Information and Political Engagement in America: The Search for Effects of Information Technology at the Individual Level

Article excerpt

Some aspects of democracy appear more sensitive than others to the availability throughout society of political information. Individual-level political engagement poses a puzzle in this regard. An instrumental-- quantitative conception of information that is central to rational theories and is also found in some behavioral theories of participation appears contradicted by historical trends. I treat the contemporary expansion in political information made possible by new information technology as a form of natural experiment. I test for a relationship between information availability and political engagement using survey data about Internet use in the period 1996-99. This test is relevant to the applied debate over whether the information revolution will prove salutary for participation, and at the same time sheds light on contending theories of information. I find little relationship exists; the only form of participation which is demonstrably connected to Internet use is donating money This finding fails to support instrumental conceptions of information and instead endorses cognitive conceptions employed in psychological and certain behavioral theories of political engagement.

The information revolution that is bringing so many changes to commerce and the structure of economies is also beginning to affect political systems. This revolution is creating an environment for politics that is increasingly information-rich and communication-intensive, and these developments have precipitated much discussion about the implications of technology for politics. Some of the applied questions about technology raised in this discussion in turn illuminate important theoretical problems involving fundamental political processes.

One of the most interesting of these questions is whether the Internet will "cause" an increase in the political engagement of ordinary citizens (Norris 1999; Johnson and Kaye 1998). Proponents of this claim range from technologists (Dertouzos 1997; Negroponte 1995) to media professionals and highly placed political consultants (Morris 2000; Bennett and Fielding 1999; Browning 1996; Grossman 1995). Many political scientists and other scholars, on the other hand, are quite doubtful. Although little systematic evidence about contemporary technology has been reported in the academic literature, historical patterns and research on participation in the U.S. fail to support the thesis of a positive correlation between the evolution of informational and communicational resources and levels of citizen engagement. If any correlation exists, it may actually be negative (Schudsen 1998; Flanagin and Zingale 1994; Converse 1972).

This applied question about the Internet in politics resonates with a fundamental theoretical problem in the study of participation. Internet advocates' claim amounts to an assertion that the cost and accessibility of political information are related to citizens' level of engagement with political affairs: the lower the cost and higher the accessibility of political information, the higher the aggregate level of citizen engagement. This assertion is broadly consistent with rational theories of behavior in which the cost of information is an important factor shaping actors' political strategies. It is also resonant with certain behavioral political science in which access or facility with information is understood to affect participation. Efforts to account for the empirical association between education and participation, for instance, sometimes invoke information, pointing to the efforts and skills needed to acquire it as a modulator of participation levels (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995; Luskin 1993; Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980).

Evidence about the current situation and how it might shed light on these models of behavior is so far unclear. Much of what is known about contemporary technology and democracy is focused at the level of political elites and organizations. …