult for this reviewer to really grasp what is actually discussed. It is also noteworthy that, to measure citizen participation, the Authors build on Theocharis and van Deth (2018)'s 5-component taxonomy of political participation. Authors used three of these components to measure civic participation: volunteering, consumerism and ONN participation. This choice is defendable, but again, it may need some justification as for why Authors decided to exclude 'institutional participation' and 'protest' as measures for civic participation. The reason is probably because civic participation is distinct from political participation, but if that's the argument, it should be explicated.

    Response
    Thank you for these suggestions. We agree that the central concepts of the paper should have been specified further. Therefore, we added a section at the beginning of our manuscript which elaborates on the concept of civic participation and how it relates to related conceptualizations of participation (p. 3). In the added paragraphs, we explain how civic participation is understood in our study, based on prominent literature in the field (e.g. Theocharis & van Deth (2018), Nah et al. (2016), Ekman & Amnå (2012):

    “Throughout the literature on participatory behaviours, different conceptualizations exist to describe the ways in which citizens engage in community and political life. As pointed out by Theocharis and van Deth (2018a), lines between civic participation and related concepts have become blurred, and some scholars have called for conceptual clarification in the field (Ekman and Amnå, 2012; Sairambay, 2020; Talo and Mannarini, 2015). Therefore, the current paper follows the guidelines set out in the work of Theocharis and van Deth (2018a) and considers civic participation as voluntary citizen activities, with the aim of solving shared and collective problems. In contrast to other forms of participation (such as voting or protesting), they are not located in, or targeted directly at the sphere of government or state. Rather, they are targeted at processes of problem solving, often on a community level (Nah et al., 2016). In addition, civic participation consists of activities that are intended to influence circumstances in society that are of relevance to others outside one’s own close peers such as family or friends. As such, civic participation means getting organized to solve local problems and hereby, improve conditions for certain groups in society (Ekman and Amnå, 2012). As civic participation fosters norms of reciprocity and faith in others, it is considered a critical behavioural marker of democratic health (Shah et al., 2005)”.

    By adding this section early in our revised manuscript, we hope to have met with the concerns of the reviewer. Furthermore, we corrected the inconsistent use of ‘civic engagement/participation/action’ throughout the manuscript and now rely on the concept of ‘civic participation’ to refer to the actions under study.

    Regarding our measures of civic participation, we indeed drew from the taxonomy as proposed by Theocharis and van Deth (2018) but altered their taxonomy as to both fit our conceptualization of civic participation and the context of our study, being the COVID-19 pandemic. That is, we only employed the modes of action that aligned with our definition of civic participation as described on p. 3 of our revised manuscript. The taxonomy of Theocharis and van Deth (2018) includes various modes of ‘political participation’. The authors acknowledge that consumerism and volunteering constitute modes of participation that lack a clear political connotation as they are non-institutionalized and more often community-oriented. In addition, these specific types of participation are also considered in earlier work of van Deth (2014) who identifies ‘voluntary activities aimed at solving collective or community problems’ as a distinct mode of participation within the more general concept of political participation. Thus, while consumerism and volunteering are recognized as distinct forms of participation within the larger concept ‘political participation’, we label them as ‘civic participation’ based on the characteristics that differentiate them from other modes of participation in the taxonomy. As such, ‘institutional participation’ was left out from our study as it did not fit our conceptualization of civic participation. In contrast to civic participation, institutional participation refers to actions that are explicitly located within, and often facilitated by, the realm of politics (e.g. attending a political party meeting). Similarly, the ‘protesting’ component was not included because the items did not meet these theoretical considerations in the context of the pandemic. As to clarify this further in our manuscript, we have expanded the measures section on ‘civic participation’ on p. 12:

