Online Activists No Longer the Sad, Mad and Lonely

WASHINGTON — The Internet-savvy crowd that drove Howard Dean’s early campaign is not made up of the “sad, mad and lonely” computer geeks often portrayed by the media, according a new study released Thursday by George Washington University’s Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet (IPDI).

The study, Political Influentials Online in the 2004 Presidential Campaign, says candidates, political parties and advocacy groups looking to reach the highest concentration of opinion leaders and political activists should continue to turn to the Internet to seek out “influentials.”

These key online players are defined by RoperASW executives Ed Keller and Jon Berry in their book, The Infuentials, as people who “tell their neighbors what to buy, which politicians to support and where to vacation.” Berry said they are the people everyone knows who have opinions and information of interest.

RoperASW and Nielsen/NetRatings did the polling for the report with financial support from MSNBC and online magazine Slate. They aren’t the only online publishers positioning themselves to win a share of the political advertising expected to go online this election season.

Yahoo, for one, late last month launched a special section on its News channel dedicated to election coverage, and the Online Publishers Association in September released a study that found Internet users were interested in seeing political advertising online.

The new IPDI report defines those who visit candidate Web sites, make online financial contributions and interact with other politically-oriented people through weblogs and emails as “Online Political Citizens” (OPCs). In turn, the report found 69 percent of OPCs are influentials.

By contrast, Berry said RoperASW research finds that influentials make up just 10 percent of the general population.

“This means OPCs are nearly seven times more likely than average citizens to serve as opinion leaders among their friends, relatives and colleagues, and are disproportionately likely to exert a ‘multiplier effect’ outward to the public at large,” the report states.

Report co-author Carol Darr, who is also the director of IPDI, said, “Online Political Citizens are influential Americans who most political organizations have either overlooked or misunderstood. This group has already made a huge impact on the 2004 presidential campaign and OPCs foreshadow a radical change in the nature of American politics.”

Veteran online political strategist Jonah Seiger, a visiting fellow at IPDI and a consultant to the report, told internetnews.com the media engaged in “hype and overstatement” on both the upside and the downside of the Internet’s influence on the Dean campaign.

“The fact is the Dean campaign will leave a lasting and significant impact for its use of the Internet,” he said. “He used the Internet to energize influentials and raise $40 million, more money in a single year than any Democrat in history. He just didn’t close the deal.”

Joe Graf, who wrote the report with Darr, added, “In general, the media has portrayed the people we call Online Political Citizens as isolated cyber-geeks. The results of the [report] shatter that stereotype and reframe OPCs as a group that deserves the attention of the media and the political mainstream.”

In data that has implications for online advertisers as well as political activists, the report finds that OPCs are more than two times as likely to have a college degree as the general public, have higher incomes and are slightly younger than the average American and more likely to be white, male and single.

Politically, OPCs are five times more likely to have donated money to a candidate or political party in the last three months than the general public and are very active through email with 87 percent receiving political email and 66 percent forwarding political email to friends or colleagues.

Approximately 43 percent of OPCs report they watch at least two hours of television on average weekday, compared to 48 percent of the rest of Internet users.

“Much of this may be multitasking — or leaving the television on while surfing online or checking email,” the report states. “For many people, if they spend three or four hours an evening on the Internet, they likewise spend nearly the same amount of time with the television on. Online Political Citizens are simply heavy users of media.”

The report concludes, “The fact that so many of the Online Political Citizens are influentials means that if candidates, parties and issue advocacy groups want to reach the people who reach others, the place to find them is the Internet.”

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