Americans doing more politics through social media

Pew Internet and American Life Project logoIn 2012 Americans conducted more political activity online than ever before, according to a new report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.  This is significant stuff, especially for educators.

First, the numbers are impressive: “39% of adults do political or civic activities on social networking sites.”  While not a majority, that’s a hefty minority, and compares favorably with the proportion of eligible voters who actually vote.

Indeed, a key takeaway from this report is that online political engagement seems to be about at par with offline.  For example:

39% of American adults have recently contacted a government official or spoken out in a public forum about an issue that is important to them via offline means… 34% have done so via online methods.

Petitions: “22% of American adults have recently signed a paper petition; 17% have signed a petition online.” Contacting officials: “21% of American adults have recently contacted a government official about an issue that is important to them in person, by phone, or by letter; 18% have done so online, by email, or by text message.”

When it comes to sharing thoughts with fellow citizens, new media is beating old: “7% of American adults have recently called into a live radio or TV show to express an opinion about a political or social issue; 18% have commented on an online news story or blog post about this type of issue. 

Second big takeaway: online political networking more accessible to the non-wealthy than offline politicking.  While the wealthy participate in politics far more than the middle and lower classes, “the gap in political participation between the lowest and highest income groups is generally smaller on social networking sites than it is for other types of political engagement.”  This has enormous implications for political tactics and non-political civic outreach.  Think, for example, of public health campaigns, which surely need greater social networking presence.

Third, the online/offline distinction matters less and less:

The world of politics on social networking sites is — for most users — not a separate domain of political activity. “Political social networking site users” are frequently (but not universally) active in other aspects of civic life.

Why does this matter for education?

  • Social media needs to be part of information literacy curricula, more than ever before.
  • When schools see instilling civic engagement as part of their mission (and many do), they now need to take into account the social media dimension.
  • To the extent that institutions have a social mission concerning class, the online versus offline political engagement difference should play a major role.  That is, if an institution wishes to serve and elevate the poor, they need to boost online work.  If the school instead desires to preserve and produce the elite, offline strategies are a better fit.
  • Pew notes that education level is a strong determinant for political engagement.  This finding should play a role in the academic completion discussion.
  • The age gap remains vast, with 67% of traditional college-age Americans using social media for political purposes, as compared with “just 13% of all Americans in the 65+ age group.”  Senior academic leaders need schooling and assistance on this score.

Once again, Pew publishes another useful report.  Educators need to follow them closely.

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5 Responses to Americans doing more politics through social media

  1. Joe Murphy says:

    Your comment about class and institutional mission strikes me as interesting. Could you unpack it? It seems just as logical to me that schools might want to address the gap head-on, instead of playing to existing areas of engagement.

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  2. Sure.
    I’m starting from the observation that some American colleges and universities have a strong social justice element in their mission – specifically, a focus on serving and advancing the poor. Think of Berea, for example, or many Catholic institutions.
    In contrast, other schools are predicated on exclusivity, both academic and social. Think of the leading business schools, for example, or colleges emphasizing the creation of tomorrow’s leaders, without that social (or at least economic) justice mission.
    For the first category, increasing social media work makes sense, since it seems more connected to political activity for the underclass than the offline version. If social media is where the bottom 50% prefer to go, then help them along the way – information literacy, curriculum, pedagogy, internships, campus communication, etc.
    For the second category such a strategy would be superfluous. Those institutions should instead emphasize their offline strength.

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  3. Steven Clift says:

    Speaking of justice and inclusion, check out the gaps in use from the data: http://bitly.com/pewcivic

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    • Great analysis, Steven. I also appreciate your call to action.
      A few responses:
      -the shift from email/SMS to social networking is fascinating. I can see two advantages: most elected officials now ignore email; social networking is more publicly available.
      -I wonder how much of the racial gap can be addressed through mobile devices. Pew keeps finding Hispanic mobile usage exceeding white.
      -that age gap is huge, given senior leaders in much of life, along with the strong electoral campaign focus on seniors.

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  4. Pingback: My Own Ambivalence about the “Power” of Digital Storytelling | Technologies of the Self

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