    “We included three different measures for civic participation based on the work of Theocharis and van Deth (2018). Based on their taxonomy of political participation, we designed several items to reflect three different forms of civic participation: volunteering, consumerism and ONN participation. The items were specifically constructed to fit our conceptualization of civic participation and the context of our study, being the COVID-19 pandemic. Volunteering concerns activities where time is given freely to benefit another person, group or organization (Wilson, 2000) and is considered an important form of civic participation (Kaun and Uldam, 2018). During the COVID-19 pandemic, many such actions emerged to help disadvantaged social groups, such as elderly who were prone to social isolation, as well as healthcare workers who were lacking medical equipment in the early stages of the pandemic. Consumerism refers to making purchasing decisions based on ethical or political reasons (Stolle et al., 2005), often as a way of acting on one’s sense of civic concern (de Zúñiga et al., 2014). During the first wave of the pandemic, many local shop owners were confronted with forced shut downs. Therefore, in this study, we employ the concept of consumerism to refer to purchasing decisions made to support local shop owners. The constructed items then referred to making consumer decisions in support of these local shop owners in the context of the pandemic. Lastly, we aimed to capture civic participation through the ONN Hoplr. Drawing from literature on for example Digitally Networked Participation (Theocharis, 2015) and the unique and independent nature of civic participation in digital spaces, we constructed several items to capture these behaviours (Gibson and Cantijoch, 2013; Vromen et al., 2016)”.

    Apart from volunteering and consumerism, we also included participation through the ONN network Hoplr. With the inclusion of this behaviour, we aimed to reflect the concept of DNP (Digitally Networked Participation) (Theocharis, 2015) as well as literature that has increasingly pointed to the unique and independent nature of participation through certain digital platforms (as mentioned on p. 12 of our revised manuscript). To emphasize the importance of digital spaces for emergent forms of participation, and especially the potential of online neighbourhood networks (ONNs), we have now added the following on p. 3 of our manuscript:

    “These actions can occur in many forms, and have evolved drastically over the past decade with the emergence of online participation through digital platforms such as social media. The affordances of these platforms allow citizens to form mobilizing social network ties (Boulianne, 2015) and provide tools for civic discussion, opinion expression and more personalized, local and action-oriented forms of civic engagement (Bennett, 2012; Ekström and Shehata, 2018; Theocharis, 2015; Vromen et al., 2016). Moreover, increasing research has acknowledged the unique and distinct character of online forms of participation and consider them a valuable addition to more established, often offline, participatory acts (Gibson and Cantijoch, 2013; Theocharis et al., 2019). Especially during times of crisis, social media and other digital communication technologies can provide an important space for civic participation and mobilization as they allow citizens to participate even when formal structures for collective action lack (Bennett and Segerberg, 2012). Social media can provide a united space for decentralized individuals to take civic action around a common cause, even under crisis conditions of financial strain, collapsing institutions and public provisions (Theocharis et al., 2017). As such, they have proved to be a useful mobilization tool during times of emergency and crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic (Carlsen et al., 2020). (…) The possibilities of digital media and the Web to function as virtual mobilizing structures is highlighted by conditions of amplified need, shared frustrations and collective trauma that often emerge from crisis and disaster situations. Online spaces provide a way for citizens to create new social ties and a sense of collective identity beyond physically bound communities. In turn, these digitally mediated social processes can be activated for a variety of participatory activities, both online and offline (Ortiz and Ostertag, 2014). In times where physical contact is limited or even prohibited, as was the case during the early months of the pandemic, digital media provide a welcome alternative space for civic mobilization. A specific online space where civic participation can emerge on a local level is through Online Neighbourhood Networks (ONNs), in which neighbourhood residents appropriate social media platforms to exchange and discuss local information, news and opinions (Konsti-Laakso, 2017; De Meulenaere et al., 2020), send and answer support requests (López and Farzan, 2015; Silver and Matthews, 2017), and mobilize others in the context of local protest (Gregory, 2015). As such, they provide community members with novel means to connect to their local community, develop local social relations and increase their sense of belonging (De Meulenaere et al., 2020). Moreover, positive associations between similar local social media use and civic participation have been demonstrated in prior studies (Kavanaugh et al., 2005; Kavanaugh and Patterson, 2001; Kim, 2015; Kwon et al., 2020; Nah and Yamamoto, 2017)”.

    As described on page 12, we also performed an exploratory factor analysis to assess the factor structure of the included civic participation items and whether they reflected the intended constructs (being volunteering, consumerism and ONN participation). Our analyses confirmed that this was the case. The different items were presented in table II.

    Comment: Moreover, it would be helpful if Authors could also define the concepts of 'volunteering' and 'consumerism', and how these were measured. I suppose the notion of consumerism is reduced here to political consumerism? Or were Authors interested in acts of local consumerism? Did the survey distinguish between offline and online consumerism?

