Summary:

Are all those Facebook posts about political candidates amounting to much when it comes to civic engagement? A new report from the Pew Research Center breaks down civic participation and social media.

More Americans are posting about political causes and activities to social media outlets now than they were during the 2008 election, showing increased levels of comfort around using social media to advance civic causes, according to a new Pew Research Center report set to release late Wednesday.

The Pew report highlights changes in social media over the first four years of Barack Obama’s presidency, showing how people are more likely to post to sites like Twitter and Facebook. However, these dramatic increases aren’t all that surprising. Twitter was barely a mainstream source for news in 2008, and Facebook wasn’t much older at that point. Now both sites have become much more accepted as major advertising and communications platforms, so the increased participation there makes sense.

However, it’s worth noting how people use these platforms around civic engagement, because these types of participation could impact the business models of companies like Twitter and Facebook as they grow. It’s also worth considering how social participation corresponds with income and education levels, and how it translates into life offline.

Here were some of the most interesting stats from the report, titled “Civic Engagement in the Digital Age,” which will become available on Pew’s site later Wednesday (Update: it’s now available on the site here.):

  • Increased activity: More Americans used social networks for political activity (39 percent of all adults) in the 2012 race than used social media at all in 2008 (only 26 percent were using social media at the time.)
  • Offline engagement: Those 39 percent of people who are politically active on social networks aren’t just limiting their activity to Facebook — they’re also really engaged offline as well. Sixty-three percent of the people who post political activity online then do something like attending a meeting in person, compared to the national average of 48 percent of people who take offline political action. They’re also more likely to contact their representative online than the average public.
  • What they’re posting: In 2012, 17 percent of adults posted political stories to social media (up from 3 percent in 2008), and 12 percent friended or followed a candidate in 2012 (up from 3 percent in 2008.) Since more candidates now have active social accounts, this makes sense.
  • Sparking an interest: It’s encouraging to note that 43 percent of people using social media said they were inspired to go learn more about something they saw on these channels. What exactly they went on to learn and where they learned it is not noted, but it does show that a Facebook post could spark greater civic interest.
  • Demographics: Wealthy, better-educated individuals are more likely to become politically engaged both online and offline, although the disparity of participation between low-income and high-income groups was less pronounced on social media than in other capacities. However, the researchers said it doesn’t look like social media will be the political equalizer people thought it might be.
  • The remaining power of offline: Americans are still three times more likely to discuss politics offline (in person or over the phone) than they are online, reminding users that political discourse hasn’t moved entirely to Facebook. And the same is true for political donations, 60 percent of which took place offline.

The Pew report was conducted in July and August of 2012 and interviewed 2,253 adults over the age of 18. The interviews took place on both landline phones and cell phones and in English and Spanish. The study’s margin of error is plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.

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