Required for political participation: “digital skills”

Here is an argument that African-Americans and Latinos could participate more in American politics if they had more “digital skills”:

Could the key to increasing civic engagement among Latinos and African Americans be computer classes?   A growing body of research is linking Internet use, particularly social network use, and increased social capital and civic engagement.  A new reportfrom the MaCarthur foundation finds that Facebook use is correlated with increased interest in and participation in politics. Scholars like Northwestern Sociologist Esther Hargatti [sic] speak eloquently about the information gap between rich and poor online.  This gap is less about access to technology and more about developing the skills to harness the technology for political and social gain.  The ability to do information searches, send text messages, tweet, share content and other on-line skills is a central element in becoming what Evegny Morozov calls a “digital renegade” rather than a “digital captive.”

The key to using the Web in democracy-enhancing ways is acquiring digital skills.  While this concept has been measured in lots of ways, the presence of digital skills can be measured by the level of autonomy the user has, the number of access points a user has to get online, the amount of experience a user has with different types of online tools, etc.

This should be an area of interest to a lot of people: how social factors, such as race, education levels, location, and other forces affect online use. “Digital skills” are not simply traits that everyone picks up on their own. It requires a certain level of exposure, time, and resources that not all have. See a video clip of Hargittai talking about this.

I wonder how much arguments like this are behind recent government efforts to provide cheap or free broadband to poorer US residents. Here is part of the statement from the head of the FCC:

“There is a growing divide between the digital-haves and have-nots. No Less than one-third of the poorest Americans have adopted broadband, while 90%+ of the richest have adopted it. Low-income Americans, rural Americans, seniors, and minorities disproportionately find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide and excluded from the $8 trillion dollar global Internet economy.”

As I’ve asked before, how close are we to declaring Internet access an essential human right?

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