The Internet and Engaged Citizenship


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David Karpf
Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship

The Internet is everywhere. Years ago, it was limited to desktop computers, synonymous with the static and whir of a connecting modem. Today it is in our pockets, on our wrists, in our household appliances, and on the multitude of screens that we interact with daily. The old dividing line between online and offline has dissolved, taking with it simplistic comparisons between online and offline civic and political behavior. Questions regarding the state of engaged citizenship in the United States in 2019 inevitably become tied up with digital media, because digital media are now baked into how we learn about public affairs, voice our opinions, argue with our neighbors, and build political power. Civic participation, political polarization, public misinformation, and public accountability all have a digital element to them.

Is the Internet hurting or helping civic engagement and political participation? Who does it empower, and who does it disenfranchise? Is it leaving the public better or worse informed? Is it damaging media and political institutions, or promoting innovation and renewal? Despite decades of scholarship on the Internet and civic engagement, we have arrived at surprisingly few stable findings. Two limiting factors—the pace of Internet time and the proprietary data gap—have repeatedly gotten in the way.

This paper discusses these two limitations, and then details five thematic areas that touch on major trends in the state of knowledge within the field. The purpose of the paper is to make clear how the medium has changed over the decades, to highlight how today’s Internet in civic life differs from the civic Internet of decades’ past, and to capture the key puzzles that will drive research in the near future.