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. Continue reading “The Internet and the 2008 US election: participation and/or fragmentation?”

when your analog dossier becomes digital

[youtube width=”315″ height=”235″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79IYZVYIVLA[/youtube]

In their book Born Digital: Understading the First Generation of Digital Natives, John Palfrey and Urs Gasser introduce us to the notion of “digital dossier”, the collection of all the information and of the little traces that you are leaving behind every time you go online, while checking your email, posting on Facebook, when you Twitter or when you leave a comment on a blog. The digital dossier, as this video we made for our Berkman Digital Natives project shows perfectly and simply, is not only made up of the traces you leave online, but also of all that information that other people post about you. And while you may be aware of all the traces you are leaving behind, and you may have a certain degree of control over it, you might be less aware and have even less control on the traces that other people leave about you. Continue reading “when your analog dossier becomes digital”

Changing privacy expectations?

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.

The Internet: politics as usual?

With the primaries in full swing and the upcoming elections, one cannot but ponder what role new technologies such as the Internet are playing in facilitating citizens’ engagement in the political process. Is the Internet actually making a difference?

The Internet has certainly lowered the barriers of participation – if one wants to get involved, there are numerous arguably low cost ways to do so. Social networking sites such as Facebook allow users to join groups or become supporters of one’s favorite politician. Political satire DIY videos abound on YouTube, from the downright entertaining to the more engaged ones. Finally, there is a series of innovative websites, for example Scoop08, VoteGopher and Generation Engage, which are entirely made up of user generated content allowing (especially young) people to voice their opinions and engage in political discussion.

But does online political participation matter if it does not eventually translate into some tangible offline outcome such as for example turnout at the ballots or door to door canvassing? To put it in other words, is the online participatory culture promoted by the Internet meaningful in itself – if it does not translate into a (offline) participatory democracy? Similarly, does offline political participation which was originated online matter if it is only short term and episodic (for example taking part in a protest organized on Facebook)? Is one off participation as valuable as long term commitment to a cause? After all, some of the most successful online ventures such as MoveOn.org and MeetUp.com can ascribe a big part of their accomplishments to the fact that they are rooted in local communities and offline social networks.

It is being argued that the Internet is really making a difference for young people’s political engagement. There is some evidence that the current generation of 18-24 year olds is more civically engaged than previous generations of young people. While it can be argued that Web 2.0 tools, from social networking sites to YouTube are the domain of the young, can we safely assume that it is the Internet which is playing a major role in engaging young people in the political process? How do we isolate the impact of the Internet from other exogenous factors such as the war in Iraq, the years of the Bush administration, or the 9/11 attacks as political scientist Robert Putnam has recently claimed?

While the Dean campaign was greeted as the first Internet election, online fundraising was the main feature of the novelty. Much has changed since then, thanks to the new opportunities for involvement provided by Web 2.0 tools. Unfortunately, studying these new trends is often fraught with methodological difficulties: how can we quantify the aggregate effect of the thousands of videos uploaded on YouTube; or of the scattered conversations and strategic planning which takes place online on politicians websites, users’ blogs and Facebooks groups? Perhaps the most important question to be asked is whether and how the Internet is contributing to the empowerment of individuals – as political efficacy and political trust are necessary conditions for becoming involved in the political process.

Frontline’s “Growing Up Online”: What about the digital dossier?

(by Corinna di Gennaro and Miriam Simun – cross-posted from Digital Natives blog and Berkman blog)

PBS recently aired “Growing Up Online” (and posted the entire episode on their website) – an inquisitive look into the lives of so-called Digital Natives. The program presented a world of young people spending much of their lives immersed in digital media – constantly connected to friends and others via mobile phones and web sites such as MySpace and YouTube. These are the lives of young people who are the first generation to grow up online, or those “born digital”, to borrow the term from John Palfrey’s and Urs Gasser’s forthcoming book of the same title. Frontline addressed several of the key issues the Digital Natives project is investigating, including education in the age of internet, online identity play, cyber-bullying, and online sexual predators.

While the documentary hinted at the types of creative expression and activity taking place online, the focus was very much on the risks associated with socializing on the internet. Discussion of young people’s private lives, which are increasingly taking place online, touched upon the shifting notions of privacy among youth raised with a mouse in-hand, and a number of the issues regarding the wide and unknown audience they present themselves to. Hats off to Frontline for taking a fair – and realistic – stance in addressing the sexual predator issue. Despite media portrayal of sexual predators lurking behind every corner of the internet – NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” has quite a good hand in this – research is beginning to show that this is a seriously, and dangerously, overblown threat. A Cal State study by Larry Rosen mentioned in the program found that young people on MySpace are rarely approached for sexual liaisons, and those that are tend to be seeking these types of interactions. Our research on the Digital Natives project has supported these findings – the overwhelming majority of teens are very aware of sexual predator concerns and are incredibly savvy at navigating the internet and avoiding contact with creepy strangers. In fact, most youth we spoke with largely avoid online contact with anyone they don’t know personally.

