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



2.6   Politicians online: use and impacts

In a public choice model, political leaders are thought to make a difference to election results essentially through two key activities: finding out what most voters want, and then 'presenting a case' which delivers on these preferences.1

Modern politicians have long sought means to present their case directly to the electorate, unfettered by journalistic filtration. Notably, former U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower, frustrated by what he perceived as a manipulative press corps that slanted the news through its lines of questioning, opened press conferences to television cameras, and by extension to individual voters.

Furious with the news media, he pressed his staff for both a better means of controlling the national agenda and getting his words before the public without journalistic filtration.2

Eisenhower, who held communicating with the people as a basic principle of leadership, was an ardent supporter of press freedom, but also believed reporters had no claim to a monopoly on political information.

"To hell with slanted reporters," [press secretary James] Hagerty wrote in his diary on March 4. "We'll go directly to the people who can hear exactly what [the] president said without reading warped and slanted stories."3

At first glance it would seem politicians have been given an unequaled opportunity to communicate directly with constituents via e-mail and Web sites. In fact all Canadian federal political parties have Web sites, as do many Members of Parliament. All government departments now offer information online as does Parliament, which provides extensive information on legislation, committees, and transcripts of the proceedings of the House of Commons and Senate. The vast quantity of information at these official sites allows anyone with a personal computer and modem to closely monitor legislative activity.

Similar resources are also available online in the United States. According to Owen, Davis and Strickler (1999) the effect of this access to information in the United States is "potentially revolutionary for followers of legislation"4 because formerly only lobbying firms and interest groups had the resources to follow legislation so closely.

However, precisely because of the overwhelming volume of this very information available online, the rate of return for most rational individuals seeking information from these online sources is relatively low. Much of the information online is technical, procedural and bureaucratic. In reality, "much of the 'information' available to voters about party policy stances is generated adversarially, by rival parties trying to pull holes in each other's positions, and being forced to respond to opposition onslaughts."5

Anecdotally, the Internet may even be emerging as a forum for political party loyalists to smear opponents of their candidate and gain backdoor entry into the mainstream press. For example, in the recent race for the leadership of the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance Party, the pro-life special interest group Campaign Life Coalition published reports that members of one leadership contender's campaign team were homosexual. The traditional media likely would not have published this material on their own initiative, but did so inadvertently in reporting on the controversial Web site.

Owen and Davis hypothesized that since Congress members have complete control of the political information on their Web sites, they would take advantage of every opportunity to convey their accomplishments and interests to constituents. However, their study of congressional Web sites actually showed Congress members' sites are used primarily as a form of advertising.

By using their Web sites to present themselves as attractive, approachable, and helpful public servants, members of Congress effectively use the Internet to advertise themselves.6

The study also found that Congress members were reluctant to use their Web sites for providing more substantive political information such as policy positions or for claiming credit for government accomplishments. Members' sites generally did not discuss legislation, even that which they sponsored.7

The failure of candidates to capitalize on the new technologies available to them in 1996 was further underscored in a study by Dulio, Goff and Thurber (1999), who discovered that Internet search engines often did not return a candidate's own Web site among the top search results.8 For example, by not registering their own name as a keyword with search engines, a candidate would clearly have missed any opportunity for increased exposure the Internet may have afforded.

Anecdotally, it appears the situation may not have changed much since 1996. Commenting on the Hillary Clinton campaign for the United States Senate, journalist Ben White noted that "as the Web sprawls out beyond 1 billion pages, with no friendly librarian to keep track of them all, the search engine issue is more than an academic issue for campaigns."9

A study of Internet use in British politics also supports the finding that political parties have so far failed to capitalize on the potential of the Internet. Gibson and Ward (1998) found that parties believe traditional media, such as radio, television, newspapers and direct mail are far more important avenues of providing political information to individual voters.10

However, far from dismissing the Internet as a political medium, the authors suggest the Internet was immature at the time of the study and its role in disseminating political information is likely to increase in importance over time.

Given the speed of developments during the last five years ... it is not unreasonable to assume that over the next decade party communication and campaigning on the Internet will have moved from the fringe toward the mainstream. Such developments, on the basis of the findings from this investigation, could carry significant consequences for the current distribution of power both within and between political parties.11

In fact, above all other actors in the political system, politicians may be the least likely to forego the consensus building role of the traditional mass media. It is they alone who face the political imperative of uniting a majority of voters around a handful of central issues. As political advertising attests, politicians seek above all else to avoid alienating voting groups based on a marginal or divisive issues.

In a public choice model, this explains why "most politicians collude to exclude racist views, religious bigotry or persecution of unpopular minorities from inclusion in party competition; for although 'following the crowd' in this way wins temporary votes, it also incorporates potent sources of instability into liberal democratic politics."12

As the Internet matures, it seems it may increasingly become an outlet for even more extreme political discourse than can be found in the traditional mass media. As PoliticsOnline.com editor Andy Brack recently noted, "when the political Internet was in its nascent stage, do-gooders and political Dudley Do-Rights of the world touted the medium as a savior that would solve all sorts of problems. With the [year 2000] election season on us, it's clear that the medium has grown up. Not only are there hundreds of parody sites, there are some not-so-nice things going on online."13

In the Canadian context political attack and spoof sites are emerging. For example, the Canadian Alliance party posted an attack page on their official Web site personally attacking a political pundit from another party. The page called Warren's Web was subsequently modified to remove alleged slanderous materia under threat of legal action.

Part of the appeal of the Internet is a degree of anonymity. Material posted on a site called Oddballs suggests that Prime Minister Jean Chretien is a drunk.

Foot Notes

1.     Dunleavy, 1991, p. 113.
2.     Allen, 1993, p. 18.
3.     Allen, 1993, p. 20.
4.     Owen, Davis and Strickler, 1999, p. 13.
5.     Dunleavy, 1991, p. 113.
6.     Owen, Davis and Strickler, 1999, p. 25.
7.     Owen, Davis and Strickler, 1999, p. 25.
8.     Dulio, Goff and Thurber, 1999, p. 54.
9.     White, Slate, June 5, 2000.
10.   Gibson and Ward, 1998, p. 33.
11.   Gibson and Ward, 1998, p. 33.
12.   Dunleavy and O'Leary, 1987, p. 155.
13.   http://www.politicsonline.com/news/index.html

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