Election Special: Internet Use and Political Information

Election Special: Internet Use and Political Information

Prominent commentators have expressed concern that growing use of the internet would be harmful to democratic deliberation, but a new survey, by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in collaboration with the University of Michigan School of Information survey, belies the worry.

The report shows that internet users have greater overall exposure to political arguments, including those that challenge their candidate preferences and their positions on some key issues. The report concludes that the internet is contributing to a wider awareness of political views during this year's campaign season, and citizens do seek material that challenges their views.

"Internet users do not burrow themselves into informational warrens where they hear nothing but arguments that reinforce their views," said John Horrigan, Senior Research Specialist at the Pew Project. "Instead, internet users are exposed to more political points of view and more arguments against the things they support. That should be heartening to those who are concerned about the future of democratic debate."

More than 40% of online Americans have gotten news and information about the campaign this year, about double the number who had used the internet this way during the 2000 campaign.

Kelly Garrett of the University of Michigan, who co-authored the report, said "People are using the internet to broaden their political horizons, not narrow them. Use of the internet doesn't necessarily diminish partisanship, or even zealotry. But it does expose online Americans to more points of view, and, on balance, that is a good thing."

Other highlights from the report entitled "The Internet And Democratic Debate":

- 53% of internet users had gotten news about the Iraq war online or through email. That represents over 67 million people.

- 35% of internet users had gotten news about gay marriage online or through email. That represents over 44 million people.

- 26% of internet users had gotten news about the debate over free trade online or through email. That represents over 33 million people.

- One surprise in the survey is that about a fifth Americans say they actually prefer news sources that challenge their point of view. And nearly one in ten Americans are more aware of arguments that oppose their candidate than arguments that favor their candidate.

Arguments that have dominated the campaign and key issues in voters' minds:

Campaign - 94% of Americans had heard that Bush misled the public about the reasons for going to war; 70% had heard that Kerry changes positions on issues when he thinks it will help him win an election.

Iraq War - Of arguments in favor of the Iraq war, the most well-known was that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who murdered and tortured his own people. The most well-known anti-war argument was that the Bush administration had misled Americans about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction.

Gay Marriage - Of arguments in favor of gay marriage, the most well-known was that gay couples are entitled to the same legal rights as heterosexual couples when it comes to things like health insurance and inheritance. The most well-known argument against gay marriage was that marriage is a sacred religious institution that should be between a man and a woman.

Free Trade - Of arguments in favor of free trade, the most well-known was that free trade improves U.S. relationships with other countries. The most well-known anti-free trade argument was that it allows companies to lay off American workers and send their jobs overseas.

Source: The Internet And Democratic Debate: Pew Internet & American Life Project, October 27, 2004.

Get the complete PDF report here.