What Pew’s 2008 Election Poll Means for Digital Activism

Note: cross-posted from DigiActive

Last week the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan American “fact tank” that studies social trends, released their report on the Internet’s role in the 2008 presidential elections. The results of the poll were not surprising. Political use of the Internet increased from 2004, both in the sense of Web 1.0 information-seeking and Web 2.0 content-generation. The Internet has also moved up in the media rankings; it’s tied with newspapers as a source for political information, though TV still leads.

However, what I am most interested in is the implications of these trends for digital activism. Does online political activity during the election reveal any trends in the likelihood of Americans to use the Internet in organizing for social or political change? While information about the proliferation of online communities and an increase in “participation” (as opposed passive information-seeking) made me optimistic, the poll did not seek to ascertain the effect of online activity on offline outcomes or to differentiate between participative activities I would consider activism (creating strategic communities of interest and organizing actions) from more passive participation, like joining an email list.

This is not to say that there wasn’t plently of cause for pessimism as well. The increase in partisanship online became the Associated Press’ headline for their story on the poll. People who engage with politics online are more likely than they were in 2004 to visit sites that share their point of view. This seems to vindicate Nicholas Negroponte‘s theory of the Daily Me and Cass Sunstein‘s theory of echo chambers, both of which imply that current online political behaviors are detrimental to democracy because they feed narrow-mindedness and create fragmentation. (This is the cyber-skeptic side of the Internet-and-democracy debate, the optimistic side being represented by Yochai Benkler and his theory of the networked public sphere, among others.)

The participative Internet is good for pluralism, but pluralism is a double-edged sword. While the Pew report does give support to a theory of echo-chambers, it also clarifies that there are many echo chambers, not just the left and right poles made famous by the map (left) of the US political blogosphere presented in the 2005 by researchers Lada Adamic and Natalie Glance.

The Pew poll notes that those who are “most information hungry” (let’s call them political junkies) “are delving more deeply into the ‘long tail‘ of online political content, where they frequently seek out information that carries a distinct partisan slant….” So the politically engaged Internet user of today is likely to find a community of like-minded people who share her views. This could be positive if these online communities give their members the power to lobby decision-makers on the issues that matter to them. It could be negative if these more fragmented communities merely replicate the polarized online world of Sunstein and Negroponte: pro-life vs. pro-choice, gay marriage supporters vs. NOM.

I tend to believe in the positive interpretation of online pluralism: more communities of interest means more sources of collective power and more influence from ordinary citizens. Part of the reason I believe this is that there was so much online participation this cycle (see graph below).

Although Obama supporters were more politically engaged than McCain supporters, probably due to the Obama campaign’s more robust new media operation (full disclosure – I was an OFA new media employee), both sets of supporters were “participating” actively online. I use the word “participating” in quotes, because the Pew poll makes no distinction between “engaging politically in an online social network,” which implied, at least for the Obama campaign, the ability to form groups, plan events, and exercise significant agency, from “signing up for email news alerts,” which in this context means being the recipient of a broadcasted signal.

Another reason it’s difficult to get at the implications for digital activism, as I stated earlier, is because the poll does not seek to ascertain the effect of online participation or its connection to offline events. Were people who participated online more likely to vote, canvass, or convince a friend to take political action? We don’t know. I hope the next Pew election poll in 2012 recognizes that the most salient forms of online political participation have effects offline, and that in order to gauge the effects of online action, we need to look for the effects of that action in the real world.

image sources: Adamic and Glance via www.futureofthebook.org; the Pew Internet and American Life Project

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