Something important is afoot in the land when people are able to access and share “industrial strength” information instead of being satisfied with the “consumer strength” information previously offered to them.

In the political arena, 39% of internet users (29% of all adults) have gone online to read or watch “unfiltered” campaign material, such as candidate debates, speeches/announcements, position papers, and speech transcripts. In the health arena, e-patients are reading medical journal articles, viewing photos or video of other people with similar conditions, and uploading details of their symptoms and treatments.

Our colleagues on the politics team recently reported that about one-third of Americans followed news about the primary campaign very closely—a level of interest not usually reached until the peak of election season.

In addition to following news reports, many Americans are promoting online conversations about politics and spreading news and information about their candidate of choice or the race in general. 63% of internet users (46% of all adults) are using the internet, email, or text messaging for political purposes. I would love to capture the percentage of Americans emailing and texting for health purposes since I suspect it’s significant. We do know that 80% of internet users (58% of all adults) have used the internet to get health information.

Along with all this engagement, however, is an understanding that the internet is not a cure-all. 60% of internet users agree with the following statement: “The internet is full of misinformation and propaganda that too many voters believe is accurate.” On the health front, there is a generalized fear of misinformation, but we have evidence that people are being smart about the internet’s place in their lives. Our December 2007 study found that medical professionals were the dominant source for people with urgent health questions, which is not what we see in any of the other topics we asked about: education, taxes, Medicare/Medicaid, changing job status, or Social Security. For those issues, the internet or a government agency played much more important roles than did professionals.

There’s a strong thread of information access and patriotic participation running through American history. 2008 could be a watershed year for participatory democracy. Will it be a banner year for participatory medicine, too?