Dispatch September 2009

The Netroots Effect

The Web was supposed to bring new citizens into the political process. A new study finds that’s just not happening.
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In 2004, Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s techie campaign manager, declared that “the Internet is the most democratizing innovation we’ve ever seen—more so even than the printing press.” Five years later, after Barack Obama’s largely Web-based presidential campaign and Iran’s largely Twitter-fueled election protests, there is no doubt that the Internet has revolutionized how people interact with politics. News is more immediate, communication is more widespread, and, it seems, more people can engage in the political world than ever before. But according to a new report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the Internet is not the vehicle of democratization that Trippi and others had proclaimed. Rather than empowering the voiceless masses, the report finds, the Web has shifted more political power into the hands of the educated, well-to-do citizens already engaged in the political process.

In a survey conducted in late August 2008, Pew found that only 8 percent of people with a household income of less than $20,000 had participated in two or more online political activities—emailing their representatives, donating money through a political campaign or group’s Website, or signing an online petition—in the past year, as opposed to 35 percent of those with an income of $100,000 or more. A similar 33-percentage-point gap emerged between college graduates and those without a high school degree. In other words, much to the disappointment of the report’s authors, higher-income, more educated people were just as likely to dominate civic engagement online as they were offline (click here for a graph showing this mirror effect).

One driving force behind the report’s findings is, of course, the reality that Internet access is far from as universal as we’d like to think. Just last year, when this survey was conducted, a full 27 percent of Americans did not go online. Sidney Verba, a Harvard professor and one of the report’s four co-authors, refers to this minority as “the silent part of American society.” Much of Verba’s research focuses on how this silenced group has been overtaken, in terms of historic civic and political participation, by older citizens with higher incomes and more education.

“The question is,” Verba asks, “is the Internet revolutionizing things or is it providing just more of the same?” To his chagrin, the study’s results pointed to the latter outcome, a conclusion that political scientist Matthew Hindman foreshadowed in his 2008 book The Myth of Digital Democracy. Web traffic and search patterns empower a small group of elites, Hindman argues, who are becoming disproportionately powerful in shaping political information.

Even at Daily Kos, an original member of the democratically dogmatic Netroots, elite users dominate the discourse. Daily Kos readers, who also post content and comments on the site, have slid comfortably into the traditional civic participation demographic: 84 percent are over 35 years old, 86 percent have gone to college, and 72 percent earn over $60,000. Twitter, the New York Times reported recently, has attracted a similar demographic of older and more professional users. Facebook, too, has drawn ever increasing numbers of 35-and-over adults, and a good majority of its users rest in the upper income bracket.

Daily Kos editors do not relish the homogeneity of their user base, general manager Will Rockafellow explains, and are looking into multimedia and social networking projects as a means of drawing a more diverse crowd. Similar tactics have been cleverly employed by Causes, an organization that runs Facebook and MySpace applications of the same name. By signing up for Causes on Facebook, users can join efforts surrounding everything from ending rape in Congo to supporting the arts program at a local middle school. They then tap into their preexisting online social networks to recruit friends to their causes by posting information and broadcasting the frequency and amounts of their donations.

“It’s equal-opportunity activism,” explains Joe Green, a 26-year-old who co-founded Causes after observing the power of social pressure during his stint as an on-the-ground organizer for John Kerry. “Our fundamental starting belief is that anyone can change the world and the best way to do that is to talk to the people you know,” he says. Since Causes launched two years ago, it has processed more than $11 million in online donations to various nonprofits and major presidential campaigns. The average donation is around $25 and likely to come from a first-time or non-habitual donor.

Such efforts may well point toward a Web that might come to resemble Trippi’s democratic vision: when the Pew researchers turned to the realm of blogging and social networking, they saw the entrenched patterns of civic participation begin to erode. Among those who posted political content—videos, blog posts, comments on an article, etc.—online, only a 5-percent difference emerged between the highest and lowest income groups. Among adults who used social networking sites for political purposes, the difference was a mere 3 percentage points. The education gap for the same activities shrank to 7 and 6 percent, respectively. Needless to say, these bloggers and social networkers are also significantly younger than their offline, pamphlet-ing counterparts.

In his book, Hindman points out that technologies like the telegraph, the radio, and television were all heralded as democratizing breakthroughs in their early days, but even now, we’re still debating whether TV has accomplished this goal. The Internet is still new, compared to those technologies, and its landscape changes so quickly that the Pew report—though released today—is already, in some ways, outdated. It does not include Twitter in its “social networking” category, for example, since just a few months before the data was collected only 6 percent of American Internet users Tweeted. That still-rising number hit 10.7 percent in June, and Twitter has now become a popular conduit for political activity; in the past year, people across the world have Tweeted fundraising pleas, key information about terrorist attacks, and, famously, calls to protest.

Most conspicuously absent from the report is, of course, the final stretch of last year’s historic presidential race. Though the non-politicos who engaged online for the first time during the early days of the Obama campaign surely influenced the Pew findings, the report would most likely have painted a different picture if it had included both candidates’ autumn fundraising sprees or that most basic of civic actions, voting. Indeed, the spike in last year’s voter turn-out suggests that this presidential race may actually have broken through some of the participatory barriers that Verba and his co-authors lament.

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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