Washington – Political and civic involvement have long been dominated by those with high levels of income and education, leading some advocates to hope that internet-based engagement might alter this pattern. However, a new report by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project shows that the internet is not changing the fundamental socio-economic character of civic engagement in America. When it comes to online activities such as contributing money, contacting a government official or signing an online petition, the wealthy and well-educated continue to lead the way. 

“We were surprised that, even after unequal access to the internet — what is often called the ‘digital divide’ — is taken into account, the well-educated and well-heeled are still more politically active online, just as they are offline,” said Kay Lehman Schlozman, a co-author of the Pew Internet report and political science professor at Boston College.

Still, there are hints that the new forms of civic engagement anchored in blogs and social networking sites could alter long-standing patterns. Some 19% of internet users have posted material online about political or social issues or used a social networking site for some form of civic or political engagement. And this group of activists is disproportionately young.

This development is interesting because young adults are not ordinarily a politically active group.  Yet they are more likely to engage in online activism using applications such as blogs and social networking sites than are their elders.  One puzzle for the future is whether these online experiences will serve as an entrée for younger citizens into forms of political activity aimed more directly at political outcomes – for example, voting, campaigning, or getting in touch with public officials.

Another unanswered question is whether political involvement on blogs and social networking sites will redirect the upward socio-economic tilt of political activity. There is some evidence that political engagement on blogs and social networking sites might be less structured by education and income than are other forms of political participation — including use of the internet.

“It will be fascinating to see whether these activities translate into more civic engagement in the long run or whether the traditional patterns of participation assert themselves as time goes on,” said Sidney Verba, a co-author of the report and professor of government at Harvard University. “We are witnessing major changes in how the public takes part in politics – how citizens communicate with their fellow citizens and with the government – but the ultimate outcome remains to be seen. Our data reinforce the general expectation that the internet will have a transformative effect on American politics. Yet the internet has not so far alleviated one of the most troubling aspects of political life in the US: the decidedly upper class accent of the chorus of active citizens.”

The report, titled “The Internet and Civic Engagement,” comes from a national telephone survey of 2,251 adults conducted in August 2008. The overall sample has a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points. For internet users, the margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points. The survey and resulting report are the result of a collaboration of Aaron Smith, Research Specialist at the Pew Internet Project with Sidney Verba, Kay L. Schlozman, and Henry E. Brady, the co-authors of Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics (Harvard University Press, 1995).

The survey showed that those who are politically active using social media are not just demographically different from those who take part in other forms of civic and social engagement, they also branch out and engage in a wide range of online and offline civic activities. Compared with those who go online but do not post political or social content or to those who do not go online in the first place, members of this group are much more likely to take part in all kinds of civic activities. For example:

  • 61% have signed a petition, compared with 32% of all adults
  • 56% are members of a civic or political group, compared with 36% of all adults
  • 50% have contacted a government official directly, compared with 30% of all adults
  • 81% have made a charitable contribution in the last 12 months, and 33% have donated to a political party or candidate.

“Recently we have seen the emergence of a ‘political participatory class’ that uses online tools for self-expression and engagement in the issues that are important to them.” said the Pew Internet Project’s Aaron Smith. “These findings show that this involvement extends well beyond the digital world. For them, participation in the online debate is an important facet of a rich and well-rounded civic experience, one that builds and expands upon the activities that these individuals engage in elsewhere.”

Added Berkeley’s Brady, who this week becomes the president of the American Political Science Association: “It is remarkable how quickly Americans, especially the young, have moved their political activity to the internet to do many of the same things they used to do by mail, telephone, and in-person.”

The report also finds that the internet has become part of the everyday fabric of communication within civic and political groups. Just over one-third of Americans (36%) are involved in a civic or political group, and:
57% of these wired civic group members use email to communicate with fellow group members.

  • 32% of wired group members have communicated with the group using the group’s website, and 10% have done so via instant messaging.
  • 24% of online social network site users who are involved in a political or community group have communicated with the group using a social networking site.
  • 17% of cell phone owners who are involved in a political or community group have communicated with the group via text messaging on a cell phone or PDA.

One surprising finding in the August 2008 survey is that individuals who email a government official are just as likely to get a response to their query—and, more importantly, to be satisfied with the response they receive—as those who get in touch with their elected officials in person, by phone, or by letter. Among those who contacted a government official via email, 64% say they received a response to their query and 63% were satisfied with the response they received. These are nearly identical to the 67% response rate and 66% satisfaction rate for those who contacted a government official by phone, fax or email.