    Response
    Thank you for this comment. On page 12, in the method section, we now added a description of how each of the three civic participation constructs were conceptualized and operationalized in the context of our study:

    “Volunteering concerns activities were time is given freely to benefit another person, group or organization (Wilson, 2000) and is considered an important form of civic participation (Kaun and Uldam, 2018). During the COVID-19 pandemic, many such actions emerged to help disadvantaged social groups, such as elderly who were prone to social isolation, as well as healthcare workers who were lacking medical equipment in the early stages of the pandemic. Consumerism refers to making purchasing decisions based on ethical or political reasons (Stolle et al., 2005), often as a way of acting on one’s sense of civic concern (de Zúñiga et al., 2014). During the first wave of the pandemic, many local shop owners were confronted with forced shut downs. Therefore, in this study, we employ the concept of consumerism to refer to purchasing decisions made to support local shop owners. The constructed items then referred to making consumer decisions in support of these local shop owners in the context of the pandemic. Lastly, we aimed to capture civic participation through the ONN network Hoplr. Drawing from literature on for example Digitally Networked Participation (Theocharis, 2015) and the unique and independent nature of civic participation in digital spaces, we constructed several items to capture these behaviours (Gibson and Cantijoch, 2013; Vromen et al., 2016)”.

    Each specific item used to measure the different constructs, as well as the results from our exploratory factor analysis, can be found in table II. With regard to consumerism, we indeed relied on the concept of ‘political consumerism’ as defined by Stolle et al. (2005, p. 246): “consumer choice of producers and products based on political or ethical considerations, or both”. Moreover, we relied on the analysis of de Zúñiga et al. (2014), where the authors emphasized the overlap between the concept of civic participation (as defined in our manuscript) and acts of consumerism, as these purchasing practices are often not directed at the state. Rather, acts of consumerism produce feelings of empowerment and orientations towards social obligation, which makes them very similar to involvement in local or neighbourhood groups and associations. Our survey did not specifically distinguish between online and offline consumerism.

    Comment: In the conclusion, the Authors acknowledge the most important limitation of the survey, which is that its findings cannot be generalized beyond the users of the ONN platform Hoplr. This is of course a serious limitation, that requires more attention already in the methods section. It would be useful to discuss the number and profile of people who engage in such ONN networks. On their website, Hoplr claims that their network is "used by over 500,000 households in Belgium and The Netherlands". However, the number of households in both countries is ca. 13 million, so the Hoplr community represents less than 5 percent of the population. Table 2 shows that Hoplr seems to reach mostly people in the higher SES classes.

    Response
    Thank you for these suggestions. As we mention on p. 18 of our revised manuscript, we aimed to partially counter this limitation of our study by including use frequency of Hoplr as well as online sense of community as variables. In doing so, we affirmed that our sample does include citizens who rarely or never use Hoplr as well as those who use it more regularly. In our sample, approximately 20% of the respondents indicated to use Hoplr almost never, 25% uses Hoplr less than weekly and 44% uses it on a weekly basis. In addition, the applied sampling procedure, being a proportionally stratified cluster sampling strategy, in which 250 neighborhoods were selected randomly, allowed us to counter issues with self-selection and should allow us to present a representative sample of Hoplr users (as mentioned on p. 9 and p. 18).

    With regard to the overall profile and characteristics of people who engage in ONN networks, unfortunately little is known (De Meulenaere et al., 2020). In his work, De Meulenaere (2020) shed light on the profile of users of ONNs (combining the use of Hoplr as well as local usage of Facebook and WhatsApp). ONNs seem to mainly be the online territory of citizens that are in those life stages in which the neighbourhood becomes more prominent (i.e., people between 35 and 44 years old are most likely to join such a network). Women also seem to be more likely to join an ONN. In addition, residents with a lower SES are more likely to use ONNs to share content, ask for help and engage in conversation. This is in accordance with our findings. On p. 18 of our revised manuscript, we mention the following:

    “Our sample was composed by means of a randomly selected set of neighbourhood clusters, yet we were unable to randomly select participants within these clusters. Still, given the size of the sample and the two reminders sent out to all users in the selected clusters, we believe our sample represents the population of online neighbourhood network users quite well. Especially given the resemblances it shows to a prior study that used a random a-select sample (De Meulenaere, 2020)”.

