Friday, January 19, 2007

Growth of the Political Internet

Pew: 14 Million Online Political Activists in U.S. Today

Micah L. Sifry,
Personal Democracy Forum

The Pew Internet & American Life Project is releasing another of its ongoing reports tracking Americans' use of the internet today (and someone leaked us an advance copy), and this report contains some really important news:

* More than 60 million people (31% of all Americans online) say they were online during the 2006 campaign to get information about candidates and/or exchange views via email. They call this growing group "campaign internet users." This group trends young (duh); wealthy; well-educated; and somewhat more white than of color (33% of white Americans vs 23% of blacks and Hispanics).

* People with broadband connections at home (now 45% of the overall adult population, compared to 3% in 2000) are far more likely to use the net for political news. In particular, people under 36 are twice as likely to cite the net as their main source of political news, compared to newspapers.

* By far the most interesting discovery from their survey: 23% of campaign internet users has either posted their own political commentary to the web via a blog, site or newsgroup (8%); forwarded or posted someone else's commentary (13%); created political audio or video (1%); forwarded someone else's audio or video (8%). "That translates into about 14 million people who were using the 'read-write Web' to contribute to political discussion and activity," the study's authors Lee Rainie and John Horrigan write.

* This group, which Pew labels "online political activists," is disproportionately liberal. "Some 15% of internet users who describe themselves as liberals are such online activists, compared with 9% of online conservatives," Rainie and Horrigan note.

* Big news portals like Google News and major TV network sites like are by far the most popular destinations for campaign internet users, beating blogs by 3-1 (60% to 20%). And satirical sites like the Onion or the Daily Show are as popular as official candidate sites (19% to 20%).

* Asked about their news consumption on the day prior to the survey, nearly one in ten Americans said they watched TV news on something other than a TV. Nearly one in six said they read a newspaper online, rather than in print.

* The most common use of the net is to find out candidate positions on issues or voting records, followed by efforts to check the accuracy of claims made by them or about them.

* While campaign internet users and the more intensely engaged subgroup of online political activists tend to go often to sites that share their point of view, that behavior is by no means dominant. Between a fifth and a quarter of those groups say they also use sites that "challenge my point of view."

A few observations. One, I just want to commend Pew for modifying its survey to take into account the changing reality of net-politics. They no longer define campaign internet users solely on the basis of news consumption online; they also include people who send or receive emails about campaigns in that group. This shows they understand, finally, that the net is a two-way, peer-to-peer medium, not just another channel for campaigns to broadcast messages at voters.

Second, I must say that I am not surprised by the size of the "online political activist" pool. Seasoned web organizers like Zack Exley have tried to estimate the size of the Democratic-left online base using cumulative email list totals from various sources and come up with numbers like eight to ten million, if memory serves. I'd say the Republican online base is probably as big on paper, but given the GOP's tendency to append email addresses to its lists, rather than grow them organically, the active online rightwing is probably not as big as the left. Fourteen million adults seems like a reasonable estimate.

Third, I'm sorry that Pew doesn't survey people under the age of 18, since their online habits are the most intriguing and many of these kids will soon be voters. But this survey confirms what we already know; the young are already living in a future where the net is THE main source of news AND a place to participate in making or commenting on that news.

Fourth, Pew's findings again suggest that the much-feared "Daily Me" balkanization and creation of self-reinforcing echo-chambers doesn't appear to really be a problem. Folks online are probably exposed to as much, or more, information that challenges their point of view as anyone else.

Finally, and this is just speculation, but this report suggests to me that the online political universe, and blogging in particular, may be reaching a plateau. While it's true that far more people went to the net for political news and participation in 2006 than in the previous midterm election cycle of 2002, that is both a reflection of the expansion of broadband penetration and of the fact that the prospect of political change made this election pretty engaging. What the survey doesn't show is a concomitant expansion in blog usage over 2004, if I'm not mistaken. So perhaps there are limits to the number of people who are attracted to political blogs? Or maybe the form needs some refreshing?

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