Traditionally, political participation has always been highly correlated with income and education. According to a new report (PDF), this is still holds true for those who participate in political activities online. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, online users with a higher income are still far more likely to participate in political activities online than those with lower incomes. At the same time, though, the Pew study also sees some hints that new forms of civic engagement through social media services could soon change this pattern.

According to this report, 31% of all users on social networking sites engage in some activity “with a civic or political focus.” Pew defines this category very broadly, though, and includes relatively simple activities like ‘friending’ a political candidate as an “activity with political focus.” In total, about 10% of all internet users have used social networks for this kind of political activity.

A far more interesting statistic is that 15% of all Internet users have left comments on websites about political or social issues, or posted images or written blog posts related to politics or social issues. What is even more interesting, though not surprising, is that young adults between 18 and 29 are far more likely to use social networks as a venue for political and civic engagement than older users. These younger users who engage in political activity online are also far more likely to participate in politics offline.

Social Media Might Level the Playing Field

Social media is mostly the domain of younger Internet users and while young adults (18-24) are, as a group, less interested in political activities online, they are far more likely than any other group to use blogs and social networking sites to engage in political discussions. About 34% of young adults make political use of social networking sites and 34% post political material on the Internet.

Users under 35 represent 72% of those users who make political use of social networks. In addition, the income and education gap for those who engage in political activities on social networks is far less pronounced when compared to those who use other forums.

Will These Trends Continue?

What will be interesting to watch, the Pew study points out, is how these younger users will use these existing networks as they get older. It will also be interesting to see if these developments will mean that socio-economic status will become less of an indicator of civic engagement, or if these new technologies will create new barriers of entry for those with a lower income and education level.

Given that the US just experienced a highly contested election cycle and is in the middle of a heated debate about health care right now, we have to wonder, though, if these numbers will continue to hold true over the next few years or if they were just a blip on the radar.