October 27, 2004

The Internet and Democratic Debate

Part 7. Conclusions and implications

Conclusions and implications

The act of going online for news about politics and public affairs increases the amount of information people know about the different sides of issues. In a contemporary political environment that seems highly partisan and in which people seem to talk past each other rather than weigh each other’s arguments, it is heartening to see that a relatively new newsgathering and communications tool may be stemming this tide.

A word of caution is in order, however, because this report measures the breadth of people’s exposure to arguments about politics and selected issues. It does not explore how they come to find these arguments or their motives for doing so. Undecided voters may use the internet to research the details of the candidates’ positions in order to make up their minds. Inquisitive Bush supporters may go online to learn more about Kerry’s health care proposal, whether that influences their vote or not. Likewise, Kerry supporters with an interest in energy policy may use Republican campaign or other sites to learn something of Bush’s proposals on these issues. Such even-handed approaches to learning about politics represent an ideal of being well-versed on both sides of an issue.

However, some motives for learning political arguments may fall short of this ideal. It is possible, for example, that some Kerry supporters have found out about pro-Bush arguments at stridently pro-Kerry Web sites or blogs. Their exposure to these arguments may be incidental to the fun of reading Kerry partisans eviscerate them. Still, even in the most partisan of online political scrums, this way of learning something about opposing viewpoints may have value. Moreover, those who use the internet this way are arguably not far removed from those who used America’s highly politicized newspapers at the turn of the 19th and into the early 20th centuries.

Whatever wired Americans’ motives for their use of the internet for news about politics, online resources are on balance a door-opener to a more informed political discourse. The convenience of the internet shifts some people away from the TV and newspaper and to the internet as a way to get news. They often get the same news they would otherwise get from traditional outlets. There are also signs that the internet is beginning, for home broadband users especially, to be a source for “online only” news or international news that would be very difficult to get otherwise. Even when people visit partisan sites, these are rarely their only news sources.

The worry that the internet might channel people into informational warrens of one-sided arguments is not borne out by the data in this report.