Internet use leads to heightened political uncertainty for voterson 9 September 2014
By Matthew Wall and Laura Sudulich
If you’re reading this blog, it’s a safe bet that you’re a regular consumer of online political news. While gathering political information on the internet may seem like a relatively banal activity to the experienced user, it is worth noting that by reading this page you are participating in a form of information exchange that is, by the standards of past generations, almost magical. The information is free for us to publish, and becomes available to readers possessing the requisite technology instantaneously, across the world (apart from countries where government censorship restrictions may apply) upon publication.
Furthermore, the format is multi-directional, providing you with a right to reply with your own thoughts or insights and us with a capacity to reply to your replies. While online you are, of course, very likely to come across news content from the ‘offline’ world – perhaps a column or news-item from a major newspaper, a video or audio file from a broadcast organisation. On the whole though, there is little doubt that the internet news-gatherer experiences both content and means of interacting with content that mark him or her apart from a person who either cannot or does not go online for political information. Given the ever-expanding percentage of the world’s population that uses the internet as a news-source, it is natural for us to ask – how are those who gather political news online affected by this experience?
In our recently published study in the British Journal of Political Science, we sought to examine one aspect of this wide-ranging question – the effects of online newsgathering on the political uncertainty of voters. This is of substantive importance – voters’ partisan political certainty is the bedrock upon which our understanding of electoral dynamics is built. The proportions of politically ‘certain’ voters in a population both provide a baseline expectation for the outcome of elections and condition the behaviour of political elites.
One of the major cross-national findings in recent years in political science is a heightening of political uncertainty among electorates – making politics a more volatile and performance-centred sphere of activity. We were also drawn to study the relationship between online newsgathering and political uncertainty because the popular and academic literature provides us with two mutually exclusive lines of reasoning, with radically divergent expectations.
On the one hand, there is a school of thought that focuses on the advanced levels of selective exposure facilitated by the internet. While radio, television and newspaper audiences are presented a pre-set menu of information by content providers, internet users are able to dine á la carte, choosing what links to follow, or what other users to include in their social networks. This facilitates a well-known human predilection to select information that accords with our view of the world. Scholars like Cas Sunstein have therefore argued that the internet is largely a place where individuals ‘sort themselves into echo chambers of their own design’. We would thus expect that internet newsgatherers, untroubled by political information that runs counter to their political predispositions, become ever more politically certain.
Opposing this line of argument are those who focus on the tremendous diversity of both content and content creators in the online sphere, relative to traditional media. Web 2.0 is characterised by tools and behavioural norms that enable individual users to generate, annotate and share content. In a single browsing session one may come across a multiplicity of viewpoints and - by means of hyperlinks – unanticipated sites and content that may as well challenge one’s beliefs. Behavioural analysts of web-browsing emphasize that a significant proportion of browsing activity is driven by habit and random chance – meaning that purposive selection is rarely so complete as to filter out potentially confusing or confounding perspectives. This characterisation of the internet news-gathering experience as containing an element of random selection from an extremely diverse population of content would lead us to expect that those who collect political information online may become more politically uncertain as a consequence of doing so.
In order to investigate these competing claims, we made use of the fact that internet newsgathering is, at least to some extent, a function of technological availability. We studied the Irish electorate in the 2011 election, looking at whether the respondent lived in an area where broadband internet was available, or an area where there was no provider of broadband internet. The considerable variation across the Irish territory in terms of broadband availability – at the time of data collection- is depicted in the map below.
On the basis of this information, we were able to analyse whether variance in broadband availability was a predictor of an individual’s likelihood to gather news online (controlling for variables such as the urban/rural divide of course). We consistently found that Irish voters who used the internet as a news source were more politically uncertain – that is, they were more likely to strongly consider voting for more than one party, and their preferences were more evenly distributed across the party system as a whole. As with any academic analysis, it is important to state that there are caveats as to the generalizability of our findings. In particular our use of the Irish case, with its multiparty system characterised by low levels of ideological cohesion, may be less favourable to preference re-enforcing dynamics than more ideologically polarised, bi-polar party systems, such as the United States. However, our findings do provide at least tentative support to the notion that online newsgathering may be an activity that increases levels of political uncertainty for individual voters. As mentioned above, growing political uncertainty has been noted by electoral scholars across the world, making elections more volatile and unpredictable. Our research provides an early indication that the spread of online newsgathering may exacerbate this trend.
Laura Sudulich is Research Fellow at the Centre d'étude de la vie politique (Cevipol) Université Libre de Bruxelles. Visit her website to find out more about her research. She tweets @laurasud. Matthew Wall is Lecturer in Politics at Swansea University. He is a contributing editor on the www.politicalreform.ie blog. More information about his work is available on his website. He tweets @wallmt.