In 2008, 26 percent of American adults used social networking sites of any kind. Four years later, 39 percent of Americans used social networking sites specifically for political activity, from following candidates, encouraging friends to vote or posting and sharing political stories and articles.
"More people used social networking sites for political activity in 2012 than used it at all in 2008," said Aaron Smith, a senior researcher at Pew and author "Civic Engagement in the Digital Age," a 61-page report. "There was enormous growth in overall usage for political activity."
One example: in 2008, just 3 percent of adults posted political stories or links on social networking sites. By 2012, that had jumped to 17 percent, a sixfold increase.
The explosion in online political activity comes as a growing number of adults use social media. Pew has found that 60 percent of all U.S. adults now use some sort of social networking platform, up from 26 percent in 2008. That's a remarkable jump given that San Francisco-based Twitter didn't exist until 2006. During President Barack Obama's February State of the Union address, Twitter reported that there were 1.36 million tweets, with much of the chatter focusing on the middle class and minimum wage, gun control and education.
Previously, Pew has found that 81 percent of American adults are Internet users -- which means that roughly 20 percent, or 1 in 5, are still not online at all. Its latest report found that the digital divide is still stark, particularly along class and education lines. Many hoped that the rise of Internet-connected smartphones, as well as the popularity of fast-growing sites such as Twitter and Facebook, would help ease that gap.
But those with high incomes and college or graduate-level educations are consistently more likely than those with low income and education levels to take part in civic or political activities, whether online or offline.
High-income Americans -- including professionals who have regular, reliable access to the Internet both at work and at home -- are more likely to use social networking sites in the first place, while college-educated adults are significantly more likely than those with just a high school education to take part in social networking sites. The report found that those at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum are less involved with the day-to-day outreach, chatter and discussion around political issues.
"It's a digital divide issue, but it's a political equity issue as well," Smith said. "One of the questions we were seeking to address is: To what extent are these new venues for political expression bringing new voices into the process? In many ways the long-standing divisions still stand."
The report found that among people earning less than $10,000 a year who are active on social networking sites, 39 percent reported discussing politics or public affairs online. For those with incomes above $150,000, it was 56 percent.
Jen Schradie, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the UC Berkeley who researches social media, social movements and social class, notes that social networking sites tend to amplify the class inequalities that are deeply entrenched in society.
"People assume that the digital divide is over, but it's very persistent," Schradie said. "Social networking sites are very good at mobilizing people who are already politically engaged but not at organizing the politically unorganized."
Pew has been tracking the way that Americans use the Internet and the digital transformation of American life since 2000. The report was based on a nationally representative phone survey of 2,253 adults conducted between July 16 and Aug. 7, 2012, during the height of the hotly contested presidential campaign. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish and on landline and cellphones.
Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.
Highlights from the pew report
There was major growth in political activity on social networking sites between 2008 and 2012.
39 percent of adults surveyed took part in some sort of political activity on a social networking site like Facebook or Twitter.
Online traditional political activities are most popular among the well-educated and the financially well-off.
To read the full report, go to www.pewinternet.org.