October 27, 2004

More Americans get campaign news online and the internet helps them become aware of a wider range of political views

As wired Americans increasingly go online for political news and commentary, a new survey finds that the internet is contributing to a wider awareness of political views during this year’s campaign season. This is significant because prominent commentators have expressed concern that growing use of the internet would be harmful to democratic deliberation. They worried that citizens would use the internet to seek information that reinforces their political preferences and avoid material that challenges their views. That would hurt citizens’ chances of contributing to informed debates. The new survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in collaboration with the University of Michigan School of Information survey belies those worries. It shows that internet users have greater overall exposure political arguments, including those that challenge their candidate preferences and their positions on some key issues. The conclusions were drawn after respondents were asked if they ever heard some of the major arguments for and against George Bush and John Kerry, the Iraq war, gay marriage, and free trade. Consistently, internet users, especially those with broadband connections, had encountered the most arguments, including assertions that contested their views. That was true after statistical tests were performed that controlled for other factors, such as the reality that internet users have higher levels of education than non-users and are generally more interested in politics. “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, according to the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, about double the number who had used the internet this way during the 2000 campaign. The current Pew Internet Project/University of Michigan survey found that television is still the primary source of information for campaign arguments and points of view about the Iraq war, gay marriage, and free trade. At the same time, a significant number of internet users, especially those with broadband, now say the internet is their primary source of campaign information. • 31% of broadband users now cite the internet as their main source of campaign news, nearly the same number as say they rely on newspapers (35%). • 30% of internet users have gone to the web sites of non-traditional news organizations to get news about politics and issues. “People are using the internet to broaden their political horizons, not narrow them,” argued Kelly Garrett of the University of Michigan, who co-authored the report with Horrigan. “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. Here are the arguments that have dominated the campaign and these key issues in voters’ minds: • Of the arguments being made in the presidential campaign, the most well-known about Bush is that he misled the public about the reasons for going to war with Iraq (94% of Americans had heard that argument) and the most well-known about Kerry is that he changes positions on issues when he thinks it will help him win an election (70% had heard that argument). • Of the arguments being made 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 (98% of Americans had heard that). The most well-known anti-war argument was that the Bush administration had misled Americans about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction (87% had heard that argument). • Of the arguments being made 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 (85% of Americans had heard that). 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 (97% had heard that argument). • Of the arguments being made in favor of free trade, the most well-known was that free trade improves U.S. relationships with other countries (77% of Americans had heard that). The most well-known anti-free trade argument was that it allows companies to lay off American workers and send their jobs overseas (89% had heard that argument). All numerical data in the report was gathered through telephone interviews conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates between June 14 and July 3, 2004, among a sample of 1,510 adults, aged 18 and older. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects is +/- 3%. For results based Internet users (n=1,036), the margin of sampling error is +/- 3%. The Pew Internet & American Life Project is a non-profit, non-partisan research organization that examines the social impact of the internet. It is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and it does not take positions on policy matters.