Pew examines civic engagement in the digital age


The Pew Research Center’s project on the Internet and American Life has released a new report examining how social media impacts civic engagement. According to the report, nearly 40% of adults used a social media site as part of a political campaign during the 2012 cycle. That number has grown significantly since 2008, when 26% reported using social networking sites around campaigns.

One of the other notable findings of the report was that class differences, especially those related to educational attainment are prominent in political engagement online and offline. Report data shows that online political engagement is most popular among well-educated and affluent people. These two factors have the greatest influence – even more than age, a surprising finding given that many attribute using social networking sites as an activity for the young.

43% of respondents in the survey said they found out about an issue, or learned more about an issue they were already aware of through postings on social networking sites like Twitter or Facebook. A similar number of users – 48% say they actually got involved with a political activity or group as a result of social networking sites. For political social networkers that number jumps to 63%.

Some aspects of political life remain the same. 50% of respondents said they never discuss politics online. For those that do, the numbers hover between 5-12% with 5% saying that they discuss politics every day and 12% saying they do around once a month. Most of the political contribution activity still happens offline as well, 60% said they contributed by writing checks at events, mailing them in, or donating over the phone.

Though much of campaign heavy lifting remains offline, political users online are faced with a flood of outreach efforts. Emails, texts, tweets and online advertising are all put in front of users in addition to offline outreach like direct mail or door knocks. The report says that taken together, 65% of Americans are getting some form of regular (at least monthly) political outreach – good news for field offices, but likely, less good news to Americans themselves.

While the amount of offline activity remains high, the uptick since 2008 could be a leading indicator that those numbers will continue to decline. The success of President Obama’s second term campaign is widely attributed to the effective use of social media and online outreach, prompting the GOP to install a new technology czar. However, the data also seems to show that the real winning formula is still an integration of online and offline efforts.

Pew has the full report online, in a searchable format. The full dataset is also available for download.