[Cross-posted on Berkman’s Internet & Democracy blog]
There were many firsts in this 2008 election cycle: amongst them the pivotal role played by the Internet in engaging voters, raising funds and organizing volunteers and party supporters. But the most striking trend to emerge was that the Internet has overtaken newspapers as the main source where people look for campaign news.
A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press (full report here) has looked at the different media sources where people look for campaign information between October 2004 and 2008. According to the poll:
– the percentage of respondents who reports turning to the Internet as their first or second choice for getting campaign information has tripled between 2004 and 2008 from 10% to 33% (a staggering 23 percentage point change).
– At the same time the percentage of people who mention newspapers as their first or second choice for getting campaign news has remained stable at 29% between 2004 and 2008.
TV remains the most prominent source of campaign information. What is striking, however, is that especially amongst young people the Internet is largely the new place where to go and look for political news. 49% of 18-29 year olds and 37% of 30-49 year olds turned to the Internet compared to 29% of 50-64 year olds and 12% of the over 65. For newspapers we see the exact opposite trend: only 17% of 18-29 year olds and 23% of 30-49 year olds looked for campaign news in newspapers (both percentages below the general population average), compared to 34% of 50-64 year olds and 45% of over 65.
Clearly these data show that it is not only ‘digital natives’ who are turning increasingly to new media to get their political information. The 30-49 age group is also choosing technology over more ‘traditional’ sources of information, suggesting that an important transformation is taking place in news consumption habits. This is certainly aided by the increasing attention paid to new technologies by campaign strategists – but also by the growing bottom-up participation encouraged by blogs, social networking sites and interactive features of online news sites.
As Miriam Simun from our Digital Natives team is off this morning to present our research findings on digital natives and their attitudes towards privacy at the Harvard CRCS Privacy and Security seminar series, news comes from Italy that the Agenzia delle Entrate – the department of revenue – has made available online for all to see citizens’ annual incomes, searchable by anyone with an Internet connection. After a few hours the site was up it got clogged with requests, while protests started to come in for the breach of tax payers’ privacy. The Garante della Privacy intervened later in the day to stop the data from being released online.
What’s interesting about this story is that one might expect general outrage at the revenue department’s initiative to make such highly personal data public. But a quick look at two online opinion polls published by two of the major national newspapers shows that the outrage is not as widespread as it might be believed. At the time of writing this, sixty four percent of the readers who replied to the poll answered that they saw nothing wrong with the initiative – while 34 percent of respondents replied that making data available online was too much (La Repubblica). A poll by another newspaper, il Corriere della Sera – shows slightly different results, with 52 percent of respondents agreeing with the initiative to make the data available online.
While these polls are in no way representative, they are nonetheless indicative of a shared feeling that if personal data is made available online in order to increase transparency, then loss of privacy should be seen as acceptable. I was surprised – but less so when I put these results in context of our findings from our Digital Natives project. We live increasingly in a surveillance society where data is constantly collected about us from different technologies without people being necessarily aware of it – at the same time, we are increasingly sharing details of our personal lives online. Amongst the young people we’ve interviewed for our project, there is some awareness that loss of privacy is the trade off for living increasingly connected lives online. Clearly the tide cannot be stopped – what’s needed is a concerted effort to address these issues from an educational, technical and legal architecture standpoint in order to educate people (and institutions) on how to navigate this new world.
In the last few weeks, a couple of initiatives in the UK have caught the eye of privacy advocates: first, the government proposal of making Internet Service Providers responsible for taking legal action against users who download music illegally over their accounts, thus making them actively responsible for monitoring the content which is passed through their networks. Second, the proposal of entering every child into an electronic database which will collect and permanently store students’ records so that these can be accessible to college admissions and prospective employers. Interestingly, these proposals are made just as users’ concerns are growing about social networking sites’ ability of making users’ personal data available to third parties, via Facebook’s applications for example, and about the permanence of such data once they are stored and archived on the site’s servers.
On 28 January 2008, the second annual Data Protection Day will take place, organized by the Council of Europe, with different events planned in the different member states. The aim of this initiative is to raise awareness amongst citizens about how personal data is collected about them, why, and what is done with these data. It also aims to help European citizens understand what are their rights when it comes to data protection issues in several fields of their everyday life: health care, work, their relations with public authorities and when using and surfing the Internet.
In Italy the day will be marked by an initiative by the Garante della Privacy (the Italian data protection authority) particularly aimed at schools, in order to educate high school children about the privacy risks and rights, as well as the opportunities, provided by new technologies, such as the Internet and mobile phones.
This initiative coincides with today’s decision by the Italian Garante della Privacy that mobile phone and Internet service providers will not be allowed anymore to store personal data on users’ online activities. In particular, ISPs will be obliged to delete within two months all information on IP addresses, i.e. the websites visited by users, and on users’ queries and search terms/strings entered in search engines. This is in order to prevent ISPs to be able to reconstruct profiles of users in terms of their political, sexual or religious preferences and health condition on the basis of their online activities.
* For initiatives on Data Privacy Day in North America the event “Data Privacy in Transatlantic Perspective: Conflict or Cooperation?” is being held at the Duke University Center for European Studies.
The Pew Research Center for People and the Press has just released a new survey on the role of the Internet in the 2008 US campaign. The report shows that almost half (42%) of 18 to 29 year olds learns regularly about the campaign from the Internet, double the number in the 2004 campaign (20%). The age divide between young and older people in looking for campaign information online has also doubled since 2004 from 13 percentage points in 2004 to 27 percentage points in 2008 (it should be noted though that the proportion of 30 to 49 year olds and 50 year olds and older turning to the Internet has also grown since 2004, although not as dramatically as amongst 18 to 29 year olds – showing that the Internet is increasingly becoming a source of political information amongst the general population, even though it is still lagging behind TV and daily newspapers).
The Pew findings also show that traditional online news websites such as MSNBC, CNN and Yahoo remain the most visited sites for political information seeking, but amongst young people 37% of 18 to 24 year olds (and 27% of those younger than 30) have gotten campaign information from social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook (compared to 4% of those in their thirties and 1% of those 40 and older), showing how these online spaces have become an important space not only for entertainment but also for more civic minded activities. Two caveats, though….
…there’s a feeling amongst pundits and young people themselves (as many of the young people we interviewed for our Digital Natives project voiced) that membership in political groups on Facebook is so low cost that it is actually meaningless: joining a candidate’s group is like putting a bumber sticker of your favourite candidate on your car. But does this translate into actual offline participation/higher voting turnout? Also, Pew reports that 59% of web users under the age of 30 have come across campaign news online while they were actually looking for something else. Is this kind of exposure better than no exposure at all? Should we consider as political engagement only the one that is costly and face to face, like canvassing and campaigning door to door in the rain or is this exposure to online news a good starting point?
(cross-posted in Digital Natives blog)