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Eszter Hargittai and Aaron Shaw are giving a Berkman lunchtime talk titled “The Internet Young Adults, and Political Engagement around the 2008 Elections.” It’s a collaborative work between Northwestern U (where Eszter is) and Berkman (where Aaron is). What did the Obama campaign mean for the Internet’s effect on engagement of young people?

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Research generally summarizes the story of youth’s engagement as a sad one: A downward trend over the past 50 years. Most of the previous research has suggested that the Net is a “weapon of the strong”: those from higher income levels and more social capital tend to make more and better use of the Net. But does the Net impact political engagement directly? Uniformly? What factors and processes matter more than others. There is little agreement on these questions in the literature so far.

They looked at four outcomes or models: 1. Online political cognitive engagement: How much info-seeking on the Net do you do about politics? 2. Civic engagement: Do you volunteer in the community. 3. Voting. 4. Political action more broadly defined.

Eszter gathered data from the U of Illinois in Chicago. It’s one of the more racially diverse campuses. She went to the only course required everyone on campus. (There are 86 different sections, so it was a lot of work to gather the data.) It was a paper-pencil survey, not online, because she did not want to worry about who has access to the Net and who is comfortable donig things on line. Of the 1,115 students, the research focused on the 1,000 who were eligible to vote in the 2008 election. About half are first generation college students, 11% African-American, 25% Hispanic. About 60% voted, compared to 62% nationally. Eszter and Aaron are not claiming this is representative of the nation. the controlled for partisanship, political interest, and political knowledge, using “pretty standard” ways of measuring this. She presents the data on the extent of their Net usage; everyone had already been online. [You’ll have to check the study for the actual data. I can’t possibly type that fast!]

1. Online political cognitive engagement. They looked at whether the kids are reading blogs, commenting on them, involved in online discussions, forwarding info, etc. About 40% visited blogs (etc.) on political topics, and 16% commented on them. Women were less likely to participate. Race and ethnicity and parental education didn’t seem to matter. Political capital (= interest in politics) and your Net skills are positively correlated.

2. Civic engagement. 81% had engaged in some form, 54% talked to friends or family about current events a few times a week or more, 33% have organized the event of a club or organization. [Again, I can’t keep up with all the data. I’m cherry-picking.] Gender doesn’t matter, but Asian Americans are more engaged, as are those who score higher on parental education, political capital, and online political engagement.

3. Voting. Race and ethnicity had a positive correlation with voting. Not parental education. Political capital and civic engagement both did. But online political cognitive measures did not. Neither did Net expertise/experience.

4. Political action, which includes everything from signing a petition to being a paid campaign worker. 65% had signed a petition. 22% had contacted a political official. 14% donated money. If you count any of those, 70% have engaged in political action. No correlation to gender, race/ethnicity, parental education But, there was a positive correlation with political capital, civic engagement, and Internet experiences (particularly the use of social networking sites, and skill).

Internet mattered for all of the outcomes, except for voting. Net skills seem to have enabled the social networking that is correlated with political action.

Conclusion: Simply being a Net user is not a direct factor; the relationships seems to be indirect and differential. And were there Obama effects? Only in the political action area, and there it was pretty minor and needs more investigation.

Q: Suppose you did a longitudinal study…?
A: That would be interesting. We actually have data on half of them about whether they voted in the gubernatorial election. I’d like to get funding to go back to the students.

Q: How can you get at what shifts in access have happened that might have spiked with the Obama effect providing an opportunity to engage? E.g., social media make it easier to send around petititions.
A: It’d be interesting to follow up on what’s going on at social network sites. We only asked if people checked other people’s status and updated their own.

Q: Net use doesn’t correlate to voting but not to political action?
A: Voting is a different type of political action. The people who vote tend to look slightly different than the people who engage in other forms of political action.

Q: How about people from out of state?
A: Almost all are from within Illinois.

Q: How active is the Deomcract Club at the U?
A: Good question.

Q: Did you look at local elections?
A: No.

Q: A study recently showed something like 85% of contributors to Wikipedia were male. Did you see anything similar with online political participation?
A: I (eszter) have been gathering nuanced data on Wikipedia participation, and it’s unbelievably gendered. Women are participating in political activity less, but the gap is much smaller than at Wikipedia. My research as shown that women contribute less content online [my phraseology — don’t blame Eszter!], even with fan fiction.

A: [me] Did you break this down by ideology, as well as by partisanship?
Q: We haven’t broken it out yet.

A: I would have thought that political engagement and voting would be on the same trajectory, with the same determinants. Do you have a theory about they they’re not?
A: I do think they’re qualitatively different in American society.

Q: What data do you wish you had?
A: We’re proud of this data. We have a ton of it. It’d be good to have more data about Internet engagement/behavior. We also don’t have media consumption data.

Q: What is more important for a vibrant democracy for these young people, voting or activism?
A: It’s not an either/or. The literature suggests both are important. Cf. Talking Together. Their data suggests there are lots of people who are talking together.

[I missed some questions. Sorry. Don’t forget these Tuesday lunch presentations are available online as webcasts.]

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