Internet found to open path to political ideas

October 28, 2004|By Mike Himowitz

IN ITS THIRD presidential election, the Internet has finally reached political adolescence. Candidates use it to raise millions and rally their followers. Political bloggers pump out millions of words - and millions actually read the stuff. Political junkies flame one another in news groups, trade nasty jokes on political humor sites and happily waste hours playing "what if" on interactive electoral maps.

So you could argue that the Internet has finally become something like the "marketplace of ideas" that John Stuart Mill envisioned almost 150 years ago, where citizens and politicians gather to duke it out - verbally, that is - in hopes that the voters will have enough sense to separate the wisdom from the garbage on Election Day.

But critics say the Internet has had the opposite effect. With its multitude of sources and endless potential for customization, they say, the Internet has become a nasty, babbling political echo chamber, where millions of rowdy partisans gather with the like-minded to shout virtual insults and reinforce their political views instead of engaging in adult political debate.

Until now, reliable information about how people use the Internet as a political tool has been hard to come by. But researchers sponsored by the Pew Internet & American Life Project have taken a crack at it. Their findings, released today, show that even in this raucous and bitter campaign, voters are exposing themselves to a variety of political arguments, instead of hiding from them.

A word here about Internet public opinion research: Too much of it is junk polling that relies on the medium itself to reach its subjects. They in turn tend to be self-selecting and highly partisan, whatever the issue - whether it's politics or beer.

But with financial backing from the Pew Charitable Trusts, Pew researchers always have done it the hard way - at considerable expense - using standard polling techniques to contact a large sample of Americans, including those who don't use the Internet. That gives their findings considerable weight.

In this instance, Pew and the University of Michigan conducted a telephone survey of 1,510 adults from June 14 to July 3.

The size of the sample gives the poll an overall margin of error of 2.7 percentage points and 3.3 percentage points for Internet users. Although the margin of error is larger for subgroups - such as college-educated Democratic or Republican women - by political standards, it's a solid sample.

The researchers asked their subjects where they get political news and information and what kind of political sites they tend to visit. Of course, people lie about that stuff all the time.

So the pollsters also asked respondents whether they heard of eight specific arguments for and against President Bush and Sen. John Kerry. Some were relatively well hashed-out, and some were relatively obscure. They repeated the process for two hot political issues - the war in Iraq and gay marriage - along with the less visible but always contentious issue of free trade.

If the Internet is truly a medium of political debate, the researchers argued, Internet users would be as familiar with arguments on both sides of an issue as non-Internet users.

Of course, many factors play into political awareness. Age, sex, education, general political interest and the use of traditional media such as newspapers, TV and radio all shape political attitudes. So the Pew researchers used advanced statistical techniques to weed out those factors and see how much of a difference the Internet made.

Overall, they report, Internet users have greater exposure to a variety of political views, and particularly those that challenge their own. This was true even among those with similar age and educational levels. Not surprisingly, broadband Internet users have a wider exposure than dial-up customers.

"We were actually a bit surprised," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "Especially with broadband users, who tend to be more sophisticated - people can increasingly become selective about what they get online. Before we started, we were prepared to say that there's the start of a bad trend going on here, but we were surprised to find out the opposite, that what's going on is good for democracy."

Overall, Rainie noted, Americans still rely most on television for political news, followed by newspapers and radio - with the Web as a supplement. But the Web's share of the pie is growing, largely at the expense of television.

In January 2000, for example, 86 percent of Pew's respondents said television was their main source of campaign news, a proportion that had dropped to 78 percent by June of this year.

By the same token, only 7 percent said the Internet was their main source of campaign news in 2000, versus 15 percent in June. Newspaper and radio use remained virtually unchanged.

Not surprisingly, the Internet has had the biggest impact on political information among broadband users.

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