Net Users Trawl for Differing Views

A new study says Web surfers know more about both sides of issues than offline folks. But how they use that information isn't clear

By Heather Green

How is it possible that someone can be an undecided voter at this point? On TV or in newspaper stories, the undecideds admit that thanks to the debates and general news coverage, they're familiar with the Presidential candidates' different positions. So why can't folks make up their minds?

What people do with information available to them is at the heart of the puzzle concerning what impact the Internet has on the political debate. Does the Web, which offers unprecedented control over what we read and when, let us shut ourselves off from opinions we don't want to consider? Are people going to blogs and partisan sites for a dose of ideological reinforcement?

ROOTING AROUND.

  In an attempt to give some insight into these questions, the Pew Internet & American Life Project just released a study called "The Internet and Democratic Debate." The study, based on a survey of 1,510 Americans this summer, is pretty encouraging in one way. It goes against the conventional wisdom that holds that the Internet insulates people from other views. In fact, according to the survey, Internet users are better informed about key campaign issues and the two Presidential candidates' points of view than people who don't go online.

"The Internet has the capacity to either restrict the flow of information or be a big library," says John Horrigan, a researcher at the Pew Internet Project. "[We found that] people tend to root around instead of closing their horizons off."

That makes sense. After all, the true power of the Internet is that it allows people to discover information that they might not have been able to get before. And how they use it matters more than ever: The number of people who go online to gather political news and information has doubled, to 63 million, since the last Presidential election.

READING TRADITIONAL MEDIA, TOO.

  A series of questions about controversial issues and the campaign helped the Pew group shine light on the matter. For instance, when asked about eight arguments for and against the decision to invade Iraq, non-Internet users had frequently or sometimes heard 6.9 of the arguments, compared with broadband users, who had heard 7.4 of the arguments, and dial-up subscribers, who had heard 7.2 of the arguments.

The study also found that the image of Internet junkies frantically surfing online and blogging among themselves while ignoring established media doesn't hold. People aren't fleeing traditional media outlets, the study says: 90% of those who get news online each day also read papers or watch TV. In fact, as a primary source of political news, TV still rules. Around 78% of respondents get most of their news from watching TV news, compared with 38% who read newspapers, 16% who listen to radio, and 15% who go online.

When they log on, people interested in political news aren't spending all their time at partisan blogs or political-party sites. In fact, 59% of the people online visit sites of the major U.S. news outlets, while 30% of all Internet users have been to at least one of the four nonmainstream sites, defined by the Pew survey as international news sites (such as that of the British Broadcasting Corp.), liberal sites (such as MoveOn.org), conservative sites (such as the Christian Coalition), and alternative U.S. news sites (such as AlterNet.org).

ENGAGEMENT IS BETTER.

  The survey focused on how broadly people were aware of opposing arguments around hot-button issues, and it also measured how extensively people were exposed to these views. The study doesn't give insight into another component of Net conventional wisdom -- that people use the Web to strengthen their preconceptions. Nor did the survey explore whether people search out opposing-side arguments so they can better knock them down or better understand them.

Horrigan says understanding how people use the information they discover online is something that Pew would like to study more fully in the future. And it will be key to getting a fuller understanding of the Internet's impact on political discourse.

"Engagement with arguments is always better than disengagement, even when you can't be sure how people are going to treat the new arguments they encounter," says Kelly Garrett, one of the study's authors and a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan. So in the meantime, we can still puzzle over how the electorate can be so well informed and undecided.

Green is Internet editor for BusinessWeek in New York

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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