Thursday New Tools Feature: Pew Drops Some Science

This week, the Pew Internet and American Life project released an important new report, "The Internet's Role in Campaign 2008." The 92-page document contains a plethora of fascinating data about the how the internet affected the 2008 race. I'll run through some highlights in a moment; basically, though, the report confirms what you may have already suspected, namely that the internet is kind of a big deal.

The Pew report shows concretely and conclusively what we at NDN and NPI have been saying for many years -- that the web is fundamentally changing the way that people get their information about politics, interact with campaigns and each other, organize, and advocate.

Here are some of the key findings of the report:

  • 55% of American adults and 74% of internet users were online political users in 2008, meaning that they got news about politics on the internet and/or communicated with others about politics on the internet.
  • Largely due to the rise of the internet, the size of the overall political news audience in the U.S. has more than doubled since 2000.
  • Online political users are becoming more likely to visit sites and sources that reflect their political viewpoints:

    Fully 44% of Democratic online political users (up from 34% in 2004) and 35% of Republican online political users (up from 26% in 2006) now say that they mostly visit sites that share their political point of view. However, the biggest change between elections occurred among the young. In 2004, 22% of online political users ages 18-24 said most of the sites they visit shared their views. That doubled to 43% of online political users in that age range in 2008.

  • Although more Republicans than Democrats are internet users (internet use being closely related to income), Obama supporters were significantly more likely to be engaged with the campaign online than McCain supporters (see chart), as well as through text message.

  • Young people are the most politically engaged of all internet users:

    This online participatory class is composed largely of politically active young adults — fully 30% of those who post political content online are under the age of 25, and more than half are younger than 35. Political content creation is also tightly linked with the use of social media platforms such as online social networks, video sharing sites, blogs and status update services such as Twitter.

  • A full 65% of social network users age 18-24 used social networks for political purposes in 2008 in some fashion, including sharing who they voted for and seeing who their friends voted for (see my earlier post about why I think this phenomenon is particularly important).

I recommend reading the actual report, because it has a ton of other interesting numbers. I found much of it very heartening - I think, by and large, these developments are very good for our democracy. However, there are also some troubling trends. Take a look at this chart of major sources of election news:

The rise of the internet as a news source as a political news source is indeed pronounced and exciting. However, the sharp decline in newspapers, and therefore probably in professional investigative journalism, may be problematic. I'm also inclined to see the continued dominance of TV as a problem, given the dearth of real political journalism on television today (the Daily Show and Colbert Report of course excepted).

Overall, though, this report is a sign of progress. As Pew says,

...politically interested internet users have access to a wealth of political content online, along with new tools for finding, customizing and filtering highly targeted political commentary. As a result they are delving more deeply into the “long tail” of online political content, where they frequently seek out information that carries a distinct partisan slant and comes from sources beyond traditional news content.

Some may decry the decline of "objective" news, but I contend that more people may be able to discover the truth as they begin to move away from the objective pose of the mainstream media; as esteemed philosopher Slavoj Zizek points out,

Today, emphasizing the depoliticized "objective"...against the allegedly "outdated" forms of ideological passions is the predominant idelogical form, because ideology is always self-referential, that is, it always defines itself through some distance towards an Other dismissed and denounced as "ideological."