Americans are increasingly engaging with political issues on social media — leading some to become civic activists offline, a study from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project has found.
According to Pew’s “Civic Engagement in the Digital Age” study, a full 39% of American adults “took part in some sort of political activity” on a social network during the 2012 elections, whether that meant liking a candidate’s Facebook page, posting a political news story, encouraging another user to vote or several other actions. That percentage is up from 26% during the 2008 contest.
Pew’s study also sheds light on the often-asked question of whether political involvement in the online world translates into offline action: 43% of social media users told Pew they decided to learn more about an issue they first discovered on social media, while 18% took offline action on a political or social issue after reading about it on social media.
“Many discussions about the impact of the internet on political and civic life assume that the people who take part in political activities on social networking sites are separate and distinct from those who take part in political activities outside social networking sites,” said Aaron Smith, Senior Researcher for the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project and author of the report, in a statement referring to the concept of “slacktivism.”
“In fact, the typical American who is politically active engages with political content across a range of venues—online, offline, and in social networking spaces,” continued Smith. “Social networking sites offer a space for individuals who are passionate about issues to share that passion with others, and their engagement with those issues often bleeds over into other aspects of their lives.”
Pew’s tale of digital engagement begetting offline action comes with an important caveat: people from high-income households and those with undergraduate degrees or higher are more likely to engage with politics than poorer and less educated citizens. That effect is slightly less pronounced in political engagement on social media, though Pew notes “socio-economic distinctions related to education still play a prominent role in these spaces.”
“Despite hopes that the internet could change the fundamental nature of political participation, it is still the case that the well-educated and relatively well-off are more likely to take part in civic life both online and offline,” said Smith.
Pew also found that “despite the increased prominence of online platforms when it comes to Americans’ political activity,” Americans are still on average three times as likely to talk politics offline than they are online. The majority of political financial donors — 60% — also still donate through offline methods, but the percentage of Americans who donate only through online methods is at 23%, a figure perhaps accelerated by new rules that allowpolitical donations via text message
Pew’s Civic Engagement in the Digital Age study is based on a phone survey of 2,253 American adults aged 18 and older and carried out between July 16 and August 7, 2012. Interviews were done in English and Spanish and via landline and cellphone. The margin of error is ± 2.4 percentage points.
– Alex Fitzpatrick, Mashable