A study by the Pew Research Center shows that 54% of all adults used the Internet for political purposes during last year’s election. That includes getting information and also getting involved in the campaigns. This represents 74% of Internet users in this country, and far exceeds the number who got politically involved on line during the 2006 midterms. It also exceeds the Internet political participation in 2008 although not by as much. 22% of adult Internet users made use of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter for political purposes – considerably less than used the Internet overall, but a large and growing percentage. 26% of Americans used their cell phones to learn about the campaign or participate in it (although that could possibly include just talking to someone on the phone about it).
There is every reason that this trend will continue, and that we will see more Internet and social media politicking in 2012 than ever before. What’s more, Internet politics is not confined to electoral efforts. The Occupy movement started (in one sense) with the hashtag #Occupywallstreet being put out on Twitter after first being blog-published by the Canadian consumer watchdog group Adbusters. The idea was to generate protest movements of the same sort that occurred in the Middle East recently, building on widespread dissatisfaction with the government’s corporate-friendly policies and the economic downturn – which had also been widely expressed on line and in social media. Eventually, the hashtag and the idea of occupying Wall Street spread, and coalesced in to a movement, with much of that movement’s coordination, organization, and communication also being done on the Internet and in social media.
So the digital world is changing the way we do politics, both in the traditional context of elections and in the more primal world of political protest. How is this likely to change things in the future?
For the moment, the explosion of net politics is benefiting left-leaning efforts more than those on the right. There are two reasons for this. One is that, compared to conventional means of communicating, the Internet and social media are cheap, and often free. This undercuts a lot of the advantage of deep pockets which have benefited pro-business conservatives in traditional contests dominated by expensive traditional media. The other reason is that the rising and Internet-savvy generation of young adults known as the Millennials tend to lean left on a lot of issues more than older generations. The first of these advantages may be expected to continue. The second, however, probably won’t, as future generations may be more conservative from time to time. It’s likely to balance out eventually; these things usually to.
Another change, possibly more important than any other, is simply speed. The Internet and social media accelerate the pace of communication, and so the pace of politics, dramatically. The results of this will be interesting to watch over the coming years.
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