    While our sample indeed consisted of mainly high-educated ONN users, our analyses indicate how citizens who had a lower educational attainment and lower disposable monthly income were more likely to engage in civic participation on an ONN. On p. 14 of our manuscript, we point to the possible democratizing effects of ONNs in this regard and how this relates to previous literature on the user base of ONNs: “This suggests how ONNs might have an equalizing effect on participation, providing a safe and low-threshold space for citizens with a lower educational attainment and disposable income to engage in civic life (Kwon et al., 2020; Xenos et al., 2014)”. With regard to the user base of dedicated ONNs, and Hoplr specifically, more research is necessary. For privacy reasons, Hoplr does not store socio-demographic user data. Moreover, people who become a member of Hoplr, are not obliged to reveal their gender nor their age. We have asked Hoplr to provide us the data of those users who did disclose their age. Based on their statistics, less than 20% of the users discloses their age. Over 65% of those users are between 25 and 54 years old (23% between 23-34, 24% between 35-44, 20% between 45-54).

    To meet with the concerns of the reviewer, we have added the following in the methods section of our revised manuscript as to discuss the composition of our sample in relation to the Hoplr population (p. 9-10): “Our final sample was slightly more female and had an average age of 54.65 (SD = 13.83). The majority of the participants had received higher education (i.e., a bachelor’s or master’s degree), with an average monthly income of €2050.69 (SD = 804.64). It is difficult to estimate how well our sample represents the population of Hoplr users specifically and ONN users in general as little is known about its characteristics (De Meulenaere et al., 2020). Because of their privacy by design approach, Hoplr does not ask its members to share personal information such as age or gender. In fact, less than 20% of its user base has shared its age, with the majority being between 25 and 54 years old (23% between 25-34, 24% between 35-44, 20% between 45-54). In addition, to our knowledge, the study of De Meulenaere (2020) presents the only available information on the ONN user profile. The ONN user base seems to consist of citizens between 25 and 55, tend to be slightly more female, while no differences exist in terms of educational attainment and income level. Accordingly, our sample appears to be in line with the population of ONN users in terms of age and gender, yet better educated”.

    Comment: The paper ends with an interesting discussion of the research findings. Yet, I think it is too speculative to argue that the negative correlation between news consumption and civic participation in the context of COVID-19 is due to experiences of information overload. Moreover, it is quite problematic, I would say, that Authors suggest that "policy makers and news media should therefore look for a proper balance in the supply of information during crisis situations". As this can be read as an advise for policy makers to implement a way of 'state control' over information streams, I'd like to ask the Authors to be more precise in what they mean by this advice.

    Response
    Thank you for this comment. First, we would like to clarify that our study did not find a negative correlation between news consumption and civic participation. In contrast, our results indicated that those who consumed more news, were more likely to engage in civic participation. More interestingly, this was true for all three types of civic participation (as mentioned on p. 14 and 15 of our manuscript and shown in table III). We did not intend to propose information overload as an explanation for the found relationship, but rather as a possible risk situation of which policy makers should be aware, given that news consumption is a crucial motivator for civic participation. As we mention on p. 16: “Based on our results, we argue that these experiences of information overload and the subsequent evasion of news might also hamper democratic functioning and numb civic participation”. However, we agree that our recommendation towards policy makers and news media could be misinterpreted and it was not at all our intention to suggest any type of control over information streams during crisis situations. Rather, we aimed to stress the importance of keeping citizens informed during crisis situations, as well as motivated to keep up with the news and information on regulations. As such, we have altered the statement from the original manuscript and added the following on p. 16 as to clarify our recommendations:
    “Therefore, as has been suggested by Park (2019), policy makers and educators could make efforts to boost citizens’ confidence in their news finding and handling as to counter possible experiences of news overload. In times of crisis, this seems even more important. Not only do news media play a crucial role in informing citizens on the evolution of the pandemic and government measures, but they also allow citizens to identify opportunities and needs for civic participation (Boulianne, 2016; Ohme et al., 2020). In addition, news media could look for ways to balance their supply of information during crisis situations, as to avoid perceptions of news overload and thus safeguard civic initiatives. For example, receiving push notifications has shown to be related to perceived information overload (Schmitt et al., 2018). As such, media outlets could assess whether and when push notifications are an appropriate strategy for disseminating information”.



    Cite this author response
  • pre-publication peer review (ROUND 1)
    Decision Letter
    2020/10/20

    20-Oct-2020

    Dear Ms. Waeterloos,

    Manuscript ID OIR-08-2020-0379 entitled "Tackling COVID-19 from below: civic participation among Online Neighbourhood Network users during the COVID-19 pandemic" which you submitted to Online Information Review, has been reviewed. The comments of the reviewer(s) are included at the bottom of this letter.

