The Internet and the 2008 US election: participation and/or fragmentation?

The Pew Internet and American Life Project has just released a report on the role of the Internet in the 2008 US election, which analyses trends in how people consume political news & information and the ways they use the internet to engage with politics. Here are some of the key findings:

More than half  (55%) of the voting-age population has used the Internet to get involved in the political process during the election year (74% of Internet users).

The survey findings show that the Internet has become a paramount tool for people’s engagement in the political process, not only as a source of information (60% of Internet users have gone online to look for political information in 2008 compared to 22% in 1996), but as a tool for active participation. 18% of Internet users actively engaged online by posting comments on the campaign on online forums such as blogs or social networking sites and 45% watched online videos related to the campaign.

Young voters  (18-24 year olds) showed the highest levels of political involvement online. They engaged heavily in the political debate through social networking sites: two-thirds of young people with a social networking profile took part in some form of online political activity.

McCain supporters were more likely to be online political users (due to their socio-demographic profile which matches more closely the general profile of Internet users), however, Obama supporters were generally more engaged in the online political process than McCain supporters. They were more likely to share online political content with others, sign up for updates about the election, donate money to a candidate online, set up political news alerts and sign up online for volunteer activities related to the campaign and to post their own original political content.

The survey shows that the importance of the Internet as a source of political information and election news has been growing compared to other media: the Internet is now equal to newspapers and roughly twice as important as the radio, although TV remains the main source. These differences were greatest amongst young people, who thus show the highest levels of disintermediation in consuming political news.

However, Pew found that while nearly half of online political consumers visited five or more distinct types of online news site, they preferred to visit sites that matched their own political viewpoints, rather than sites with no point of view. This was particularly true for young people and the most engaged. Furthermore, the preference for partisan sources of information has grown between 2004 and 2008, especially amongst young people, showing that fragmentation concerns may be much more relevant today than they were a decade ago.

Author: Corinna

Corinna di Gennaro (BSc LSE; MPhil, DPhil, Oxon) is a sociologist and a professional in the printing industry.

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