Civic Engagement in the Digital Age

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* Report: Civic Engagement in the Digital Age. Pew Internet and American Life Project.


Report on USA surveys.


Written by Steven Clift:

"The new must-read Civic Engagement in the Digital Age study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project makes it clear to me:

Those who already show up in political life continue to dominate online – it is ”politics as usual” for most even if empowering a few. Closing this digital civic engagement divide is a challenge for our generation to solve.

Every few years, like their Neighbors Online report, the Pew Internet and American Life project releases game changing numbers that help us re-calibrate our priorities and investments to build civic and democratic good.

Quick Numbers

After many hours of pouring through the report, these are the numbers that stood out to me.

Good: 49% of all adults participated in online “civic communication” and/or are a “political social networking site” user in 2012

10% only did online “civic communication” (34% total)

16% only were political sns users (39% total)

23% did both

More on the political sns users below – Report author Aaron Smith sent us the breakdown above and other tidbits which are not detailed in the main report.

Bad: Huge online civic communication gap based on income - Households over 75K at 47%+, 20K to under 30K only 24% – Almost half the participation rate participating civically online, report shows huge education gaps as well

Really Bad: Whites 38% compared to Blacks at 23% and Latinos at 17% – Action oriented online civic communication helps citizens have a voice, power, and influence in democracy

Bad Foundation: For offline “civic communication” Whites 43%, Blacks 31%, Latinos 26% - Survey does find better Black – White racial equity with direct involvement in offline civic groups/activities. It is essential to point out that many differences in race are more related to income and education levels than anything else – but the impact is that same, important voices are not being heard.

Clift Notes: Everything about the Internet, from raising voices to organizing to information access to convenience, makes it a great equalizer for democratic participation. Today with far greater minority access to the Internet, why is the civic communication gap larger online than offline?

The online gap based on race is 3% larger for Blacks and 4% for Latinos.

What is it about the design, technical assumptions, perceived relevancy, marketing, and inclusive outreach with online civic engagement that is not working make democracy stronger and more equitable? Why are the clear democratic benefits of the digital age not leading to a more representative and participatory democracy for all? If we seek to engage not just more people from a small pool of the most educated and wealthier citizens, but instead want this digital opportunity to provide more democratic opportunity for all, we are going in the wrong direction.

Promising: 44% of 18-24 year olds do online “civic communication” compared to 38% offline; 38% of those 25-34 also engage online with 33% engaging offline – Compared to 34% online and 39% offline among all adults. On the other hand as you go up in age, the online “civic communication” divide becomes a real problem (if you agree that online engagement is crucial for the will of the people to be heard in the halls of power)

Noted: Net users signing an online petition in 2012: 20%, 19% in 2008 – e-petitions and sites like are still relevant

Noted: Online donors up 9% from 30% in 2008 to 39% in 2012, but political donors overall drop 2% to 16% of adults

Bad: In 2008 25% of Internet users contacted a government official about an issue via email in – Dropped to 20% in 2012 even with texting added to email as an option

Bad: 10% in 2008, dropped by half to 5% of Internet or text message users having sent a “letter to the editor” to a newspaper or magazine online, by email, or by text message in 2012

Very Good: 2012 survey explored many new questions for social networking site users – 60% of all U.S. adults use a social networking platform AND 39% of adults are considered “political social networking site users.” That is up from 26% adults in 2008 who “took part in some sort of political activity” on a social network. (Considering the overall growth in Facebook and Twitter, the growth isn’t so dramatic.

In 2008, 11% of SNS users (not adults overall) posted political news. In 2012, 28% posted links to political stories and 33% said that they reposted other types of political content on SNS’s.

In 2008, 12% of SNS users had friended a political candidate. In 2012, 20% of users said that they have friended or followed a candidate or similar political figure.

In 2008, of SNS users 13% started or joined a group on a social networking site organized around political or social issues. By 2012, it rose to 21%.

Clift Notes: More private life but political social networking may be displacing contacting elected officials directly and sending letters to the editor. Very interestingly political sns users at 39% outnumber the 34% who engaged in online “civic communications.” (with 23% doing both). That leads to the question – are the 16% of adults who are only engaging as political sns users more or less having private political discussions with trusted friends and family or are they also seeking to take action in “public life.” My take – it is good that more people talk politics, but if you want to make change it has to also extend to taking action in expressly public life situations. Getting your political opinions off your chest among your friends is not the same as sharing our desires with our community or the representatives and governments who spend our tax money and pass laws that govern us.

Good: In terms of racial online engagement equity of the 39% overall, 40% of Whites are political SNS users, 37% of Blacks, and 31% of Latinos

Not Good: If you want reach older Americans, while 67% of those 18-24 are political sns users, only 24% of 55-64 and 13% of 65+ are engaged that way

Clift Notes: Online group communication is a powerful catalyst for democracy – the freedom of assembly is what makes authoritarian governments nervous because that gives speech an audience where people become motivated to take action. I believe what I said in 1998 more than ever, “The most democratizing aspect of the Internet is the ability for people to organize and communicate in groups.”

Groups take you from more private missives on “your wall” (Facebook status updates on your timeline or whatever it is called this month) or email chain letters into a group commitment. Be that a Facebook Group or becoming a Twitter hashtag “regular” or joining a trusty email list you’ve joined in. That 21% number of SNS users who started or joined an online group is hugely positive.

Very Good: In 2012, 43% of SNS users decided to learn more about a political or social issue and 18% took action involving a political or social issue based on that they read on those sites

Not as Bad: The racial gap in “learning” about issues is less here than in other areas – the 43% breaks down to 46% of Whites, 38% of Blacks, and 34% of Latinos

Really Bad: Taking action based on SNS “learning” drops almost in half from 20% for Whites and 12% for Blacks and 11% for Latino

Clift Notes: Addressing this democratic digital divide on taking action may be the biggest opportunity for investment with technology for engagement. A past Pew Government Online study from 2010 found similar divides except that African-Americans and Latinos were twice as positive about saying it is “very important” for government agencies to post information and alerts on social networks (Whites 17%, Blacks 31%, Latino 33%).

This parallels input from our inclusive forum engagement team members on the importance of Facebook for trusted connections and bonds within their ethnic community. We often hear disdain from our Somali and Hmong friends about public online newspaper commenting where vitriol and “immigrants go home” comments abound. They speak about the relative feeling of more safety and trust with people they know in their communities via mostly private Facebook connections. As our neighbors forums are an independent micro social network with very public and integrationist online approach, these numbers suggest an opportunity to adapt our model, share our lessons, and seek to further integrate our expressly public life take action approach with Facebook beyond simple feeds to Pages. The challenge you need to help us with is how to then also maintain the engagement of older citizens.

Email Still King: At least in terms of how people are asked to take a civic action – 31% via email versus 16% on a social networking site and 5% via texting. The eNonProfit Benchmark study will tell you why.

Silver lining? The demographics of folks who have political discussions online in general and offline are far more racially equitable. We can build on that.

Also in terms of equity, Whites, Blacks, and Latinos are statistically identical at 11, 10, and 9% with posting pictures or videos online related to political/social issues

8% of all adults or 17% of political SNS users are only politically involved online and not offline nor other places online – the demographics are lower income, younger, and less educated – Might this be a gateway activity to bring new people into civic and political life online and off (I am digging into the data to better understand more about this 8% of adults)". (

More extended commentary here at