How the Web Has Changed the Electorate

Most of us have read a ton of stories about Tuesday's election and stories about the individual campaigns being run by the candidates. A study released Wednesday by the Pew Charitable Trust asserts that many of us who depend on the Web have been reading about the issues that are the real juice of the debates too. And that can't be a bad thing.

According to the study, titled "The Internet and Democratic Debate," wired Americans hear more points of view about candidates and key issues than other citizens. They are not using the Internet to screen out ideas with which they disagree.

The study was a collaborative effort between the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the University of Michigan School of Information.

The researchers found that the Internet contributes to a wider awareness of political arguments, claiming fears that use of the Internet might hurt healthy democratic deliberation are not borne out by online behavior.

This runs contrary to statements made in this space and elsewhere that only like-minded sorts get their news and opinions from the Web. That is, we all are creatures of habit in terms of news gathering and less likely to be converted than to be comforted. According to Pew's Research Center for The People & The Press, that is not the case.



I know that most of you care far more about how much or how little the candidates have spent online during this lengthy campaign. Well, here's the good news: while many have reported that candidates' spending has been lower than expected, as much as half of that spend has gone unreported. This, according to multiple media buyers I spoke with in Washington.

It makes sense that there has been more spent on the Web than previously reported, if only because the numbers of Americans getting their news and information about politics online is increasing significantly. More than 40 percent of those who use the Internet have gotten political material during this campaign, according to the study, more than 50 percent higher than the number who had gotten such information in the 2000 campaign.

As Internet use has grown, prominent commentators and scholars have expressed concern that this would be harmful to democratic deliberation. They worried that citizens would use the Internet to seek information that reinforced their political preferences and avoid material that challenged their views - staying within those aforementioned comfort zones. They feared that people would use Internet tools to customize and insulate their information inputs to a degree that held troubling implications for American society.

Of course, democracy functions best when people consider a range of arguments, including those that challenge each viewpoint. If people screened out information that disputed their beliefs, then the chances for meaningful discourse on great issues would be stunted and civic polarization would grow.

Some would call this the state of television news today. Anyone who saw "The Daily Show's" John Stewart on his fantastic guest spot on Crossfire two weeks ago knows that this is at the center of broadcast journalism's increasing failure to report on the news and deliver insightful commentary.

Instead, they focus on polarizing views and simple coverage of "conflict," which draws viewers eager for drama and controversy.

Surveys have found that similar exposure rings true as pertains to Internet commerce. As campaigns begin to look more like commerce, why should our electorate/consumers act any differently? In both cases, what the consumer/voter has in front of them is a choice.

Many thousands of new voters have registered for this election - as many as 500,000 new registrants in Pennsylvania alone. They're getting more information than ever and they seem eager to exercise their right to choose. Hopefully, this election will reflect the will of their majority - and that of us all.

If we have more information with which to make better choices, with more of the voting public than ever participating in the process that is vital to how we regard our republic, I think that's probably not something we want to overlook again any time soon. It's happened twice in my lifetime. I think we all hope it doesn't happen again next week.

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