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Pew: Online Political Activity Leads to Offline Activism

Just because a politically minded debate started online doesn't mean it ends there, according to a study from the 2012 campaign and released earlier this week.

Could the rise of the “slacktivist” be a myth?

According to a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, it appears that political activism online, using methods such as social media and comments on internet forums, does translate to some offline activism. And your association, if you approach this audience correctly, could benefit from this kind of political input.

Pew’s “Civic Engagement in the Digital Age,” based on a survey of 2,253 adults last year, seems to suggest that even as online forms of activism become more prevalent, they’re not simply staying online. More details:

How fast is social growing? Let’s put it this way: During the 2008 campaign, 26 percent of respondents used social media for any reason, according to a prior Pew study. In 2012, however, 39 percent of respondents used it to engage on political topics alone—a sign of meteoric growth in social media usage, for sure. And a total of 12 percent of respondents used social media to follow or engage with a political candidate in 2012—four times the number that did so during the 2008 campaign.

Online feedback tops traditional methods: The rise of online methods of response is far beyond that of traditional forms in the media—18 percent of respondents are said to have commented online, while 7 percent called in to a radio or TV show, and 3 percent wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper.

“Slacktivists”? Not really: One key refutation from the study is the idea that online activists keep their political activities exclusively online, a phenomenon known derisively as “slacktivism.” (The criticism was most famously lobbed at Invisible Children’s unusually popular “Kony 2012” campaign.) The report’s author, Aaron Smith, disputed such a stance in the report. “In fact,” he writes, “the typical politically active American is active in a range of venues—online, offline, and in social networking spaces—and those who get involved politically on social networking sites tend to take part in a wide range of behaviors that occur outside the boundaries of sites like Facebook or Twitter.” The statistics show this effect in action, with 63 percent of politically active social media users taking part in offline political meetings or working to solve political problems. The percentage is higher than the national average of 48 percent.

Demographic notes: Not everyone across the political divide responds to calls to action the same way. For example, political conservatives are more likely to respond to traditional methods like direct mail, while those who lean liberal are more likely to respond to online activism methods. And individuals economically affected by the recent downturn are overall more likely to be politically active than those who weren’t: They use online methods at the same rate as those not affected, and in fact they’re just as likely as the rest of the population to own a cellphone or use social networking sites. (On the other hand, economically affected activists are less likely to donate to political campaigns.)

The opportunity for associations is clear, especially in cases where online activities can be tied to real-life responses, such as ABC Action, the mobile advocacy tool recently launched by the Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc. The association has reported much higher engagement levels since launching the app earlier this year.

And with new mediums for activism, such as Change.org, putting political messages in front of people online on a daily basis, the opportunity for outreach is expanding. What are you doing to keep your association’s message in front of your members, no matter the medium? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

(iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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