Wealthy, well-educated more likely to engage in online civic activities

The findings from a study indicate the Obama administration might have more work to do to meet its goal of increasing broad public involvement in policymaking.

Wealthy and well-educated Americans dominate online civic activities, just as they have long dominated traditional civic involvement, according to a study released on Tuesday by Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project.

The findings from the survey, conducted during the 2008 presidential campaign, also likely hold true for the administration's online transparency movement, a co-author of the report said.

"What we were looking to find out, at the most basic level, is if the Internet is changing the face of political participation," said Aaron Smith, a Pew research specialist and co-author of the analysis, which was conducted in August 2008.

The report found that "contrary to the hopes of some advocates, the Internet is not changing the socioeconomic character of civic engagement in America. Just as in offline civic life, the well to-do and well-educated are more likely than those less well off to participate in online political activities such as e-mailing a government official, signing an online petition or making a political contribution."

Offline civic life, according to the telephone survey of 2,251 adults, included activities such as contacting a government official in person, signing a paper petition or mailing a political contribution.

Nearly a third more wealthy Americans participated in traditional political activities than those in the lowest income category. One in five of those who earned less than $20,000 a year took part in two or more offline activities, compared with 45 percent of those earning $100,000 or more per year.

A similar gap also existed for the Internet. Eight percent of those in the lowest income category engaged in online activism, whereas 35 percent of those in the highest income group participated.

The digital divide between people who can and cannot afford Internet access was a factor, but that didn't entirely explain the gap between low- and high-income Internet users. "Yet even within the online population, there is a strong positive relationship between socioeconomic status and most of the measures of Internet-based political engagement we reviewed," the report stated.

Meanwhile, President Obama is depending on the Internet to involve all segments of the population in forming policies. During his first day in office, Obama issued an executive memo urging agencies to form a more transparent and open government by harnessing new technologies to put information about their operations on the Web.

The administration has attempted to fulfill the goals of the memo by collaborating with citizens online to draft an open government directive, seeking public comment on regulatory and scientific integrity overhauls, holding online forums to change classification policies and attaching a blog to almost every Web site.

"Those are very sort of wonky things and appeal to a subset of the population that is very well-educated, wealthy," Smith said. "I suspect it would be very much the same people we see historically taking part" in offline political movements.

Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said Obama can overcome the digital disparity plaguing online political activism by giving everyone a reason to go online.

"You have to persuade people that they need to get involved," he said. "I think it's possible to engage people [online] if they're interested in the issues. We saw that during the campaign."

Motivation, not technology, determines who goes online to interact with the government, West added.

Even if the wealthy and well-educated are spearheading online civic movements, all citizens stand to benefit from the interaction because their activism makes information easier to obtain than ever before, said Jordan Forbes, federal government affairs manager at the National Taxpayers Union. The organization supports lower taxes and smaller government.

There is hope that social networking could change the stratification online in the future, according to the report. While the well-off are more likely to participate in Web activities that replicate real-world groundwork, such as online donations, the demographics are skewing younger for Internet activities that do not have offline counterparts. Those activities include posting videos and comments about political issues on social networking sites.

About 37 percent of Internet users aged 18-29 use social sites for political or civic involvement, versus 17 percent of online 30-49 year olds, 12 percent of 50-64 year olds and 10 percent of Internet users over 65.

"It's an open question . . . as to what happens when these people grow up" as far as their income and education levels, Smith said. "It's very hard to measure the socioeconomic level of someone who is 25 years old and only been in the workforce a year or two or who is in college and hasn't even worked before."

Federal officials currently are expanding citizen outreach efforts to target mobile device users. The study found that only 15 percent of cell phone owners who were engaged in political activities used their phones last summer for such activities.

Smith said that number likely will grow. "I think cell phones in 2008 are a little bit where online videos were in 2006," he said. When the project conducts a similar study in 2012, "I think cell phones could quite possibly be the next thing."