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Four Surprising Things About Civics and Politics in America

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, April 25 2013

The Pew Internet and American Life Project today released the results of a broad survey about civic life and the Internet. There are some obvious findings: People who are better educated and make more money are more likely to be politically active, for instance, and, as we've known for a while, people who find out about a political topic online can be motivated to seek out more information.

But buried beneath the survey's top-line results are some surprising, and still statistically significant, results — things that tell us about the role of the Internet in politics that we did not already know:

1. Younger people are more engaged than senior citizens.

Pew found that 79 percent of Americans aged 18-24 and 80 percent of Americans aged 34-44 say they discuss politics offline, while only 68 percent of Americans over the age of 65 do the same. (Americans between the ages of 45 and 64 are way more likely to report being directly involved in civic groups offline than people of any other age, though.)

Conventional wisdom holds that the smartest political play for a politician is to tour churches and senior centers, because that's where the voters are. But according to this survey, a significantly greater proportion of younger Americans are paying attention. The survey found that people in all age groups under 65 are significantly more likely to be talking about politics than people over 65.

If you're looking online for people who are paying attention, they are far more likely to be 24 or younger — but we knew that already.

Elsewhere in the survey results, the tables show that "engagement" is roughly the same across partisan lines. There's no significant difference between how many Republicans and Democrats are likely to be involved in politics, online or off. (Independents are slightly less likely to be engaged.)

2. Slacktivists are a minority.

Thirty-nine percent of Americans told Pew they had performed some sort of political activity on a social network in the year leading up to their survey — but they are, by and large, using social media as just one part of a more robust engagement with civic life. Just 17 percent of political social networking users, or eight percent of American adults, engage in political activity purely on social networks.

People who do nothing political but post to Facebook or Twitter are likely to be younger, less affluent, and not as well-educated than their politically active peers, Pew reports.

And that's not all — they're also a poorly informed minority:

They also have less overall exposure to political communications and outreach, and are less likely to take part in interpersonal political “chatter.” In other words, even as they interact with political issues on social networking sites, they tend to get involved with those issues with only modest intensity.

The Obama campaign's 2012 "Dashboard" software was created in part to serve as an entry point for slacktivists — to give the online-only crowd a way to participate. Obama staffers and volunteers started telling us just a few weeks after Dashboard launched that the platform wasn't a hit, and the private post-election consensus seems to be about the same — if Dashboard brought in new volunteers, they weren't the best ones.

If you're running a political campaign, social networking might be a way to reach new supporters who will take action on other channels. But if a supporter is only willing to stay with you on social networks, that supporter is part of a group that just won't scale — and they're probably not a great donor prospect, either.

3. Lines of color, education and class in civic life extend online.

Pew found that whites were significantly more likely to take action, online and offline, than Hispanic Americans. The survey also found slightly more white Americans than black Americans reported being engaged, but not to a significant degree.

Education, race and class present barriers to interaction offline, but do not present barriers to getting online and onto social networks. Once people of lower income or who have not completed college, and to a lesser extent people of color, get online, however, it's clear that the same barriers exist around participation in civic life there as exist in meatspace.

Of course it doesn't have to be this way. There was a barrier in age that supposedly separated the predominantly older voter from the predominantly younger American tuned out from activity in their community, too, and people are at least saying that this barrier has fallen. It certainly follows that someone who has to work 60 hours a week or flat-out can't afford a babysitter won't make that town hall meeting — but if younger Americans are more likely to be online as well as active, then perhaps the moment is ripe to build an Internet-driven tool that will solve that problem for younger Americans.

4. The "Occupy" target market is still active.

In the survey report, Pew senior researcher Aaron Smith flags for us a combination of data that show Americans affected by the economic downturn are likely to be active in civic life.

Smith writes that Pew has identified 56 percent of the population that has either had to cut back on the amount or quantity of food they purchase, put off medical or dental treatment, or have delayed making a rent or house payment in the year before their survey as a result of the economic slowdown.

People in that 56 percent, he writes, are no less likely than the rest of America to own a cellphone, use the Internet or use social networking. And they are just as likely to trip any of a wide variety of indicators of civic engagement, from conversing on social media about politics, speaking out publicly online or offline, receiving political outreach or participating in a protest.

In fact, says Smith, in some cases — such as attending an organized protest — these people are more likely to be involved than other Americans.

The report draws from a tracking survey of 2,253 adults conducted in summer 2012. The margin of error is 2.4 percentage points.