DOES THE REVOLUTION BEGIN HERE?
HOW THE INTERNET MAY (OR MAY NOT) CHANGE POLITICAL COMMUNICATION
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
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
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
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.
1. Barrett, 1996, p. 30.
6. Althaus and Tewksbury, 2000, p. 21-22.
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.