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    Reviewer(s)' Comments to Author:
    Reviewer: 1

    Recommendation: Minor Revision

    Comments:
    I think the paper is well written and clerarly organized. The sample is consistent and support the conclusions of the work. My suggestion is to enhance and giving more relevance to the role of online civic participation in relation to the off line one, in the specific case of pandemic. In my understanding, at the moment, the online platform of neighborhood appears above all as the "space" for the collection of data. Moreover, I'd reduce the section focused on "predictors" in favor of an enhance of the discussion about results.

    Additional Questions:
    Originality: Does the paper make a significant theoretical, empirical and/or methodological contribution to an area of importance, within the scope of the journal?: The topic could offer a specific and original point of view on the already discussed theme of civic participation because of its focus on the extraordinary situation of Covid-19 pandemic.

    Relationship to Literature: Does the paper demonstrate an adequate understanding of the relevant literature in the field and cite an appropriate range of literature sources? Is any significant work ignored? Is the literature review up-to-date? Has relevant material published in Online Information Review been cited?: The literature is coherent with the main topic of the paper. I suggest to enrich the references with more recent papers and articles (most of the cited papers are published before the 2014). Moreover, I invites the author/s to give more space to the connection between online environment practices and civic participation (that is left on the background).

    Methodology: Is the paper's argument built on an appropriate base of theory, concepts or other ideas? Has the research on which the paper is based been well designed? Are the methods employed appropriate and fully explained? Have issues of research ethics been adequately identified and addressed?: The design of the research is clear and linear. Great space is addressed to explain the hypothesis with a specific focus on predictors and the relation with civic participation. this section could be reduced and organized in bullet points to semplify the description and focus more energies and words describing how the concept of civic participation is operationalized in the questionnaire.

    Results: For empirical papers - are results presented clearly and analysed appropriately?: The explanation of the results is clear, coherent with the research questions and supported by statistical index.

    Discussion/Argument: Is the relation between any empirical findings and previous work discussed? Does the paper present a robust and coherent argument? To what extent does the paper engage critically with the literature and findings? Are theoretical concepts articulated well and used appropriately? Do the conclusions adequately tie together the other elements of the paper?: I expected to find more considerations about the meaning of the correlations described in the "results" section. Moreover, I think that more attention can be focused on the relation between online and off-line civic participation, problematizing the connection with the specific circumstances of the pandemic.

    Implications for research, practice and/or society: Does the paper identify clearly any implications for research, practice and/or society? Does the paper bridge the gap between theory and practice? How can the research be used in practice (economic and commercial impact), in teaching, to influence public policy, in research (contributing to the body of knowledge)? What is the impact upon society (influencing public attitudes, affecting quality of life)? Are these implications consistent with the findings and conclusions of the paper?: I think this paper could be more effective if the role of online sources, spaces, environments and practices would be more valued.

    Quality of Communication: Does the paper clearly express its case, measured against the technical language of the fields and the expected knowledge of the journal's readership? Has attention been paid to the clarity of expression and readability, such as sentence structure, jargon use, acronyms, etc.: The paper is clear and wellorganized.

    Reproducible Research: If appropriate, is sufficient information, potentially including data and software, provided to reproduce the results and are the corresponding datasets formally cited?:

    This journal is participating in Publons Transparent Peer Review. By reviewing for this journal, you agree that your finished report, along with the author’s responses and the Editor’s decision letter, will be linked to from the published article to where they appear on Publons, if the paper is accepted. If you have any concerns about participating in the Transparent Peer Review pilot, please reach out to the journal’s Editorial office. Please indicate below, whether you would like your name to appear with your report on Publons by indicating yes or no.All peer review content displayed here will be covered by a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license.: Yes, I would like my name to appear with my report on Publons

    Reviewer: 2

    Recommendation: Major Revision

    Comments:
    The paper provides a timely and original contribution to the literature on the role of online neighborhood networks (ONN) in the creation of citizen engagement in local communities. Since the survey was fielded during the corona lockdown in Belgium, the Authors had to take this specific context into account. However, this also appears to me as a major limitation regarding the generalizability of the study findings beyond this highly uncommon crisis situation. At the time of the survey, there seemed to be wave of social solidarity across the country, which partly eroded during summer and now seems to be much weaker. I would encourage the Authors to reflect more on this aspect.

    I think it would be relevant to reflect a bit more on the notion of ‘social solidarity’ in the literature review. The paper now only focuses on the concept of ‘civic participation’, which is defined and measured in terms of volunteering, consumerism and ONN participation, and related to collective efficacy, political interest, news use and civic attitudes as possible explanatory factors. However, I would argue that, on the one hand, a lot of initiatives were also influenced by feelings of compassion and fear (the fear of worse to come), rather than by civic attitudes or behaviors, and that, on the other hand, not all ‘consumerism’ can be considered as a form of (local) civic engagement. I would like to invite the Auhtors to justify why they decided not to focus on these affective components, but stick to the more rational approach of considering the actions taken by citizens during the first wave of the pandemic as a form of ‘citizenship’. In other words, the forms of civic engagement during the COVID-19 crisis seem to be more a form of emotional solidarity than a form of political participation, although one could argue that there is a relationship between political interest and solidarity (see for instance: Likki & Staerklé (2014) in Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology).

    As my previous remark suggests, the central concepts of this study require a clearer definition. Notions of ‘citizen participation’, ‘civic participation’, ‘civic engagement’, etc. seem to be used interchangeably, which makes it difficult for this reviewer to really grasp what is actually discussed. It is also noteworthy that, to measure citizen participation, the Authors build on Theocharis and van Deth (2018)'s 5-component taxonomy of political participation. Authors used three of these components to measure civic participation: volunteering, consumerism and ONN participation. This choice is defendable, but again, it may need some justification as for why Authors decided to exclude 'institutional participation' and 'protest' as measures for civic participation. The reason is probably because civic participation is distinct from political participation, but if that's the argument, it should be explicated. Moreover, it would be helpful if Authors could also define the concepts of 'volunteering' and 'consumerism', and how these were measured. I suppose the notion of consumerism is reduced here to political consumerism? Or were Authors interested in acts of local consumerism? Did the survey distinguish between offline and online consumerism?

    In the conclusion, the Authors acknowledge the most important limitation of the survey, which is that its findings cannot be generalized beyond the users of the ONN platform Hoplr. This is of course a serious limitation, that requires more attention already in the methods section. It would be useful to discuss the number and profile of people who engage in such ONN networks. On their website, Hoplr claims that their network is "used by over 500,000 households in Belgium and The Netherlands". However, the number of households in both countries is ca. 13 million, so the Hoplr community represents less than 5 percent of the population. Table 2 shows that Hoplr seems to reach mostly people in the higher SES classes.

    The paper ends with an interesting discussion of the research findings. Yet, I think it is too speculative to argue that the negative correlation between news consumption and civic participation in the context of COVID-19 is due to experiences of information overload. Moreover, it is quite problematic, I would say, that Authors suggest that "policy makers and news media should therefore look for a proper balance in the supply of information during crisis situations". As this can be read as an advise for policy makers to implement a way of 'state control' over information streams, I'd like to ask the Authors to be more precise in what they mean by this advice.

    Despite my critical remarks, I want to stress that the paper presents a well-conducted scientific study. The study is well designed, fully in line with research ethics guidelines, and all methodological choices are fully explained and justified.

    Additional Questions:
    Originality: Does the paper make a significant theoretical, empirical and/or methodological contribution to an area of importance, within the scope of the journal?: The paper provides a timely and original contribution to the literature on the role of online neighborhood networks (ONN) in the creation of citizen engagement in local communities. Since the survey was fielded during the corona lockdown in Belgium, Authors had to take this specific context into account.
    However, this also appears to me as a major limitation regarding the generalizability of the study findings beyond this highly uncommon crisis situation. At the time of the survey (April-May), there seemed to be wave of social solidarity across the country, which partly eroded during summer and now seems to be much weaker. I would encourage the Authors to reflect more on this aspect.

