“Inclusive” Civic Engagement in the Digital Age – Questions to Spark Debate on an Important Pew Internet Report

Discuss report on Twitter #pewCivic  - Discuss report on Facebook
Discuss report on LinkedIn - Join E-Democracy’s Project Group

Follow-up Analysis and Round table meetings


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.

Here is chart developed by Steven Clift combining Pew and Census data (population):

Online Civic Communicators Chart

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 – WhiteHouse.gov e-petitions and sites like Change.org 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 BeNeighbors.org 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)

Presentation Slides from London “New Voices” dialogue in Nov. 2013



Extended Commentary

Going back to my statement from over a decade ago, “Where we end up in forty years will be based on our democratic intent and the actions we take, or the Internet despite its positive potential, will expand the democratic divide not close it.”

So with two decades dominated by:

  • Dramatic spikes in online election campaign activity (I wonder what a 2013 survey might disclose with online politics for example)
  • The continuous roar of red meat online advocacy, and
  • Divided government which often blames too many angry emails from partisan constituents as among the reasons they can’t compromise

… is it no wonder the awesome potential of the Internet to raise new and significantly more diverse voices in our democracy has not been met?

How do we better leverage our amazing ability to access government information on-demand and share more relevant knowledge to actually improve the outcomes of democratic governance?

Should you give up? No. Do we give up? Heck no.

For those of us experiencing the “positive potential” here and now, we have an obligation to share this experience with all people.

We must share it, extend it, build it, improve it, continue to innovate and experiment if we truly believe in a democracy of, for, and by the people.

With “open government” and civic technology “open to all” in theory but in reality reaching only a narrowcast some, we must dedicate ourselves to aggressively sharing democracy online with ALL. We must work to make it far more relevant to less represented groups in society. If we don’t, our investments of time, energy, and passion will further empower the empowered and unintentionally deepen our civic and democratic divides. Digital civic engagement dominated by the most partisan or well off, no matter your political leans, is bad for our nation.

Stepping off my soapbox, I’ve put together some more questions spurred by the excellent PewInternet.org report to frame our reflections and debate in the coming years:

 1. Why invest in open government, online community engagement, or seek to improve democracy generally with civic technology and information if they do not appear to be an agent for greater public participation by new people or missing voices?

 One might acquiesce and say, digital politics is just a new battlefield for those in power and those who want it to fight it out. It is their playground and simply not of interest to most people – particularly less represented communities. One might say, equity aside, with greater access to information and elected officials, better public decisions are being made. Of course, I do not believe this. Open government investments without active inclusion strategies and dedicated outreach resources may be contributing more the democratic divide than providing solutions. That is the wake up call from this Pew report.

 2. What are the greatest gaps in online political participation and what more can we determine from the report data about those gaps?

 3. What areas of online activity show some evidence of more equitable participation across income, education, and race (… for example are certain people of color such as those under 30, higher income, or better educated participating more online than in-person and working to raise less heard voices)?

 These next two questions suggest that digital engagement should and can be shaped to raise new voices and build a better democracy. These questions suggest we look first to find the largest gaps in participation to identify where we should target our scarce digital engagement resources in order to make the greatest gains. Second, we can sort through the data and see where there are spikes of promise and areas of least resistance to move us away from the status quo democratic divide.

As noted above, looking at the report numbers in terms of race and political social networking users, there is greater equity with discussion and learning, but almost a 2 to 1 divide between White and African-American/Latinos (20% v. 12/11%) social networking users on taking action based on what was learned online. That is one huge gap to close with efforts that build on some of the most promising equity in the report.

Four more big questions are missing from this debate:

 5. For whom is online engagement an entry-level form of political participation that can then be shape to lead to a broader base of traditional as well as sustained online political engagement? (Can we break the ice online more cost-effectively than other interventions?)

This section on page 11 of the report is a huge opportunity to explore in terms of promoting greater democratic engagement:

“17% of political SNS users — representing 8% of the total adult population — engage in political activity on social networking sites but in no other online or offline venues. Demographically, this ‘politically active on social networking sites but not elsewhere’ group tends to be younger, less affluent, and less well-educated than the larger group that participates politically on social networking spaces and also other venues.  (Page 11)”

 6. Can we find evidence on which online features, content, or interventions lead to greater engagement by less represented groups?

