In this 2011 file photo, a magnifying glass is posed over a monitor displaying a Facebook page in Munich. (AP)

Every recent election cycle has seen news stories about online activism, suggestion that new technologies might engage people who have historically been less engaged in offline politics – particularly young people, women, and people with less education and income. If this were true, these technologies could substantially change U.S. politics. Today, one in three eligible adults skips voting in presidential elections, and one in three skips voting in midterms.

However, there’s a more pessimistic possible interpretation. What if online activism mainly offers ways for citizens who are politically active offline to amplify their already loud voices? In that case, online political opportunities may simply reinforce existing political inequalities.

We set out to test the opposing “new mobilization” and “reinforcement” ideas. The prevalence of online and offline political acts in the U.S. in 2008 is displayed below.

To begin, we tested whether there is a distinct type of “online political participants”, a group of people who are highly engaged in online political acts, but less involved offline. Second, we analyzed whether the background characteristics of online activists differ in important ways from other types of political participants.

For the first step, we analyzed U.S. data from 2008 using a novel statistical technique for this field of study (latent class analysis). The findings indicate that there are four distinct types of political participants (Figure 1). We found a relatively small group of “online specialists” (in red) who are particularly active in online political opportunities, and make up about 8 percent of the population. Two additional groups of politically active citizens are identified: an “offline specialist” group (in blue, 9 percent of the population), and a “contact specialist” group (in green, 10 percent of the population) that is particularly active in contacting activities, both online and offline. The rest of the population belongs to the disengaged group (in black, 73 percent of the population) which is unlikely to be involved in any political activity, online or offline.


Figure 1 – Four groups of participants

In the second step, we found some room for optimism for those concerned about participatory equality. Although research since the 1960s indicates that older men tend to be the most politically active, in our 2008 data we found that women are as active as men, and that young people are highly active in online political activity.


Our findings are much less optimistic, however, when it comes to socio-economic inequalities in participation. We found no evidence to support the claim that online activism has an equalizing effect on socio-economic inequalities in political participation. Instead, our analysis shows that online political opportunities in the U.S. in 2008 did nothing to change the long-standing pattern that those with higher education and income are much more likely to be politically active than those who are less advantaged.

These findings are just a snapshot in time – but they do not paint an altogether pretty picture. Online political activism is likely to evolve more swiftly in the years ahead than offline activism. But anyone who is hoping that the Internet will engage millions of previously unengaged Americans in the political process should be warned, based on these findings from 2008 data (a year noted for record participation levels). Although online activists are younger and more likely to be women than traditional political activists, they still tend to be wealthier and better educated than the rest of the population.

Jennifer Oser is an Assistant Professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel; Marc Hooghe is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Leuven; Sofie Marien is an Assistant Professor at the University of Amsterdam. This article is based on findings from Jennifer Oser, Marc Hooghe, and Sofie Marien. 2013. Is Online Participation Distinct from Offline Participation? A Latent Class Analysis of Participation Types and Their Stratification.

This post is part of the Scholars Strategy Network series on civic engagement between elections.

See also:

Dave Karpf, The reason why your inbox is flooded with political e-mail.

Peter Levine, Social media hasn’t boosted young voter turnout.

Edward Walker, How business funded the anti-soda tax coalition.

Hahrie Han and Elizabeth McKenna, Engaging voters can kickstart community activism.