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When going online becomes a political act

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A Facebook user enters her password in a 2010 file photo.
SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Social networking sites are playing a larger role in how Americans get involved in politics and civic affairs.

A new study from the Pew Research Center showed that nearly 40 percent of Americans now engage in political activity on a social network, and this online activity often mobilizes individuals to become involved offline as well. 

Download and read the Pew report.

The trend has already reshaped how the game of politics is being played. 

"We want to spend every waking moment talking to political advertisers about how they can use Twitter to win," Peter Greenberger, Twitter's head of political advertising sales and the executive who established Google Inc.'s political advertising arm in 2007, told the Wall Street Journal in November.

But as the number of people participating in political activity online steadily increases, the study found that there continues to be a huge gap between the poor and financially well-off in terms of access to the Internet and ability to participate in civic life — a gap that many believed would change as the Internet became more prominent. 

According to a news release from Pew, the study examined both online and offline political engagement and paid special attention to the role of social networking sites in people's political activities.  

The major findings included: 

•  Class differences, especially those related to educational attainment, are prominent in political engagement of all kinds, whether that activity takes place offline, online or within the specific context of social networking sites.

• There was major growth in political activity on social networking sites between 2008 and this survey in 2012. The number of social networking site users grew from 33 percent of the online population in 2008 to 69 percent  in 2012. 

• For most politically active Web users, social networking sites are not a separate realm of political activity. They are frequently active in other aspects of civic life.

• Even as online platforms have grown more prominent in political affairs, Americans' day-to-day political conversations mostly occur offline. 

VIDEO FROM THE ASPEN IDEAS FESTIVAL:

 Is Social Media Sparking Civic Engagement? 
How are social media changing civic engagement around the world? Are citizens more involved because of technology? Are political representatives more in touch with their constituents? The speakers included Pete Cashmore, Jason Pollock, Orville Schell, Emily Jacobi and Cory Booker.  

READ MORE ON CIVIC ENGAGEMENT AND SOCIAL NETWORKING: 

• How Facebook, Twitter Court Political Campaigns
"Social-media companies Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. are trying to turn political advertising into a big business, courting presidential candidates, political-action committees and interest groups to siphon off some of the billions of dollars spent on election ads." (The Wall Street Journal)

• Campaigns Use Social Media to Lure Younger Voters
"If the presidential campaigns of 2008 were dipping a toe into social media like Facebook and Twitter, their 2012 versions are well into the deep end." (The New York Times)