Unraveling the Effects of the Internet on Political Participation?

By Tolbert, Caroline J.; McNeal, Ramona S. | Political Research Quarterly, June 2003 | Go to article overview
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Unraveling the Effects of the Internet on Political Participation?


Tolbert, Caroline J., McNeal, Ramona S., Political Research Quarterly


While a long tradition of research documents the demographic and psychological determinants of political participation, there is also evidence to suggest that changes in communication technology may play an important role in influencing electoral behavior. We suggest traditional models of voter turnout may be under-specified with respect to changes in the media, especially use of new information technologies. The Internet may enhance voter information about candidates and elections, and in turn stimulate increased participation. Using NES survey data and multivariate analysis we find respondents with access to the Internet and online election news were significantly more likely to report voting in the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections. This was true even after controlling for socioeconomic status, partisanship, attitudes, traditional media use, and state environmental factors. Simulations suggest access to Internet and online election news significantly increased the probability of voting by an average of 12 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively, in the 2000 election. The mobilizing potential of the Internet in 2000 was also associated with increased participation beyond voting. The findings help us understand how technology can impact voting and American political participation.

Leading behavioral theories of political participation have shown that socioeconomic characteristics of voters-education and income-are the most important variables in explaining whether one votes in the United States. Voter turnout is also affected by race, ethnicity, age, gender and attitudinal factors such as partisanship, political efficacy and political interest (Abramson 1983; Campbell et al.. 1960; Conway 1991; Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980; Rosenstone and Hansen 1993; Piven and Cloward 1983; Verba and Nie 1972; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995). While a long tradition of research documents the demographic and psychological determinants of political participation, there is also evidence to suggest that changes in communication technology may play an important role in influencing electoral behavior. Research has found that those who read about politics in newspapers learn more than those who watch television (Smith 1989). We suggest traditional models of voter turnout may be under-specified with respect to changes in the media, especially use of new information technologies. In the past decade new communications technology has changed the way many people gather news and participate in politics. The most important of these new technologies is the Internet, which is becoming the mass medium for the twenty-first century. The Internet combines the audiovisual components of traditional forms of media such as newspaper and television with the interactivity and speed of telephone and mail. It facilitates communication flexibility, allowing individuals to choose what information to access and when to access. It also permits users to exchange large amounts of information quickly regardless of geographical distance.

Political scientists who ponder the question believe that the Internet should not be expected to boost turnout and indeed an early empirical study on the subject provided supported for this conclusion (Bimber 2001). If the Internet does have an effect on turnout, the finding would not only run counter to the empirical literature, but would require scholars who study participation to account for and accommodate a turnout effect of the Internet, including factors such as Internet use in theoretical and empirical models of voting behavior.

It is difficult to predict which communication technology will be widely adopted by the public and even more difficult to anticipate the impact it may have on areas such as the economy and politics. It was speculated that Videotext and two-way cable television would be adopted quickly in the United States but they have not lived up to their promise. On the other hand, radio and television spread more rapidly than could have been anticipated.

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