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?”

lessons in democracy from America – part 2

Yesterday at the Kennedy School of Government I attended the IOP Forum “War Stories: Inside Campaign 2008”, where David Axelrod (Chief Strategist, Obama Campaign) and David Plouffe (Campaign Manager, Obama Campaign) discussed with Rick Davis (Campaign Manager, McCain Campaign) and Bill McInturff (Chief Pollster, McCain Campaign) the 2008 presidential campaign, in an open forum. This forum was part of a tradition, the John F. Kennedy, Jr. forum series organized by the Harvard Institute of Politics, which for years has been inviting politicians, academics and journalists to debate current issues in front of an audience, made up mostly by students but also by journalists, politicians etc. These forums are moderated and they conclude with a question and answers sessions with people in the audience. As I sat there listening to the campaigners recall events and anecdotes from the campaign, and analyzing achievements and mistakes made, I could not help but thinking about the transparency and accountability promoted by such events. And wondering when there will be a day in my home country when similar events will take place….

lessons in democracy from America

I just finished listening to the first press conference of President elect Barack Obama. While acknowledging the great challenges which are lying ahead of his adminstration, starting from the catastrophic state of the global economy, what President Obama (and boy it feels good to write that word ‘president’ down!) kept emphasizing in his talk, was the need to to act together as a nation in order to face the challenges ahead: “I know we will succeed if we put aside partisanship and politics and work together as one nation“. This emphasis on unity and bi-partisanship, which has been the strength of Obama’s electoral campaign, strikes me as something which can be easily taken for granted but which is too often not practiced in everyday politics. I am thinking of my country, Italy, where the population and the electorate are split in half – and where the ruling political class exacerbates this rift, not only by avoiding engaging in dialogue with the political opposition but by willfully seeking to de-legitimize political opponents and their policies – thus reinforcing, rather than smoothing out, existing social divisions and alienating people from the political process.

I was lucky enough to attend today a brilliant talk held at Harvard’s department of Afro-American Studies, by three outstanding scholars such as William Julius Wilson, Orlando Patterson and Lani Guinier on the election of President Obama and the future of race in America. According to Prof. Wilson it was Barack Obama’s inclusive, unifying message during the campaign which got him the support from voters from all racial backgrounds and ultimately made him successful in his bid for the presidency. Prof. Wilson explained how Obama has succeeded in creating a sense of interdependence between different social groups – and when different groups believe they need one another to obtain their aims they will cooperate better, and in so doing they will also reduce prejudice against each other.

This idea of cooperation and unity to better overcome social problems (and prejudice and social divisions), is reflected in the extraordinary grassroots efforts which have gone into this election campaign especially amongst younger people. In this election young people have been amongst the greatest supporters of Obama, who has manged to mobilize them, out of their political apathy, to unprecedented levels. They made their voices heard not only through online activism but also through face to face canvassing – and ultimately with their votes. As Lani Guinier emphasised today, this was another factor which made Obama’s bid successful. And the greatest significance of this activism by young people lies in the fact that it has managed to change politics from the bottom-up, thus contributing to the creation of a new generation of leadership, which will contribute to the sustainability of this exercise in democracy (and social capital!) in years to come.

America has given the world the greatest lesson in democracy – and we can only hope that the sense of renewed hope, which is presently being felt not only in America but all over the world, will help younger people in other countries too feel empowered enough that they can feel that they can too make change happen.

Internet overtakes newspapers as main source of campaign news

[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.

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