The risks associated with teens socializing online were further highlighted by Davina, a high school student interviewed who took part in a lunchroom fight that ended in chair-throwing and a video that proceeded to earn her YouTube fame. Davina is now legitimately concerned that this video – and her behavior – is now permanently available for all to see – including college admissions officers. While kids socialize in online spaces they often feel are out of the realm of adults, college admission officers and prospective employers are trolling sites like MySpace and Facebook, searching for evidence of illegal or unsavory hijinks to deny offers of admission or employment. A media blitz last spring highlighting stories of employers discriminating against college grads based on unsavory Facebook photos and police officers searching for evidence of underage drinking on MySpace, appears to have affected youth behavior, to a degree. We have found that youth, particularly those attending more elite high schools and universities, are increasingly becoming wise to these issues. They are taking charge of their social networking sites’ privacy settings, or removing all together those frat-party videos that seemed so funny last Saturday night. A serious issue is the inequality of awareness we have found among the students we talked to – in more affluent schools, college counselors and teachers are adamantly warning students from the start to be careful what they post online, while students from lower performing schools were more likely to hear the warnings from after-school programs they were involved with, or else, wait for the warnings to be passed down from friends.

One issue of a life online which was completely ignored by Frontline is the digital dossier: the accumulation of personal data collected as people use digital technology. In focusing the program so heavily on social networking sites, it is surprising that there was no discussion of the repercussions of the availability and permanence of online personal data – not to sexual predators or college counselors, but in mass form, to service providers and marketers. As teens socialize online they share photos, videos, blog posts and personal musings – all of this content is hosted by sites that wield enormous power over what they do with these data, and who they share them with. As children grow up online – starting with NeoPets at 4, to MySpace at 14, to Facebook at 24 – they document everything, and leave this documentation in the hands of companies that have profit, rather than kids’ best interest, at heart. For example, Facebook collects information about users and then reserves the right to share all the amassed information with third parties. When signed in to email or blogger, Google is keeping tabs on every search the user conducts. In twenty years, marketers may know a six-year-old’s interests and habits better than he knows them himself.

Our research has shown that while many young people are disinterested about data collection issues, they are also largely unaware of what is being collected, how it is being used, and what the repercussions may be. Some who are more aware, cite the inevitability of compromising their privacy if they are going to engage in the social world, which, for the 12-24 age group, has migrated online. As one student we talked to – a particularly thoughtful high school senior – said “… anyone can have access to your stuff. [..] do you accept that because you participate in using internet and technology like that or is there a way to fight that and create ways in which you can keep stuff private and keep stuff yours? [..] People Google everything because they just think to. They don’t know where this information goes. They don’t know that [..] when you log on to certain sites [..] they keep track of [..] when you log on and what you write. [..] It’s the fact that people don’t know. ..There’s not enough transparency for young people to know and they participate very unknowledgeably. That’s what scares me because you don’t know what that will end up looking at later on.” Perhaps rather than focusing efforts on bills like DOPA that limit access to social sites in response to sexual predator fear, congress should focus on protecting the mass amounts of information service providers like MySpace and Facebook amass from the millions of young people that live their lives on these sites.

In spite of the current lack of attention among US lawmakers to these concerns, issues of privacy stemming from the use of new technologies are becoming increasingly relevant not only for digital natives, but for all citizens living online. In Europe, stricter privacy laws are bringing more attention to these issues: the Council of Europe has organized the second annual “Data Protection Day” (January 28, 2008) marked by campaigns to raise awareness amongst middle school and high school students about how and why personal information is collected, and what is done with these data. As part of this initiative, the transatlantic privacy perspective will be discussed at Duke University Center for European Studies. Education about issues of privacy must be extended beyond fears of sexual predators and trolling college admission officers or potential employers. The reality and implications of the widespread and largely unregulated collection and dissemination of private data must be taught to youth that spend so much time living and sharing online. In order to be successful, this is an effort which must be undertaken by the many stakeholders involved – parents, schools, young people themselves, and policy makers. It is not only necessary to reform current laws in order to make service providers act responsibly in the collection and sharing of user data, but also to help young people understand the online world they inhabit, so that they may engage in knowledgeable and critical ways.

The Internet is first source of campaign news for young Americans

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)

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