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Internet as Political Force Grows, Poll Finds
Published on Thursday, January 18, 2006 by the San Jose Mercury News (California)
Internet as Political Force Grows, Poll Finds
Shift Away from TV, Papers Continues
by Frank Davies
 

Candidates and those who run their campaigns have known for some time how the Internet has energized politics and reshuffled the old rules of how office-seekers, the media and the public operate. A survey released Wednesday about online activities and the 2006 election shows just how dramatic that shift has been.

Americans who received most of their political information online (15 percent) has doubled since the previous midterm election in 2002. And almost a third of the public -- 31 percent -- used the Internet during the 2006 campaign to get political news and discuss the election through e-mail.

Those findings came from a telephone survey of 2,562 adults, conducted for the Pew Internet and American Life Project between Nov. 8 and Dec. 4, and included interviews with 200 people who use cell phones only, to reflect the growing number of people without traditional land lines.

Spurred by greater broadband use, a growing number of Internet political activists -- about 14 million people, according to the survey -- are generating and sharing political content, including video clips that had a major impact on some races.

``There's a viral, grass-roots system for sharing information now that gets around the traditional gate-keeping function of the mainstream media,'' said Lee Rainie, director of the project for the non-partisan Pew Research Center, which reports on trends and attitudes.

A classic example from the 2006 campaign was the widely circulated video clip of Sen. George Allen, R-Va., disparaging a videographer for his rival's campaign, calling him ``macaca,'' an apparent ethnic slur. The clip circulated for days on the Web before newspapers and TV networks picked up the story. Allen narrowly lost to Democrat James Webb, and the ``macaca moment'' was a turning point in the race.

Age matters

One Internet analyst, John Palfrey, said a key finding of the Pew survey was how younger people interested in politics are relying on information online. Asked to list their two primary sources of election news, broadband users under 36 ranked the Internet (35 percent) behind television (57 percent), with newspapers at 18 percent.

For broadband users 51 and older, television ranked first with 73 percent, followed by newspapers (45 percent) and the Internet (17 percent).

``It's not a news flash about younger people, but it underscores the trend away from dependency on television and newspapers,'' said Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. ``This week it was no accident that Sen. Barack Obama announced his exploratory campaign for president in a high-resolution video on his Web site.''

The survey showed that mainstream news sites on the Web -- including those run by broadcast networks, newspapers and other periodicals -- dominated online activity, but that other sources are catching up.

Respondents were allowed to cite multiple sources of information, and as many as 60 percent of Internet users said they got information from local or national newspaper sites, network TV sites or large news portals such as Google and Yahoo News, which often link to mainstream news sites.

But 24 percent said they got news from issues-oriented sites. Another 20 percent said they got information from blogs, international news sites or candidate Web sites. And 19 percent said they used satirical sites, including ``The Daily Show'' and ``The Onion.''

The Pew survey also includes some intriguing data on a key question: Has better, wider online access boosted civic activism and helped democracy?

It certainly has helped fundraising. The survey found that 3 percent of Internet users contributed to a campaign in 2006, which Rainie said tracks the activity of the last two presidential campaigns, when John McCain (in 2000) and Howard Dean (in 2004) relied on donations online.

Next step: activism

The survey indicates that 11 percent of Internet users have become online political activists, defined as users who posted their own commentary to a newsgroup, Web site or blog, or posted or forwarded someone else's commentary, video or audio recordings.

And as broadband access grows and applications become easier to use, those activists are less likely to be older, white men with high incomes -- the traditional source of political movers and shakers -- Rainie said.

But Palfrey said the ``jury is still out'' on whether more people are engaged in civic activism because of the Internet, or whether it is transforming the way people organize.

``It may be too early to tell if that's a full-blown trend,'' he said.

The survey also indicated that for users interested in politics, the Internet is an echo chamber for their own attitudes and positions for many, but not all. In the survey, 64 percent of the activists said they use sites that share their point of view, or have no point of view, and 24 percent said they use sites that challenge their viewpoints.

At the same time, Palfrey said the Internet has the potential to broaden perspectives -- and possibly change minds -- because it is so easy to find diverse points of view, often discovered while searching for something else.

The Pew survey found that Democrats and Republicans rely on the Internet as a source of news about equally, but there's a difference in their preference for other news sources.

Democrats were more likely to cite newspapers and a broad range of broadcast and cable outlets for news. Republicans tended to favor Fox cable TV news and radio

© 2007 MercuryNews.com and wire service sources

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