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Is the Internet a 'weapon of the strong'?

by John Sides

The Internet provides people new ways in which to participate in politics.  But does it help new kinds of people participate in politics?  That is the question addressed in a new paper by Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba and Henry Brady.  (A gated version is here.  An earlier, ungated version is here.)

Schlozman, Verba and Brady want to know whether political participation on the Internet is less stratified by the usual factors, especially socioeconomic status (SES) and age.  Using a 2008 survey, they asked respondents whether they had taken a series of on- and off-line political actions, such as signing a petition or contacting a representative -- and they then compared the percentage of actions taken by respondents of different SES levels and ages.

The graph above shows the amount of political activity for different levels of SES.  Online political activity is as stratified by socioeconomic status as is off-line activity.  The line for "offline act" ascends about as steeply as the line for "online act."  And this is not simply a function of Internet access -- i.e., the "digital divide."  The line for online acts among Web users ascends almost as steeply.  A similar finding emerges when the focus is donations to campaigns.  Those donating online are doing so in smaller amounts, but these small donors are no less affluent than small donors giving offline.

Online political participation is less stratified by age, as young people are, unsurprisingly, more likely than older Americans to participate in this way.  However, this is due almost entirely to the digital divide: Among Web users, the young are actually slightly less participatory than seniors. 

Scholzman and colleagues conclude:

If we began this inquiry hopeful that the political possibilities of the Internet might disrupt long-standing patterns of participatory equality in American politics, what we have found has, by and large, showed these expectations to be unfounded.

John Sides is an assistant professor of political science at George Washington University.  He blogs at the Monkey Cage.

By John Sides  |  August 24, 2010; 10:15 AM ET
 
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