Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Connections between Internet Use and Political Efficacy, Knowledge, and Participation

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Connections between Internet Use and Political Efficacy, Knowledge, and Participation

Article excerpt

Over the past decades, the amount of available political information has expanded, thanks in part to the Internet. Political candidates have been using the Internet to update individuals through e-mail (Bimber, 1998), to provide information about their issue positions (Stromer-Galley, 2000), and to raise money (Dulio, Goff, & Thurber, 1999). Not only do the campaigns supply information, a host of other Web sites devoted to politics--ranging from news organizations to nonprofits to individual blogs--are available for interested Internet users. Information availability, however, does not guarantee that the Internet will change how users approach politics. Although some scholars fear that the Internet may cause people to abandon their social environment (Nie & Erbring, 2000), other researchers suggest that electronic media have the potential to strengthen social relationships (Hampton & Wellman, 2003; Wellman & Hampton, 1999) and to enhance democracy and increase participation (Anderson, 2003).

Given the Internet's relative infancy as a communication medium, many questions remain about how the Internet affects individuals and society. Using data from the 2000 National Annenberg Election Survey (NAES), this study looks at the relationships between Internet access and online exposure to information about the presidential campaign and political efficacy, knowledge, and participation. It has been argued that these important political variables are indicators of a properly functioning democracy. A politically knowledgeable electorate is desirable in order for citizens to make informed decisions (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996). Political efficacy is a determinant of political behavior--without feelings of competency and beliefs that one's actions are consequential, one has little incentive to participate in politics (Abramson & Aldrich, 1982). Political participation is important because levels of engagement in a democratic system have consequences on the system's equity (Rosenstone & Hansen, 1993). Theoretically, an optimal democracy would contain citizens who possess high levels of political knowledge, efficacy, and participation.

Results from the 2000 NAES show that Internet access and online exposure to information about the presidential campaign are significantly and positively associated with these important political variables. Several significant relationships are detectable even when taking sociodemographic variables, party identification, partisan strength, political interest, and several other media exposures variables into account. Although detectable, the magnitudes of the associations are small, suggesting that the Internet's potential to improve these indicants of good citizenship is limited.

Beginning in 1996, the Internet emerged as a major nontraditional medium used in political campaigns (Johnson, Braima, & Sothirajah, 1999). Not only were candidates maintaining campaign Web sites but nonprofit organizations were experimenting with informing the public about issues using the Internet. Today, an Internet presence is considered the norm for political campaigns, and the number of Web sites with political information has dramatically increased. As the amount of political content online has increased, so has the percentage of Americans accessing political information online. Looking at online political behavior, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 18% of Americans said that they went online for election news in 2000 (Kohut et al., 2000). In 2004, 29% of Americans reported using the Internet for political news (Rainie, Cornfield, & Horrigan, 2005).

Political Efficacy, Knowledge, and Participation

Given the number of people who report accessing political information online, questions remain about the effects of Internet use on political variables such as efficacy, knowledge, and participation. In The Voter Decides, Campbell, Gurin, and Miller (1954) described the concept of political efficacy as "the feeling that political and social change is possible, and that the individual citizen can play a part in bringing about this change" (p. …

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