Internet or No, Civic Engagement Still for the Rich

Surely the great democratizing power of the Internet and the rise of social media have fueled a new era of online civic engagement, where the voices of rich and poor alike resonate apace and the hierarchies of influence are flattened. Right?

In a word from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, no.

“We were surprised that, even after unequal access to the internet — what is often called the ‘digital divide’ — is taken into account, the well-educated and well-heeled are still more politically active online, just as they are offline,” said Kay Lehman Schlozman, a political science professor at Boston College and co-author of a new report from Pew examining the ways that people are using the Internet to organize and effect change.

Officials from the Obama administration have been talking loudly about their commitment to use technology to connect citizens with their government, creating scores of Web sites, new tech-focused positions in the White House and the agencies, and encouraging departments throughout the bureaucracy to make more data available and easily accessible online.

But Pew’s findings suggest that the Internet is still a rich man’s game when it comes to civic engagement. Wealthier, better-educated Americans were far more likely to use the Web to contact government officials, sign petitions or contribute money to a campaign or cause.

Pew found that the disparities between civic engagement among rich and poor Americans were nearly identity when compared online and offline political activities. Among the wealthiest segment of society, defined as those who earn $100,000 or more per year, 45 percent said they took part in at least two offline political activities, with 35 percent reporting a similar level of political activity online. Both of those marks were 27 percentage points higher than the correlating levels of participation among the lowest income demographic.

Pew did find a modest uptick in the level of political participation through online channels such as social networks and blogs, though the researchers concluded that the transformative power of the medium has yet to fully materialize in the form of civic engagement.

“We are witnessing major changes in how the public takes part in politics — how citizens communicate with their fellow citizens and with the government — but the ultimate outcome remains to be seen,” Sidney Verba, a professor of government at Harvard University and a co-author of the study, said in a statement.

That would suggest that the Obama campaign, which was widely praised for using social media to organize supporters and spread its message, was only a preview of what the political Web will look like in years to come.

It is also worth noting that Pew’s findings come from a nationwide telephone survey conducted in August 2008, around the time when the parties were gearing up for their nominating conventions and the campaign was getting into full swing.

In addition to skewing wealthier, Pew found that people who engaged politically online were disproportionately young.

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