Social media has yet to show its supposed promise as a great leveler of American democracy, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, which found that sharp divisions in political participation among socioeconomic groups persist despite the presence of Facebook and Twitter.
Although political activity on social networking sites as a whole increased dramatically between 2008 and 2012, the majority of daily political conversations still take place offline, the Pew researchers found.
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“Traditional political activities are most common among the well-educated and financially well-off, regardless of whether they take place online or offline. On social networking sites, income-related differences are more modest — but civic engagement in these spaces is still most prevalent among those with higher educational levels,” the report said.
The statistics bear this out – the political usage rate of social media sites among the lowest (sub-$10,000 per year) earners surveyed is identical to that of the wealthiest group ($150,000+.) The difference, according to the report, is that more well-to-do Americans tend to use social media in greater numbers than their less wealthy peers.
Pew’s report, which was based on a survey of more than 2,250 American adults conducted in mid-2012, also found that the youngest respondents were the most likely to be politically active on social networking sites, at 67%. While 60% of elderly (65 and older) social media users reported using the platform for political purposes, that works out to just 13% of the age group as a whole, due to lower uptake.
The study’s author, Aaron Smith, tells Network World that it’s “fascinating” that most Americans still value offline political activity far more than online.
“For example, three times as many Americans have discussions with others on an ‘every day’ basis about political issues offline as do online. Even as online spaces have grown more prominent for political outreach, activism, and discussion, it’s clear that people still really value the traditional ‘water cooler debate’ in helping them think through what’s going on in the political sphere,” he says.
Part of the reason for this, according to Smith, is that Americans are still somewhat ambivalent about the nature of online political activity. Previous studies have attempted to dig into opinions about engaging with the political process via the Internet in general and social media in particular.
“[Americans] like the fact that they can find like-minded people to discuss the things they are interested in, and that they can have a direct connection to the issues and politicians that they support. At the same time, they worry that the loudest voices tend to dominate the debate and sometimes find it challenging to tell good information from bad,” he says.
While Smith cautions that the world of technology is a quickly changing one, he says that patterns of political activity, both on and off-line, aren’t noticeably shifting.
A similar study performed in 2008, he says, also found that, while online political activity was less divided by class than offline, it still tended to be more common among those with a higher socioeconomic status.
Email Jon Gold at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.
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