Freitag, 30. Mai 2014

Communities of Action: Are Online Activists Different from Offline Activists?

Theoretically, the question whether political online participation differs from offline participation can be answered in two ways [1]:

  • The mobilization thesis argues that due to new information and communication technologies, previously not engaged groups can be reached. Therefore, online activists should be different from offline activists.
  • The reinforcement thesis assumes that the Internet won't change existing patterns of political participation. It might even widen the participatory gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged populations. Or in other words: On- and offline activists should be more or less the same bunch of people.
Oser et al. [2] tried to settle the question analyzing the Pew Internet and American Life Project’s August 2008 survey (Pew Internet and American Life Project 2008). The survey was based on telephone interviews among adults (n = 2.251, age: 18+) who were asked questions regarding online and offline participation. The survey took place during the presidential campaign of 2008 (Obama vs. McCain) which hints to possible limitations of the survey as the Obama campaign was particularly successful at mobilizing traditionally less engaged populations such as young people and women.

The authors used latent class analysis (LCA) and - based on the results - examined the characteristics (age, gender socio-economic status) of the identified participation types. In a latent class model people can be categorized  into different types (latent classes) based on their observable behavior. Participation indicators used in the analysis were:
  • signing a petition (offline, online)
  • donating money (offline, online)
  • contacting a government official in person, by phone, or by letter (offline) or by email (online)
  • starting/joining a political group or group supporting a cause on a social networking site (online)
  • being an active member of a group that tries to influence policy, except a political party (offline)
  • attending a political rally, speech, or organized protest (offline)
  • working/volunteering for a political party or candidate (offline)
The LCA identified four distinct groups: the disengaged (73 % of all respondents), the contacters (10 %), the offline activists (9 %), and the online activists (8 %). All four groups have a different participation repertoire.

Oser, J., Hooghe, M., & Marien, S. (2013). Is online participation distinct from offline participation? A latent class analysis of participation types and their stratification. Political Research Quarterly, 66 (1), 91-101.

Example: The online activist's probability of online donating  is 51.3 % in comparison to 5.6 % in the sample population.

Online participation is a distinct type of participation
The findings provided strong evidence in support of the mobilization thesis. Online activists are a distinct group in comparison to the three other identified participation types. Although online activists prefer online forms of participation, they are also involved in offline participation.

Mixed results for the influence of age, gender and socio-economic status
Mobilization thesis is strongly confirmed regarding age, and it is also confirmed for gender. For socio-economic status, however, the findings suggest a reinforcement of traditional education and income inequalities in online political participation.
  • Age: Young people tend to engage with politics in a new way through online means.
  • Gender: There is no evidence for a gender divide for any of the participation types. Women seem to catch up with mens' early adoption of new technologies, especially regarding the use of social media (note the inclusion of political social media use in the survey).
  • Socio-economic status: The socio-economic stratification is basically the same for the online as for the offline activist type. The advantaged are more active in both online and offline participation, suggesting a reinforcement of traditional education and income inequalities in online political participation and limiting the democratic potential of the Internet for impacting upon patterns of political participation and participatory inequality.
Targeting potential activists for communities of action
A community of action is a group of people brought together by their desire to change something. Often these communities are initiated by non-profit or fundraising organizations. [3] The study of Oser et al. gives certain hints how to optimize the activities:
  • Online activists don't tend to donate offline. So offer them a possibility to donate online.
  • Contacters are relatively inactive in a number of participation acts (e.g., party work, donating offline, demonstrating) or essentially on par with the general population (e.g., active member of an offline and online political or social group and online donating). Therefore, efforts to stimulate other types of engagement in contacters may be futile.
  • Offer possibilities for online participation in order to reach out to younger people and use social media networks in order to reach out to women.
  • The chance of making a difference is higher, when the cause is suited for the mobilization of the advantaged.

[1] Norris, P. (2000). A Virtuous Circle: Political Communications in Postindustrial Societies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Chapter 12.

[2] Oser, J., Hooghe, M., & Marien, S. (2013). Is online participation distinct from offline participation? A latent class analysis of participation types and their stratification. Political Research Quarterly, 66 (1), 91-101. Google Scholar

[3] Millington, R. (2014). Types of community and actives within the community. Retrieved May 28, 2014, from

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