Internet Blog Usage and Political Participation Ryan Reed, University of California, Davis

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1 Internet Blog Usage and Political Participation Ryan Reed, University of California, Davis Keywords: Internet, blog, media, participation, political knowledge Studies have been conducted which examine the effect of Internet access and usage on voter turnout, but little work has been done which explores the impact of specific types of Internet usage on political participation or the effect of the levels of such usage on such participation. In addition, most studies treat the Internet as a form of media similar to newspapers or television. Even though it has much in common with those oft-studied media types, the interactive and targeted nature of the Internet makes it more multi-dimensional than traditional media forms. Indicators suggest that the public is turning from traditional media to various sources on the Internet, including web logs (blogs), for political information (see Pew Internet and American Life 2004). Furthermore, 27% of Internet users, representing 16% of US adults, report reading blogs (Pew: The State of Blogging 2004). The following paper proposes the addition of four questions regarding respondents usage of this particular source of political information. Due arguably to a lack of data, there has been little research into voters interactions with blogs specifically. However, a fair amount of scholarship has explored the effect on participation of Internet usage in general. In a 2003 study examining voter turnout for the 1996, 1998 and 2000 elections, Tolbert and McNeal concluded that the Internet is altering the political landscape, at least in terms of presidential elections. The authors found that Internet access increased voter turnout for the two presidential elections (1996 and 2000), controlling for other factors including education and income. However, voter turnout in midterm elections seemed unaffected, which suggests that Internet access may not be enough to overcome the typically low interest that characterizes such elections. In addition, the

2 authors found that individuals who access the Internet for political news are more likely to participate in political activities beyond voting, such as volunteering, displaying signs, wearing buttons or attending political events. In an article focusing on the Internet as a resource for presidential candidates in the 2000 election race, Paolino and Shaw (2003) analyzed viewership of candidate campaign websites. The authors reported that people accessing the Internet for political information are similar to people who choose to participate in primary elections; they have more interest in politics and are more partisan, more educated and more affluent. In addition, in what seems to have been a premature assessment, the authors state that, The Internet does not seem to be a place where outsider candidates are likely to gain tremendous benefits from fund-raising (Paolino & Shaw, 2003, 196). Downs (1967) argued that citizens only invest in gathering information to the point at which marginal return equals the marginal cost. If information has become cheaper through Internet access, then one might expect more informed citizens and this might result in higher levels of political engagement. In a 2001 study, Bimber examined this possibility and his results did not bode well for Internet s ability to increase participation. The author ultimately found that access to the Internet is not predictive of voting or other forms of political participation. Further, he found that citizens who pursue political information on the Internet were no more likely to vote than other demographically similar citizens. One possible problem with the author s study is that it relied on data from the 1998 midterm elections rather than a presidential election year. He may have really discovered that, as suggested by Tolbert and McNeal, Internet access alone cannot overcome the apathy and low turnout that typically accompanies midterm elections. One optimistic finding in his study 2

3 (that may have been foreshadowing of future phenomena) is that citizens who pursue political information via the Internet were more likely to donate money to a candidate, party, or group. Ultimately, however, the author concluded that participation is not regulated directly by cost or availability of information and, thus the Internet would not directly affect participation in this way. Again, with 1998 data from a midterm election, it may have been premature to draw such conclusions. A 2003 study (Weber, et al, 2003) using data collected from Survey2000, an Internetbased survey, found results contrary to Bimber s. The authors found a positive relationship between Internet engagement and political and civic participation. The authors did sound one warning, however: they found that the Internet appears to exacerbate the socioeconomic bias already exhibited by civic and political participation prior to the rise of the Internet. (2003, 40) Optimistically, one might wonder whether this bias will persist with the increasing trend of free wireless Internet access. Stanley and Weare (2004) performed a study using data from a government agency experiment with a Web-based discussion forum. Their results also contrasted with Bimber s, finding that Web-based discussion expanded participation. However, the authors suggested that the results may represent a deepening rather than a broadening of participation, as the participants were already involved in political acts. The authors further suggested that this would not have been captured by Bimber s (2001) model. However, even a deepening of participation is a positive finding in the search for the Internet s effect on political participation. 3

4 A 2007 online poll 1 by Polimetrix found that, for those respondents who reported having access to the Internet either at work or at home, 33% read blogs (see Table 1). For those respondents that reported reading blogs, a follow-up question asked the respondents to name the blogs that they read. Nearly half (48%) named at least one blog that is specifically political in nature. The Internet has grown into a strong force in American politics and blogs have become centers of Internet activism. The top politically-oriented blogs receive hundreds of thousands of unique visitors per day (see Table 2). Blogs critique media accounts of political events, fuel fundraising through direct appeals to their readers and even feature guest postings by top presidential candidates (Dailykos.com, for example, regularly features posts from Democrats John Edwards and Chris Dodd). Furthermore, unlike traditional media outlets, most blogs are immediately interactive, allowing comments and diaries that often shape future postings within the same day. This suggests that the experience for a reader diverges from the experience one has with traditional media. For these reasons, blogs represent a unique, powerful, and as-yet unexplored area of political life in America. While candidates have recognized their power, political scientists have only barely begun to investigate their ramifications for the American political process. One major hurdle is the lack of data with which to work. Including items regarding this phenomenon on the 2008 ANES will help the discipline overcome this hurdle. The suggested questions follow in the Appendix. 1 While it may rightly be suspected that an online poll would find higher blog readership than a traditional poll, Polimetrix corrected for online bias in their polling methodology. 4

5 Table 1. Blog Readership among Respondents with Internet Access at Home or Work Read Blog Percent Yes % No % Total % *Data provided by Polimetrix. 5

6 Table 2. Traffic on Top Political Blogs Rank Blog Daily Traffic (unique visits per day) 1 DailyKos.com 487,391 2 Instapundit.com 223,376 3 MichelleMalkin.com 219,155 4 CrooksAndLiars.com 149,383 5 HotAir.com 162,128 *Statistics provided by SiteMeter.com, December 4,

7 Appendix: Questions 1 and 2 are included in the 2008 ANES Default-core. Following Questions 1 and 2, we propose to include Questions 3-6 below. Questions 1. QUESTION: Do you have access to the Internet or the World Wide Web? 1. Yes 5. No 8. Don't know 9. Refused 2. IF R HAS ACCESS TO THE INTERNET: QUESTION: Have you seen any information about this election campaign on the (Internet/Web)? 1. Yes 5. No 8. Don't know 9. Refused 3. IF R HAS ACCESS TO THE INTERNET: QUESTION: Do you visit blogs that contain discussion of politics? 1. Yes 5. No 8. Don't know 9. Refused IF R VISITS BLOGS THAT CONTAIN POLITICAL CONTENT: 4. QUESTION: How many days in the past week did you visit blogs that contain discussion of politics? 5. QUESTION: How many political blogs would you say you normally visit in one week? 1. One 5. Two 8. Three 9. More than three 6. QUESTION: Do you post comments on the political blogs you read? 1. Yes 5. No 8. Don't know 9. Refused 7

8 References Bimber, Bruce The Internet and Political Transformation: Populism, Community, and Accelerated Pluralism. Polity. 31(1): Bimber, Bruce Information and Political Engagement in America: The Search for Effects of Information Technology at the Individual Level. Political Research Quarterly. 54(1): Downs, Anthony An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper & Row. Pew Internet and American Life Project The Internet and the Campaign March 6. Pew Internet and American Life Project The State of Blogging. January 2. Stanley, J. Woody and Weare, Christopher The Effects of Internet Use on Political Participation: Evidence From an Agency Online Discussion Forum. Administration and Society. 36: Tolbert, Caroline J. and McNeal, Ramona S Unraveling the Effects of the Internet on Political Participation? Political Research Quarterly. 56(2): Weber, Lori M., Loumakis, Alysha and Bergman, James Who participates and why?: an analysis of citizens on the internet and the mass public. Social Science Computer Review. 21(1):

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