My long weekends begin & end with an epic trek to the Sound & involve spending overdue time with the fam. Despite the gorgeous clear skies, fresh rural Ontario air & infinite opportunities to sing ‘Save a horse, ride a cowboy’ at karaoke, I usually end up splitting this free time 50/50: sleeping in & nerding out.
This weekend was no different – nerdery included a docu-binge, interesting new client/sector reading, and indulging in a thorough leisurely read of the Pew Internet & American Life Project report on The Internet & Civic Engagement, which was released just last week.
If the impact of the internet on political participation is at all of interest, download the entire report – it’s less than 70 pgs (incl. big’ol’graphs!) – not a massive undertaking, I swear
A gem gleaned/interpreted from the report is that once someone becomes involved in politics online – not necessarily partisan – they are on a slippery slope to nerdsville. Posting a blog comment is practically a gateway drug for full-on civic engagement – next thing you know they’re signing petitions, writing their local representatives, writing & posting material themselves…& even donating cash. Who knows what they’re doing in the streets to get this money to pass on to organizations & campaigns.
- 19% of Americans online had posted material about political &/or social issues or used a social network for civic/political engagement
- This crew was disproportionately young, of course, & also don’t show as much of an old/rich/educated socio-econo slant compared to other engagement measures such as donations & volunteering.
- 61% of politically active online Americans signed petitions (vs. 32% of all adults)
- 50% of online politicos have contacted an official directly. (Very cool to note that satisfaction rates for contacting political officials was equal online/offline)
The authors posit that social media could alter the vast majority political participants being well off/educated. The catch is ensuring that newly recruited online politicos start affecting change IRL. We all know how easy it is to comment on a Facebook/blog post, or ping off a petition – but ratcheting up the free-time donation to include face-to-face canvassing, volunteering & other vital parts of being a ‘real’ citizen are tougher to nail down.
Now this is usually the part of the blog post where I complain about not having similar report from a Canadian thinktank or pollster, but that’d be unfair. In April’09 Elections Canada published a Working Paper on ‘Youth Electoral Engagement in Canada.’ Thankfully I CAN complain about the age of the data – most recent year in the report was 2006. The authors have similar conclusions regarding age/income/education as being the three determining factors in political participation as Pew. The highest engagement levels create this familiar demographic combo: Older religious married born-in-Canada men who earn more than $40K with post-secondary education in rural communities. Of these factors, being born in Canada was the #1 influencer, with post-secondary education a close runner-up.
Although I whinge about the age of the Elections Canada data, (even Pew study authors admit that without cell-phone owners included in their survey they’re not getting a true glimpse of the younger cohort) there’s a great section on ‘Why is youth turnout so low?’ that has a fantastic summary of previous political science theories on declining engagement. Citing Cart & Eagles, among many other political scientists, the authors state:
“…the way election campaigns are run may be partly responsible for the turnout decline…traditional door-to-door canvassing has a powerful impact on turnout…evidence that direct candidate contact with voters has been decreasing over time, as parties have devoted more attention to the media…may have contributed to lower turnout, although it is not clear why this should have affected the youth more than older people.”
I couldn’t agree more. Although online content is a great source for spreading information/sparking discussion/priming donations about politics & social issues, until the user becomes engaged with an issue to the point of ponying up volunteer-time – online engagement is a series of soon-forgotten empty gestures (green avatars, anyone?).
This ends tonight’s nerdcast – I’ll be online less this week because of an especially short work week for less than awesome reasons. Heartfelt thanks to everyone who’s helped thus far (whether you know it or not ). Equal gratitude goes out to a flexible employer & helpful IT crew who’re eager to lend wireless routers, webcams & laptops during a time of coccooning.