Civic Engagement in the Digital Age

Aaron Smith
April 25, 2013

Social networking sites have grown more important in recent years as a venue for political involvement, learning, and debate. Overall, 39% of  all American adults took part in some sort of political activity on a  social networking site during the 2012 campaign.

This means that more Americans are now politically active on  social networking sites (SNS) than used them at all as recently as the  2008 election campaign. At that point, 26% of the population used a  social networking site of any kind.

The growth in several specific behaviors between 2008 and 2012  illustrates the increasing importance of SNS as places where citizens  can connect with political causes and issues:

  • In 2012, 17% of all adults posted links to  political stories or articles on social networking sites, and 19% posted other types of political content. That is a six-fold increase from the  3% of adults who posted political stories or links on these sites in  2008.
  • In 2012, 12% of all adults followed or friended a political candidate or other political figure on a social networking  site, and 12% belonged to a group on a social networking site involved  in advancing a political or social issue. That is a four-fold increase  from the 3% of adults who took part in these behaviors in 2008.

Not only is political activity on social networking sites much  more prevalent than in previous election cycles, the 39% of Americans  who take part in political activities on social networking sites also  tend to be highly active in many other areas of political or civic life:

  • 63% of these “political SNS users” have recently gotten involved in a political activity or group, such as attending a  political meeting or working with fellow citizens to solve a problem in  their community. The national average is 48%.
  • 60% have expressed their opinion about a political or social  issue via online channels—for example, by sending an email to a  government official, or signing an online petition. The national average is 34%.
  • 53% have expressed their opinion about a  political or social issue so via offline channels—for example, by  sending a letter to a government official, or signing a paper petition.  The national average is 39%.

Additionally, many social networking site users report that their discussions on these sites have directly inspired them to engage more  deeply with political issues:

  • 43% of social networking site users say that they have decided to learn more about a political or social issue because of something they read about on a social networking site.
  • 18% of social networking site users say that they have decided to take action involving a political or social issue because of something they read on those sites.                                                         

"Many discussions about the impact of the internet on political  and civic life assume that the people who take part in political  activities on social networking sites are separate and distinct from  those who take part in political activities outside social networking  sites,” said Aaron Smith, Senior Researcher for the Pew Research  Center’s Internet Project and author of the report. “In fact, the  typical American who is politically active engages with political  content across a range of venues—online, offline, and in social  networking spaces. Social networking sites offer a space for individuals who are passionate about issues to share that passion with others, and  their engagement with those issues often bleeds over into other aspects  of their lives.”

Yet even as engagement with political issues in digital spaces  has grown more prevalent in recent years, the underlying demographic  character of this engagement continues to follow certain  long-established patterns. Specifically, those who live in higher income households and those with college or graduate educations are  consistently more likely than those with lower income or education  levels to take part in a host of civic or political activities—in both  online and offline spaces. This gap between these two groups is especially pronounced for the following specific activities:

  • Working with fellow citizens to solve a problem in one’s community
  • Attending a political meeting on local, town or school affairs
  • Being an active member of a group that tries to influence public policy or government
  • Attending a political rally or speech
  • Working or volunteering for a political party or candidate
  • Contacting a government official about an issue that is important to you (both online and offline)
  • Signing a petition (both digitally and on paper)
  • Commenting on a news story or blog post online
  • Making a political contribution

Political involvement on social networking sites is more balanced between lower- and higher-income Americans, yet even in these newer  online venues the college-educated are significantly more likely than  those with a high school education to take part in nearly every  SNS-related behavior we measured in our survey. In other words, even as  the impact of income on political participation is more modest in the  context of social networking sites, socio-economic distinctions related  to education still play a prominent role in these spaces.

“Despite hopes that the internet could change the fundamental  nature of political participation, it is still the case that the  well-educated and relatively well-off are more likely to take part in  civic life both online and offline,” said Smith. “More broadly, those at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum are generally less  involved with the day-to-day outreach, chatter, and discussion around  political issues—regardless of whether those discussions take place in  physical or digital spaces. Political issues, political activity, and  political discussion are ultimately less present in the lives of these  Americans than they are for those at the upper end of the
socio-economic scale.”

Among the other major findings of this research:

  • Despite the increased prominence of online  platforms when it comes to Americans’ political activity, much of the  day-to-day conversation around these issues takes place offline. On an “every day” level, Americans are three times as likely to discuss  politics or public affairs with others through offline channels (such as talking in person or over the telephone) as they are through online  channels.
  • Similarly, the bulk of political campaign contributions happen offline, even as online donations have grown more prominent in recent  years. Some 23% of political donors made only online  contributions in 2012, yet the substantial majority of political donors  (60%) make contributions only via offline methods (that is, in person,  over the telephone, or via regular mail).
  • Online tools have more prominence when it comes  to outreach by groups or organizations looking to encourage political  action (such as donating money, contacting a public official, or working for a candidate or cause). Some 21% of email users (representing 18% of all adults) regularly get asked on email to take some action around a  political or social issue, and 13% of SNS users (representing 8% of all  adults) regularly receive outreach messages on these sites. By  comparison, some 12% of Americans regularly receive these messages by print letter, and 12% regularly receive them by phone call.

The findings of the study are detailed in a new report called, “Civic Engagement in the Digital Age.”  The data are based on a  nationally representative phone survey of 2,253 adults ages 18 and  older, conducted between July 16 and August 7, 2012. Interviews were  conducted in English and Spanish and on landline and cell phones. The  margin of error for the full sample is ± 2.4 percentage points.  

About the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project is one of seven projects that make up the Pew Research Center, a  nonpartisan, nonprofit "fact tank" that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. The Project  produces reports exploring the impact of the Internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care, and  civic and political life. The Project aims to be an authoritative source on the evolution of the Internet through surveys that examine how  Americans use the Internet and how their activities affect their lives.


Sign Up for Email Updates!Sign up to get useful resources sent to your inbox monthly:


Dialogue to Change

Our ultimate goal is to create positive community change that includes everyone, and our tools, advice, and resources foster that kind of change. Whether you’re grappling with a divisive community issue, or simply want to include residents’ voices in city government, Everyday Democracy's Dialogue to Change process, using a racial equity lens, can help.