informa
/
3 min read
Commentary

Pew Study Throws Cold Water On Democracy 2.0 Idealism

A study from Pew Research casts doubts on the idealistic vision that Web and social media tools level the democracy playing field between rich and poor. The study says that the disparity between rich people and poor people in online politics is even worse than the disparity using conventional political tools.
A study from Pew Research casts doubts on the idealistic vision that Web and social media tools level the democracy playing field between rich and poor. The study says that the disparity between rich people and poor people in online politics is even worse than the disparity using conventional political tools.Ars Technica reports on a talk by Henry E. Brady of UC Berkeley:


The survey looked at a selection of 'traditional' political acts, like writing a letter to an official or giving money to politics, and at a roughly analogous selection of Internet-based political acts, like writing an e-mail to an official or giving money over the Web....

The depressing take-home from Brady's talk was that, at least when it comes to participation in politics, the Web isn't quite the democratizing force that many of us had hoped it would be -- in fact, it makes things worse.

"The bottom line," Brady told the audience, "is that the Web has not solved the problem of political stratification in America, and maybe we should not have thought that it could... the simple fact is that it hasn't lead to a Jeffersonian paradise in which everyone, regardless of their class, is equally involved in politics."

Rich people are twice as likely to engage in traditional politics -- like writing a letter or donating by check. However, the rich are six times more likely to be active online politically -- writing an e-mail, for example, or donating money on an online Web site.

Are the rich more active in online politics because they're more active online in general? Yes -- but that doesn't explain the entire disparity: The least wealthy participants in the study "are going online to connect to others, but they aren't connecting politically." 82% of the wealthiest participants in the study used social networking, compared with 52% of the least wealthy.

The presentation also cast doubt on the common wisdom that social media was responsible for the sweeping Democratic victory last year. Stanford political science professor Joshua Cohen "argued that between two unpopular wars, an economic crisis, and President Bush's historic low approval rates, a Democratic victory was all but guaranteed this past November, and that the Internet had 'nothing to do with it.'" But one member of the audience countered that "we could look to the Internet as the deciding factor in determining which Democrat we ended up with ... if it hadn't been for the Internet and the Obama campaign's deft use of the Web for fund raising and organizing, we'd be reading headlines about President Clinton."