    Relationship to Literature: Does the paper demonstrate an adequate understanding of the relevant literature in the field and cite an appropriate range of literature sources? Is any significant work ignored? Is the literature review up-to-date? Has relevant material published in Online Information Review been cited?: The answer to all the above questions is absolutely affirmative. The paper demonstrates an adequate understanding of the literature, the literature review is up-to-date, and the relevant sources are cited.
    Yet, I think it would be relevant to reflect a bit more on the notion of ‘social solidarity’ in the literature review. The paper now only focuses on the concept of ‘civic participation’, which is defined and measured in terms of volunteering, consumerism and ONN participation, and related to collective efficacy, political interest, news use and civic attitudes as possible explanatory factors. However, I would argue that, on the one hand, a lot of initiatives were also influenced by feelings of compassion and fear (the fear of worse to come), rather than by civic attitudes or behaviors, and that, on the other hand, not all ‘consumerism’ can be considered as a form of (local) civic engagement. I would like to invite the Auhtors to justify why they decided not to focus on these affective components, but stick to the more rational approach of considering the actions taken by citizens during the first wave of the pandemic as a form of ‘citizenship’. In other words, the forms of civic engagement during the COVID-19 crisis seem to be more a form of emotional solidarity than a form of political participation, although one could argue that there is a relationship between political interest and solidarity (see for instance: Likki & Staerklé (2014) in Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology).

    Methodology: Is the paper's argument built on an appropriate base of theory, concepts or other ideas? Has the research on which the paper is based been well designed? Are the methods employed appropriate and fully explained? Have issues of research ethics been adequately identified and addressed?: As my previous remark suggests, the central concepts of this study require a clearer definition. Notions of ‘citizen participation’, ‘civic participation’, ‘civic engagement’, etc. seem to be used interchangeably, which makes it difficult for this reviewer to really grasp what is actually discussed. It is also noteworthy that, to measure citizen participation, the Authors build on Theocharis and van Deth (2018)'s 5-component taxonomy of political participation. Authors used three of these components to measure civic participation: volunteering, consumerism and ONN participation. This choice is defendable, but again, it may need some justification as for why Authors decided to exclude 'institutional participation' and 'protest' as measures for civic participation. The reason is probably because civic participation is distinct from political participation, but if that's the argument, it should be explicated. Moreover, it would be helpful if Authors could also define the concepts of 'volunteering' and 'consumerism', and how these were measured. I suppose the notion of consumerism is reduced here to political consumerism? Or were Authors interested in acts of local consumerism? Did the survey distinguish between offline and online consumerism?

    In the conclusion, the Authors acknowledge the most important limitation of the survey, which is that its findings cannot be generalized beyond the users of the ONN platform Hoplr. This is of course a serious limitation, that requires more attention already in the methods section. It would be useful to discuss the number and profile of people who engage in such ONN networks. On their website, Hoplr claims that their network is "used by over 500,000 households in Belgium and The Netherlands". However, the number of households in both countries is ca. 13 million, so the Hoplr community represents less than 5 percent of the population. Table 2 shows that Hoplr seems to reach mostly people in the higher SES classes.

    That said, I want to stress that the paper presents a well-conducted scientific study. The study is well designed, fully in line with research ethics guidelines, and all methodological choices are fully explained and justified.

    Results: For empirical papers - are results presented clearly and analysed appropriately?: The results section is quite brief, but the most important findings are clearly presented, and each hypothesis is adequately addressed in the analysis.

    Discussion/Argument: Is the relation between any empirical findings and previous work discussed? Does the paper present a robust and coherent argument? To what extent does the paper engage critically with the literature and findings? Are theoretical concepts articulated well and used appropriately? Do the conclusions adequately tie together the other elements of the paper?: The paper ends with an interesting discussion of the research findings.
    However I think it is too speculative to argue that the negative correlation between news consumption and civic participation in the context of COVID-19 is due to experiences of information overload. Moreover, it is quite problematic, I would say, that Authors suggest that "policy makers and news media should therefore look for a proper balance in the supply of information during crisis situations". As this can be read as an advise for policy makers to implement a way of 'state control' over information streams, I'd like to ask the Authors to be more precise in what they mean by this advice.

    Implications for research, practice and/or society: Does the paper identify clearly any implications for research, practice and/or society? Does the paper bridge the gap between theory and practice? How can the research be used in practice (economic and commercial impact), in teaching, to influence public policy, in research (contributing to the body of knowledge)? What is the impact upon society (influencing public attitudes, affecting quality of life)? Are these implications consistent with the findings and conclusions of the paper?: The research presented in this paper is of relevance to policy makers and scholars alike.

    Quality of Communication: Does the paper clearly express its case, measured against the technical language of the fields and the expected knowledge of the journal's readership? Has attention been paid to the clarity of expression and readability, such as sentence structure, jargon use, acronyms, etc.: See my remarks above. Some concepts needs a clearer definition, and the discussion part needs some elaboration, but in general, the paper clearly expresses its case.