 7. On its current track, if we leave online political engagement for the higher income highly educated folks, will the online-generated amplification effect or power concentration impacts make things even worse in terms of the distribution of power and government resources?

 8. Will the positive civic results from those who have “Worked with fellow citizens to solve a problem in your community” offline or online be concentrated in better off areas or is there an opportunity to use online engagement as an accelerator or multiplier to help lower income and very diverse communities solve more community problems together?

 I confess. As someone who has both experienced the fundamentally empowering impact of online group communication, timely and personalized access to government information and decision-makers, and having spent two decades working to shape “e-democracy” so new voices can be heard and more people can help meet public challenges, I am quite biased.

As E-Democracy.org (the world’s first election web site in 1994) has gone deep with inclusive community engagement online with major support from the Knight Foundation building on pilot support from the Ford Foundation, we’ve focused our funded work on lower income, racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods and immigrant communities.

We serve all kinds of communities with public Neighbors Forums (our additional all volunteer efforts are clearly stronger in middle income areas) and reach up to 25% of households ~daily by mixing practical community life exchange with open and civil dialogue on very local public issues. We’ve officially partnered with the City of St. Paul based on their expressed interest in connecting with and hearing from diverse voices not just those who already show up. Our view is that digital engagement, if done right (including major in-person outreach) is one of the most effective ways to make up the gap in overall political participation and community engagement.

So as you read the Pew report, I encourage you to ask what you can do to change the status quo with civic engagement online and work to extend what works with greater more democratic participation online in your own neighborhood, city, state, and nation. Let’s use the power of the Internet to make real democratic change to truly reach new people, raises diverse voices, and ultimately improves the lives everyone around us.

4 thoughts on ““Inclusive” Civic Engagement in the Digital Age – Questions to Spark Debate on an Important Pew Internet Report”

  1. Good post, Steven, and a great set of observations and questions.
    I am heartened by the fact that slacktivists – people who don’t engage at all offline or online – are a minority. I’d always assumed that 80% to 90% of people only engaged in civics or engaged government for NIMBY reasons (opposing a change to their neighborhood like a new jail or widened street), and most people had apathy toward government. That’s obviously NOT true.
    Also I’m heartened by the number of young people who are engaged – more than seniors, really.
    Finally, I agree with your observations that we who work in this field need to build more and better ENGAGEMENT platforms – things like Ideascale or MindMixer (see, for example, Your Voice Vegas). More 311/civic engagement apps. More ways for people to actively partake in GOVERNING as well as elections.
    Thanks again!

  2. The problem of civic engagement of underrepresented communities can be solved if the perceived complexity and/or lack of power is changed by means of a mechanism that permits the discovery of leaders in these communities, so that each member can delegate his vote, but also can revoke it, where each and everyone can grow from represented to different levels of leadership and back depending on his available time, skills and vocation. to break the perceived lack of power, It is necessary that anyone could create a proposal for votation or to amend the proposal of another people so that the civic forums are the very mechanism of decision making, and not something mere consultative and separate from the true body that make the decissions.

    This is one of the purposes of frictionfreedemocracy: http:www.frictionfreedemocracy.org https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ujddVQR4BvQ

  3. There is no doubt that Minnesota’s education achievement gap manifests itself in a variety of ways. The civic engagement numbers for non-white citizens is certainly due in part, to civic education that fails to reflect the rich history of all people who have organized for social change, and improved our state’s quality of life. We are currently working on an initiative to capture these often marginalized voices and make them available for free to anyone on an OER (open educational resources) site.

  4. Steven, thank you for this analysis. I’ve shared it with my own networks and hope more will take part in the discussion. I think that one strategy for closing the engagement gaps and increasing participation in community problem solving would be a consistent effort to reach youth in schools and non-school programs with activities that teach concepts and habits of on-line learning, network building, discussion and engagement.

    I saw a report from the Minnesota Mentoring Partnership that said there were over 40,000 mentors. That’s an army of potential volunteers who might bring digital learning into the lives of young people, and who might build their own skills at the same time. I think this opportunity exists all over the country, but I’m not sure how many youth program leaders are yet focusing on this.

    Are there any volunteers, or leaders, of youth mentoring programs in this discussion group?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *