2.1 Introduction
2.2 Putting ‘information' in rational perspective
2.3 Why the Internet matters to political journalism
2.4 Individuals online: usage and impacts
2.5 Groups online: usage and impacts
2.6 Politicians online: usage and impacts
2.7 Media online: usage and impacts
2.8 ‘Ya say ya wanna a revolution?'
2.9 Further study

Submitted by:
A.M. Burton

Submitted to:
School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada),

in part completion of the requirements for the

Master of Journalism

September 2000

:: Research Base



2.4  Individuals online: use and impacts.

Any consideration of how the Internet may impact political communication in a liberal democracy must include consideration of how, and indeed if, individual voters use new information technologies and the online political resources they afford.

As with the introduction of any new technology, full market penetration of the Internet should not automatically be assumed. New products come and go; not all become lasting household fixtures like the telephone and the television.

In observing market penetration of new technology, Barrett (1996) distinguishes between different types of consumers, identifying five categories, ranging from innovators and enthusiasts, through the pragmatic majority, to followers and, finally, laggards. New technology that ultimately fails does not penetrate the mass market beyond the innovator and enthusiast stages. In order to be successful, new technology must appeal to the pragmatic majority of users.1

According to a joint study by Columbus Group and the Angus Reid Group released July 26, 2000, the number of Canadians who have Internet access from home, work, school or elsewhere has increased to 70% from 55% exactly one year ago, a 27% increase year-over-year. The proportion of users who use the Internet one hour per week or more stands at 52%, up from 41% in 1999. Further, of users polled, 76% said the Internet had impacted their lives in a variety of areas, affecting learning, communication and entertainment. According to the survey, 37% say the Internet has made them more knowledgeable and up-to-date, primarily because of the access to a variety of information sources, including news sources.2

A study by Statistics Canada reported that 42 per cent of Canadian households had at least one regular Internet user at the end of 1999, up from 36 per cent the year before. Further, almost 29 per cent of Canadian households had Internet access at the end of 1999, up from 22.6 per cent in 1998.3

While e-commerce and dot-com advertisers would lead us to believe only the laggards are not yet online, the Statistics Canada data show that the decision to devote the required resources (that is purchase Internet hardware and access) has been taken in only one-third of Canadian households.

Further, some research suggests growth in Internet expansion may actually be slowing, both in Canada and, perhaps more importantly, in the United States. According to a recent study by market and media research firm ComQUEST, a subsidiary of BBM Bureau of Measurement, "Canadians who do not use the Internet are simply not interested in the medium and do not cite cost or lack of technical know-how as reasons for not being online."4 This research, released April 3, 2000, is among the most recent data available. It shows that about 44 per cent of Canadians go online at least once a month, with one-third using the Internet weekly. Canadians connect to the Internet for an average of 8.6 hours a week and time spent online at home is still growing.5

Even assuming ultimate full market penetration, there are a host of reasons for going online, not all civic-minded. User intent is an important factor when considering voter consumption of online political information.

Research indicates there is an abundance of online news and an appetite among news consumers for these products. Between 1994 and 1997 the number of newspapers around the world being published on the Internet rose from 20 to nearly 4000. In the United States alone, there were 492 general-circulation papers with an Internet presence that featured online content updated at least daily.6

More recently, a survey by the Newspaper Association of America released May 10, 1999, found that 51 per cent of news users in the top 50 United States markets had accessed an online newspaper in the previous six months. Further, 82 per cent of online readers reported having read the print edition as often or more often since going online. The NAA study also found that 54 per cent of news users seeking local or community news online source the online edition of a newspaper.7

Further, according to a survey released April 12, 2000 by the non-profit Radio and Television News Directors Foundation and the personalized news service Zatso, almost one in four United States consumers go online to obtain news at least four days a week.8 These data confirm some demand for online news exists among news consumers.

However, not all news is political news. The Pew Research Center for People and the Press's 1998 Technology Summary, intriguingly titled "The Internet Goes Ordinary," reported the percentage of people who were going online for local, entertainment and weather news had grown substantially since 1996. However, "while more voters used the Internet for [mid-term] election news and information in 1998 than [during presidential elections] two years earlier, the percentage of the online public that sought out election information actually diminished."9

Academic research continues to show that online news users are not representative of the average rational voter. Althaus and Tewksbury's (2000) study of online news seeking patterns of first and second year college students reminds us that those who seek news and information online are qualitatively different from the general population. Not only do they have greater access to, and familiarity with, computer technology than non-Internet users, they also have different demographic and attitudinal profiles than the general adult population. "News habits developed within this community result not from an uneven social distribution of computer skills and access but, rather, from the unique needs that are better satisfied by on-line or traditional news media."10

This conclusion is not all that surprising given the profile of online users. As Bucy (2000) affirms, "although the online population is beginning to diversify, the Internet cannot yet claim a committed, non-elite mass audience."11

According to a study by Norris (2000), in 1999, age was one of the strongest predictors of who uses the Internet in Europe, with nearly one-third of 15 to 25 year-olds online, compared with only three per cent of the oldest generation, those over 65. This suggests that any transformation of established patterns of political communication brought on by the Internet may be more gradual than revolutionary, through the process of generational replacement.12

While financial resources and technical know-how required to get online have often been raised in warning of an impending "digital divide"13 based on education, income, and other demographic characteristics, Bucy further cautions that access to a computer, if not owning one, is not the only crucial factor. Computer and print media literacy may be equally influential.

... social access to the Internet requires that citizens have the cognitive ability and technical skills necessary to profit from a complex media environment. As an information resource, the Internet places considerably different demands on the user than the reigning medium of television. Before the new technology can claim a committed, non-elite mass audience, questions of social access will have to be addressed.14

Given scarce resources, especially time and money, individual voters may not be willing to invest further in gathering information to assist with voting decisions.

To the extent they were able to generalize from their data to a more fully networked society of the future, Althaus and Tewksbury conclude only a small portion of the existing news audience will abandon traditional media for Internet news sources. While those with a strong interest in a particular subject area, such as politics, may go online for additional information, the general population will likely remain satisfied with the news diet offered up by traditional media.15 Further, nowhere in the literature reviewed could evidence be found to substantiate that online news users access anything other than online versions of traditional media sources (newspapers, news wires, television and radio networks) for voting-decision information.

One study of politically interested Web users did find that online newspapers and online candidate literature were viewed as more credible than traditionally delivered counterparts.16 However, this contrasts with another study of credibility of online news, which found that there may in fact be a striking similarity between how receivers' interpret print news and online news.17 In other words, individuals may eschew the evening local news or the morning paper for an online product, but that product may be nothing more than an online version of the traditional source.

Foot Notes

1.     Barrett, 1996, p. 30.
2.     http://www.angusreid.com/media/content/displaypr.cfm?id_to_view=1061
3.     http://www.nua.ie/surveys/?f=VS&art_id=905355793&rel=true
4.     http://www.nua.ie/surveys/?f=VS&art_id=905355692&rel=true
5.     http://www.nua.ie/surveys/?f=VS&art_id=905355692&rel=true
6.     Althaus and Tewksbury, 2000, p. 21-22.
7.     http://www.nua.ie/surveys/?f=VS&art_id=905354892&rel=true
8.     http://www.nua.ie/surveys/?f=VS&art_id=905355713&rel=true
9.     http://www.people-press.org/tech98sum.htm
10.   Althaus and Tewksbury, 2000, p. 23.
11.   Bucy, 2000, p. 50.
12.   Norris, 2000, p. 7.
13.   Bucy, 2000, p. 54.
14.   Bucy, 2000, p. 59-60.
15.   Althaus and Tewksbury, 2000, p. 40.
16.   Johnson and Kaye, 1998, p. 334.
17.   Sundar, 1999, p. 382.

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