March 20, 2003

Online campaigners, citizens, and portals in the 2002 elections

Part Three: The Portals

One Way or Another

Campaigners are disappointed with the effectiveness of the Internet.  Citizens are frustrated in their searches for political information.  Could the portals assuage these concerns, and advance the state of online political communication?

Subscribers and other users of the big Internet portals constitute a huge portion of the online population. According to an August 2002 news release by IDC Research, “84% of U.S. online households rely on AOL, MSN, and Yahoo! for critical Internet services.”16  There are many other important portals, to be sure, including those operated by news media organizations.   The dominant portals may change as the nation migrates to broadband connections.  Still, public reliance on portals to access the Internet seems established.  Habit combines with inertia: 57 percent of all Internet users don’t know how to change their homepages from the default homepages these companies set for them.17

Portals are entry points to a variety of online information, tools, and activities.  Providing news and political information is just one of their functions, and a minor one at that. The portals connect and supply Internet users with Web search engines, stock quote trackers, email applications, calendar software, shopping opportunities, phone directories and mapping services.  The editors of these portals make decisions about how and where each of these elements will be displayed.  As such, they affect the capacity and motivation of campaigners and citizens to connect before elections.

The portals can play several roles in mediating campaign communication.  First, like the mass media, they can serve as gatekeepers, regulating the amount, type, and orientation of information seen by their users.  Since the Internet is user-driven, portal gatekeeping is a matter of acquiescence, not a technological necessity; the user passing through a portal can obtain more information and more viewpoints much more easily and thoroughly that the reader of news magazines, the viewer of television news, and the recipients of direct mail.  When curiosity strikes a mass media consumer, she must physically go elsewhere to scratch the itch.  The Interner user can click around without moving any muscles other than those in her fingers and head.  However, as we saw in Part Two, while the number, frequency, and sophistication of online political searches have increased in the last two years, venturing beyond the gate toward campaign information and interaction is still a minority activity in the United States.  The main home pages of AOL, MSN, and Yahoo! are as far as many Net users get in being exposed to politics.  This is a lesson campaigners need to learn more thoroughly than they have as they prepare their advertising buys.

Second, like directory publishers and libraries, portals can serve as facilitators, bringing Net users to online locations where the type of information and interaction they seek exists.  The national survey revealed that 80% of the subset of the online citizenry that searched for election information began their journeys either at a general portal site (46%) or at a search engine such as Google (33%). [POL20]   The portals possess considerable editorial discretion in facilitating online politics.  They can, to whatever extent they choose, set up and promote campaign access routes, search tools, directories, databases, and help content.  Again, campaigners have not taken great advantage of the advertising opportunities on the pages where portals place facilitation tools.

Third, like social directors and the personals sections of newspapers and magazines, the portals can become political matchmakers.  This matchmaking can facilitate meetings between citizens and campaigns, or among citizens.  For instance, a portal (or any online entrepreneur) can interview Net users –either through correspondence, or by having Web page visitors fill out an online form–  and then, through computer algorithms, provide the political “in search of” with the wherewithal to find other users with whom they are likely to be compatible.  Numerous experiments in online campaign matchmaking occurred in 2000, the most famous being the “vote trading” Web sites which popped up in October to enable Gore and Nader supporters to advance mutual goals.  Portals can also construct, or enable individuals to construct on their site, chat rooms, moderated discussions, and other hospitable settings in which users can roam in search of partners and, on a group-level, like-minded people.  Matchmaking is the most active of the three roles cited here.  Portals could delight foundations, scholars, and activists concerned about low levels of civic engagement by acceding to the metaphor and playing at matchmaking. 

In the three weeks prior to the election, IPDI checked the three major portals every day for election-related content.  The research team looked for the words “election,” “candidate,” “vote,” or “campaign,” and noted the highest (that is, the most widely trafficked) site level on which such content appeared.  After noting the level, the team checked for ten types of content: humor, news, links to candidate sites, links to partisan and group sites, political data, online discussions, voting and registration information, political advertisements, opportunities to donate, and opportunities to volunteer.

We found that portal sites gave very little attention to politics on their homepages until the last week before the election.  MSN provided no political features on its homepage until the last day of October.  AOL had no homepage links to its elections coverage until October 27.  In the remaining nine days of the campaign season, AOL linked to election content off the homepage on seven days.  Only one political advertisement was noted; it ran on Yahoo! November 1, 2000, and was sponsored by an environmental group.

In their politics sections, both AOL and Yahoo! provided an extensive array of election-related content and tools.  The two portals offered political news and analysis stories from sources such as the Associated Press, no different than traditional media.  (MSN linked to MSNBC and Slate, the Microsoft online political journal.)  In addition to traditional news stories, the portal political sections also included tools for connecting politically attentive users to campaigns and to each other: direct links to candidate Web sites, online political discussion groups, logistical voting information and links to partisan organizations.  None of the portals featured interactive matchmaking tools for would-be campaign volunteers and donors. 

The portals are, even at this early stage of Internet development, a new breed of political mediator.  The connective features they offer go beyond the traditional dynamic between campaigns, the news media and the public, and the antiquated dynamic in which the political party/machine served as mediator.  Some newspapers print campaign contact information in voter guides, but they don’t appeal to their readers on news pages to “Write Your Elected Officials” as the online candidate guides did.  Government and partisan sites provide action-oriented information, but they don’t have the traffic that portals and news media sites attract.

In short, there is evidence that the big portals played all three roles in 2002: gatekeeper, facilitator, and matchmaker, in descending order.  Portal editors might justify their choices to wait until the final weeks of the election to promote political information by saying that they are simply giving their audience the information they want most.  (The sniper attacks in the Washington D.C. area was a big news story in this time period.)  Online media have the ability to see almost instantly which elements of their sites are most popular.  Some even track the choices their audience members make during each visit to the site.  This increased knowledge about their audience gives portal editors the ability to respond more quickly and accurately to user preferences. 

Our research begs a question that should be put to portal editors: are you giving people what they want in the short run, rather than providing them with what they might want in the long-run or what you and your organizational superiors think a democratic society needs them to see?  Journalists and media organizations have long grappled with this dilemma in the course of deciding what constitutes “news,” but it is unclear whether portals, or portal divisions, regard themselves as news media, and thus, whether they intend to adopt this social responsibility.  We hasten to add that we pose this question aloud without any preconception about the proper role(s) of portal editors in online political communication.  Our purpose is to raise this as a topic for further inquiry and public discussion.  As the online citizenry grows, and online campaigning matures, portal editors may inherit as much potential power to influence the process as the news media currently possess.