Like many technical innovations, the internet was greeted enthusiastically by those who thought it would “change everything” when it comes to democratic governance. Among its predicted salutary effects is the capacity of the internet to permit ordinary citizens to short-circuit political elites and deal directly with one another and public officials; to foster deliberation, enhance trust, and create community; and—of special interest to us—to facilitate political participation.
Other observers have been doubtful about the expected benefits, pointing out that every technological advance has been greeted with the inflated expectations that faster transportation and easier communication will beget citizen empowerment and civic renewal. This insight leads to the more cautious assessment that, rather than revolutionizing democratic politics, it would end up being more of the same and reinforcing established political patterns and familiar political elites. Even more sober were those who feared that, far from cultivating social capital, the internet would foster undemocratic tendencies: greater political fragmentation, “hacktivism,” and incivility.
For a variety of reasons, the internet might be expected to raise participation: The interactive capacities of the internet allow certain forms of political activity to be conducted more easily; vast amounts of political information available on the internet could have the effect of lowering the costs of acquiring political knowledge and stimulating political interest; the capacities of the internet facilitate mobilization to take political action. However, it is widely known that, with respect to a variety of politically relevant characteristics, political activists are different from the public at large. And more participation does not necessarily mean that participants are socially and economically more diverse. For one thing, internet access is far from universal among American adults, a phenomenon widely known as the “digital divide,” and the contours of the digital divide reflect in certain ways the shape of participatory input. Moreover, access to the internet does not necessarily mean use of the internet for political activity. Therefore, it seems important to investigate the extent to which online political and civic activities ameliorate, reflect, or even exaggerate the long-standing tendencies in offline political activity.
There are several ways in which digital tools might facilitate political participation. For one thing, several forms of political activity—including making donations, forming a group of like-minded people, contacting public officials, and registering to vote—are simply easier on the internet. Because activity can be undertaken any time of day or night from any locale with a computer and an internet connection, the costs of taking part are reduced. The capacities of the internet are also suited to facilitate the process of the formation of political groups. By making it so cheap to communicate with a large number of potential supporters, the internet reduces the costs of getting a group off the ground. The internet reduces almost to zero the additional costs of seeking to organize many rather than few potential adherents even if they are widely scattered geographically.
Perhaps as important in fostering political activity directly is the wealth of political information available to those who have access to the internet. Just about every offline source of political information is now on the Web, usually without charge: governments at all levels along with such visible public officials as members of the House and Senate, governors, and mayors of large cities; candidates for public office, political parties and organizations; print sources of political news including newspapers, wire services, newsmagazines as well as broadcast news sources that mix print material with audio and video clips. In addition, indigenous to the internet are various potentially politicizing experiences. For example, online conversations, often about political subjects, in a variety of internet venues are in most ways analogous to the political discussions that routinely take place over the dinner table or at the water cooler but have the capacity to bring together large numbers of participants spread over vast distances.
The third mechanism by which the internet might enhance political activity follows directly from its capacity to communicate with large numbers of geographically dispersed people at little cost. Candidates, parties, and political organizations do not simply use the internet as a way or disseminating information, they also use its capabilities to communicate with adherents and sympathizers and to recruit them to take political action—either on or offline.
This report examines the state of civic engagement in America. One major goal of the survey was to compare certain offline political activities—for example, signing petitions or making donations—with their online counterparts. Another objective was to investigate the possibility of political and civic engagement through blogs and social networking sites. This survey allows us to compare the offline and online worlds in a variety of ways:
- How and to what extent are digital and online tools being used by Americans to communicate with civic groups, or to engage with the political system?
- Are online avenues for political activity bringing new voices and groups into civic and political life?
- Where do relatively new venues for civic debate such as blogs or social networking sites fit into the overall spectrum of civic and political involvement? Are these tools bringing new voices into the broader civic debate?
All these results come from a national telephone survey of 2,251 American adults (including 1,655 internet users) conducted between August 12 and August 31, 2008. This sample was gathered entirely on landline phones. There was no extra sample of cell-phone users, who tend to be younger and slightly more likely to be internet users.