The Pew Internet and Life Project released new research today on the Internet and Campaign 2010 that 73% of adult internet users went online to get news, information or otherwise be involved in last year’s elections. That represents some 54% of all US adults, or a majority of the population, now are turning to the Internet when election season comes around. Expect that to grow further in the presidential season next year.
“As the Internet has developed as a tool for political engagement and information-seeking, the audience for online political content has also changed,” said Aaron Smith, Pew Internet senior research specialist in a prepared statement. Smith authored the report. “These online spaces are a meeting place where politically engaged Americans of all stripes—young and old, conservative and liberal—can come to catch up on the latest events, share their thoughts on the political news of the day, and see what their friends have to say about the issues that are important to them.”
Mainstream media websites occupy the top 5 spots in the list of the main sources of news cited by respondents, next to Yahoo and Google. Only 2% of those surveyed said that they visited a candidate’s website, setting a low bar for that number to explode in the 2012 cycle as both incumbents and those wishing to oust them turn to the Web to “go direct” to citizens.
For some, where they’re visiting is a little less clear. 29% of those surveyed chose “other” for their main sources of news, which could mean any number of sources in the blogosphere or the rest of the Internet.
Social networking is an increasingly important factor in American consumption of political news. According to eMarketer, in 2011 half of all US Internet users log in monthly to Facebook.
There are now well over than tens of million American Twitter users, though a small percentage of those users account for the bulk of the tweets. According to Pew, one in five online adults (22%) used Twitter or a social networking site for political purposes in 2010. Twitter has some 200 million users worldwide, approximately 60 million of them of which are in the United States.
With more broadband access, Internet-connected flatscreen televisions, set-top boxes and an explosion of video-capable smartphones and tablets, people are also watching in more places, spaces and times than ever before. Timeshifting stopped being a science fiction phenomenon years ago with the introduction of digital video recorders, familiar now as “DVRs”, but on-demand video from Apple, Amazon, YouTube, Netflix and a host of other sites are available to those able to pay the toll for broadband Internet access.
According to the report, some “55% of all internet users feel that the internet increases the influence of those with extreme political views, compared with 30% who say that the internet reduces the influence of those with extreme views by giving ordinary citizens a chance to be heard.”
This could be true, or it could be a false positive. What if people are conflating things? Arguably politics in America is more polarized, but cable TV and talk radio and paid negative political advertising are driving that shift, while the Internet is just an overall disruptive force that is enabling lots of more people to speak up and connect with the like-minded and unlike-minded alike.
Polarization can express itself in how people group online and offline. As with so many activities online, political information gathering online requires news consumers to be more digitally literate.
In 2011, that may mean recognizing the potential for digital echo chambers, where unaware citizens become trapped in a filter bubble created by rapidly increasing personalization in search, commercial and social utilities like Google, Amazon and Facebook.
Pew’s research found that some of the people surveyed at least recognized the complexity of the political landscape online. With a few clicks of the mouse, keystrokes or finger taps, a news consumer can find the best and worst of humanity is mirrored online. The open platform of the Internet allows extremist views to co-exists alongside moderate perspectives. It also provides means for like-minded citizens to find one another, using the Internet as a platform for collective action.
While the diversity of sources may have radically expanded and the delivery systems for them may have multiplied, finding and establishing the truth of what’s out there can be be challenging.
You can download the full report as a PDF here. For digital politicos, it’s a must read.