April 25, 2013 at 12:04 AM ET
"Liking" a post by the president or a human rights group may not be the most powerful form of political expression, but according to a recent Pew Research Center study, it is at least something that a person of nearly any age, location or economic status can do — and does.
The study shows that social networks have become a very popular platform for political involvement. But it's not quite a shining new world of online activism just yet: Under close scrutiny, the groups and divides that have traditionally defined political action are still quite present.
According to Pew's Internet & American Life Projectphone survey of 2,235 American adults, 39 percent took part in "political activities" on social networks during the 2012 election season, up from 26 percent in 2008. And these link-posting, politician-friending, issue-discussing users are more likely to engage with the political process in other ways, as well, from volunteering to addressing community problems.
And interestingly, when it comes to talking politics on social networks, it doesn't seem to matter nearly as much whether you're young or old, rich or poor. The difference in engagement between those groups, usually very pronounced, was far less so among users of social media. For instance, those on social networks who earned under $10,000 had the same level of political involvement as those earning over $150,000.
But if you look a little closer, some patterns re-emerge. Aaron Smith, the study's author, explained: "If you look at education instead of income, you see the same long-standing pattern where the college-educated are especially likely to use these sites for political purposes."
As soon as you step back and look at the whole U.S. adult population, social media just appears as a tool for those who are already engaged in offline political activities, says Pew. "These new channels do not appear to be altering the fundamental pattern that the well-educated and financially well-off are more likely to participate in civic life."
What's more, offline political conversation is still dominant, despite the social media buzz. "On an 'every day' level, Americans are three times as likely to discuss politics or public affairs with others through offline channels (such as talking in person or over the telephone) as they are through online channels," said Pew Research, in a press release.
Some have argued that President Obama owes his reelection at least partially to the massive efforts at growing the campaign's online presence, especially on social media. But does this engagement really have an effect on election outcomes? A previous Pew study showed that nearly a quarter of registered voters told friends and followers who they voted for but, as it happens, most of those people associated primarily in like-thinking groups.
In fact, yet another Pew report says that 9 percent of social network users "have blocked, unfriended or hidden someone on the site because they posted something about politics or issues that they disagreed with or found offensive."
It may take some time for social media to evolve into more of a forum for earnest political discussion and the exchange of ideas.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.