Online politics leads to offline activism

The Internet has prompted young adults to become much more politically active, but the technology has not succeeded in getting other historically inactive groups involved in civic activism, according to a report released Tuesday by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

The report shows that, despite the high hopes of Internet advocates, digital tools such as social networks and blogs have not changed the basic socio-economic character of the country’s civic engagement.

The same populations that tend to participate in offline political activities — citizens with high incomes and high levels of education — are also the most likely to participate on the Web.

But the Internet has pulled in younger voters, a historically inactive group, who have latched onto social networks and online forums as a way to voice opinions, find like-minded voters, donate money or join campaigns.

Nearly twice as many 18- to 29-year-olds are engaged in online politics as those between 30 and 49 years old, the survey found. It is still unclear, however, whether these online experiences will help prompt younger citizens to become more directly involved in the political process, such as voting, campaigning and getting in touch with elected officials.

And those who are active online are more likely to also be active in offline political activities, the report found, while those who are active in the offline world are not necessarily inclined to take those activities to the Web.

The report is based on a survey of more than 2,200 people, 18 years old and older, in August 2008, during the presidential campaign in which President Barack Obama was ramping up his camp's use of Internet outreach.

“This online participatory group that posts on social networking sites and writes things on their own Web sites are also extremely active in other areas,” said Aaron Smith, lead author of the report. “It’s not the case that what happens online stays online. They’re donating money at much higher rates than other groups, which is indicative that these new tools are not totally separate from other types of involvement.”

About 19 percent of Internet users are part of the “online participatory class,” having posted about political or social issues or used a social networking site for some form of political engagement, the report shows.

That’s about twice as high as the proportion of citizens thought to engage in politics, said Julie Barko Germany, director of the Institute for Policy, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University.

“It’s thought that only 10 percent — more like 5 percent — of the American public has the will or interest or time to engage in politics,” she said. “I find this very encouraging.”

Older adults who participate online are more likely to take actions that mirror those that traditionally take place offline, such as signing petitions and making donations. In all, 7 percent of Internet users made online political donations.

Younger citizens dominate types of online engagement that do not have real-world counterparts, such as commenting on blog posts and joining Facebook groups. But the lasting impact of these tools largely depends on how they are used as this younger group, the “digital natives,” grows older, Smith said.

Both online and offline, political activism is highly connected to income and education. Those with higher levels of income are more likely to use the Internet and to have high-speed access at home. Respondents who have at least some college education are more likely to engage in online political activities.

The survey did show some evidence that social media tools, such as “friending” an elected official on a social network and posting political material on the Web, may draw in a more diverse mix of income and education levels than online activities that mirror offline ones, such as signing an online petition.

“The tools are there, but you have to know about them and have the will to use them,” Germany said.

She said education is essential to reaching populations that may not be familiar with Web-enabled tools such as social networks.

“What that means for the rest of us is that we have a larger job to do — to make sure people know about the tools and know how to use them,” she said, adding that civic groups and public libraries may play central roles in that educational process.

One of the more surprising findings of the report is that people who e-mail government officials are just as likely to get a response and to be satisfied by that response as those who contact officials in person, by phone or by letter.