    Reproducible Research: If appropriate, is sufficient information, potentially including data and software, provided to reproduce the results and are the corresponding datasets formally cited?:

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    Decision letter by
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    Reviewer report
    2020/10/20

    The paper provides a timely and original contribution to the literature on the role of online neighborhood networks (ONN) in the creation of citizen engagement in local communities. Since the survey was fielded during the corona lockdown in Belgium, the Authors had to take this specific context into account. However, this also appears to me as a major limitation regarding the generalizability of the study findings beyond this highly uncommon crisis situation. At the time of the survey, there seemed to be wave of social solidarity across the country, which partly eroded during summer and now seems to be much weaker. I would encourage the Authors to reflect more on this aspect.

    I think it would be relevant to reflect a bit more on the notion of ‘social solidarity’ in the literature review. The paper now only focuses on the concept of ‘civic participation’, which is defined and measured in terms of volunteering, consumerism and ONN participation, and related to collective efficacy, political interest, news use and civic attitudes as possible explanatory factors. However, I would argue that, on the one hand, a lot of initiatives were also influenced by feelings of compassion and fear (the fear of worse to come), rather than by civic attitudes or behaviors, and that, on the other hand, not all ‘consumerism’ can be considered as a form of (local) civic engagement. I would like to invite the Auhtors to justify why they decided not to focus on these affective components, but stick to the more rational approach of considering the actions taken by citizens during the first wave of the pandemic as a form of ‘citizenship’. In other words, the forms of civic engagement during the COVID-19 crisis seem to be more a form of emotional solidarity than a form of political participation, although one could argue that there is a relationship between political interest and solidarity (see for instance: Likki & Staerklé (2014) in Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology).

    As my previous remark suggests, the central concepts of this study require a clearer definition. Notions of ‘citizen participation’, ‘civic participation’, ‘civic engagement’, etc. seem to be used interchangeably, which makes it difficult for this reviewer to really grasp what is actually discussed. It is also noteworthy that, to measure citizen participation, the Authors build on Theocharis and van Deth (2018)'s 5-component taxonomy of political participation. Authors used three of these components to measure civic participation: volunteering, consumerism and ONN participation. This choice is defendable, but again, it may need some justification as for why Authors decided to exclude 'institutional participation' and 'protest' as measures for civic participation. The reason is probably because civic participation is distinct from political participation, but if that's the argument, it should be explicated. Moreover, it would be helpful if Authors could also define the concepts of 'volunteering' and 'consumerism', and how these were measured. I suppose the notion of consumerism is reduced here to political consumerism? Or were Authors interested in acts of local consumerism? Did the survey distinguish between offline and online consumerism?

    In the conclusion, the Authors acknowledge the most important limitation of the survey, which is that its findings cannot be generalized beyond the users of the ONN platform Hoplr. This is of course a serious limitation, that requires more attention already in the methods section. It would be useful to discuss the number and profile of people who engage in such ONN networks. On their website, Hoplr claims that their network is "used by over 500,000 households in Belgium and The Netherlands". However, the number of households in both countries is ca. 13 million, so the Hoplr community represents less than 5 percent of the population. Table 2 shows that Hoplr seems to reach mostly people in the higher SES classes.

    The paper ends with an interesting discussion of the research findings. Yet, I think it is too speculative to argue that the negative correlation between news consumption and civic participation in the context of COVID-19 is due to experiences of information overload. Moreover, it is quite problematic, I would say, that Authors suggest that "policy makers and news media should therefore look for a proper balance in the supply of information during crisis situations". As this can be read as an advise for policy makers to implement a way of 'state control' over information streams, I'd like to ask the Authors to be more precise in what they mean by this advice.

    Despite my critical remarks, I want to stress that the paper presents a well-conducted scientific study. The study is well designed, fully in line with research ethics guidelines, and all methodological choices are fully explained and justified.

    Reviewed by
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    Reviewer report
    2020/10/01

    I think the paper is well written and clerarly organized. The sample is consistent and support the conclusions of the work. My suggestion is to enhance and giving more relevance to the role of online civic participation in relation to the off line one, in the specific case of pandemic. In my understanding, at the moment, the online platform of neighborhood appears above all as the "space" for the collection of data. Moreover, I'd reduce the section focused on "predictors" in favor of an enhance of the discussion about results.

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