“But the Internet appears to build civic health. As technology becomes a larger part of our daily lives, questions have been raised about its impact on our civic health. Does technology force social isolation behind computer screens or mobile devices, or does it provide more convenient outlets to take civic action, stay connected and informed, and express political views? More metrics of ‘eCitizenship’ should be developed in order to assess its impact fully, but early indicators find those who go online on a regular basis are more likely to be involved in offline communities as well.”
The optimistic assessment above of the positive impact of the Internet on civic life, from the 2010 Civic Health Assessment by the nonprofit National Conference on Citizenship — which works, according to its website, to “[expand] our nation’s contemporary understanding of what it means to be a citizen” — runs into difficulties when data from Georgia’s own NCoC-affiliated Civic Health Index, which was produced in 2012 and released last year, are considered.
According to that study — conducted, evaluated and disseminated in a cooperative effort of the NCoC, the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, the Georgia Family Connection Partnership and GeorgiaForward, an independent nonpartisan organization that brings young Georgia leaders together to shape a statewide policy agenda — Georgians’ online engagement on political or community issues is among the highest in the nation, but its other indicators of civic health are either in the middle of the pack or among the lowest in the nation.
In general, according to the Georgia Civic Health Index, “Georgia’s civic health is not strong. While Georgians who are older, more educated, or have higher incomes exhibit better rates of civic engagement, Georgia on the whole exhibits some of the lowest rates of civic engagement in the nation.”
While differences between the states can be small, it’s still worth noting, as the index does, that Georgia ranks 41st in voter registration among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, 36th in attending public meetings, 34th in contacting elected officials, 29th in voting in local elections, but — get this — sixth in the nation in expressing opinions about community or political issues online.
There are, as you might suspect, differences in the various engagement categories connected with various demographic factors. As one example, the index notes that “college graduates in Georgia were more than twice as far more likely to attend public meetings as those with less educational attainment.” As another example, the index notes that Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) are more than twice as likely as millenials (generally, those born after 1980), to vote.
Still, looking at the broader numbers, it’s possible to conclude, with some degree of justification, that in this state, at least some worrisome number of people who take to various digital comment boards, from neighborhood associations to newspaper websites, to express their views on issues haven’t bothered to register to vote, don’t attend public meetings, don’t talk with their elected officials and may not even vote in local elections.
Thus, it would appear that the National Conference on Citizenship’s early indications that “those who go online on a regular basis are more likely to be involved in offline communities” turns out, in some ways, to be mistaken.
And that, in turn, at least starts to answer the question the NCoC poses as to whether “technology force(s) social isolation behind computer screens or mobile devices, or [provides] more convenient outlets to take civic action, stay connected and informed, and express political views.”
Sadly, the Georgia Civic Health Index would appear to support the conclusion that technology makes it convenient to express political views, even as people can’t be bothered with actually conversing with their elected officials or even with taking time to determine who will represent them locally.
Read the story on onlineathens.com.
Jim Thompson is the Editorial Page editor.
Georgia Family Connection is a statewide network with a Collaborative in all 159 counties.