Is the Internet the Biggest Influence in Politics?

According to the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future, its 12-year-old Digital Future Project is the longest ongoing study of digital technology and its impact on American society. In December, the group released the project’s 2014 report, with findings on 180 issues related to digital technology. With such a wide focus, the report offers plenty of topics for discussion, but one that stands out most is the Internet’s impact on politics, and what that could mean for the future. A Technological Tipping Point? In 1960, television came into its own regarding its importance to politics and overtook radio in terms of influence. Many have long noted that those who heard the Nixon-Kennedy presidential debate on radio believed Nixon won, but those who viewed it on television believed Kennedy was the winner. Of course, Kennedy won that election, and some believe television was the key reason. We mention that transformative moment because Jeffrey Cole, Director of the Center for the Digital Future, believes we could soon experience another one. “We may be entering a realm where the Internet plays a larger role in political campaigns than television does,” Cold said. “Digital technology is assuming a critical role in politics — both in getting out the vote and for informing voters — particularly for voters under 35.” Or perhaps we’ve already had that moment. Rebecca Donatelli, who served as the chief Internet advisor to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said “President Obama actually won utilizing what we do for a living.” That’s a pretty bold statement, and one that would be difficult to prove. But what do voters actually think of the Internet’s effect on politics? People Are Talking Of those Internet users surveyed for the report, 71 percent think the Internet is important for political campaigns; that number is up 14 percent since 2000, showing a definite trend. In another finding, 58 percent believe the Internet helps people better understand politics. Perhaps because it’s human nature to complain, 72 percent believe we should be free to criticize the government while online, and a slight majority of 53 percent believe it’s okay to express even extreme political views online. Another 52 percent feel comfortable sharing political views online, yet only 30 percent believe it’s safe to speak freely about politics online. But Is Anyone Listening? Only 32 percent believe the Internet will cause politicians to care more about what people think, and another 32 percent believe the Internet will give people more say in what the government does. Just 34 percent believe it gives the average person more political power. These numbers are all up slightly from previous years, but probably not enough to say they’re trending yet. Of course, what we don’t have is a list of these same questions asked about television and other media, so it’s difficult to compare them at this point. Nor do we know what people would have said about television’s power in politics the night before that presidential debate in 1960. What seems safe to say, though, is politicians will put their message anywhere a significant audience exists. As the Internet continues to grow and evolve, it’s reasonable to think its influence will continue to increase, just as television’s influence did. So if we’re going to look at when the Internet will genuinely surpass television for political influence, we also need to know how much time people spend with their TVs. Time Spent Online vs. Television Internet users reported spending an average of 14.1 hours per week online when not working, and another 6.9 hours per week online at work. A 2014 study from the governmental Bureau of Labor Statistics claims Americans 15 and older spend an average of 2.8 hours per day watching television, or 19.6 hours per week. Nielsen data claims the numbers for television viewership are much higher, but because that info helps set TV ad rates, it may not be entirely unbiased. So, we’re still spending more time watching TV than going online for fun, but the trends look a lot better for the Internet: in 2000, users only spent an average of 3.3 hours online per week. So if we can measure influence in terms of time—and it’s not certain we can—TV still has the Internet beat, but there’s a very good chance that won’t always be the case. You Tell Us So now it’s our turn for a survey — which has more influence over your political leanings, the Internet or television? Is the Internet a true game changer, a driving force in the political future? Or does it just make us feel better to speak your piece, even if no one is listening? Image by Press Release Finder/Flickr

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Will Smith is a copywriter living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His favorite word is “petrichor,” and aside from wordplay, he loves reading history, watching Dodger baseball, and racing with the Sports Car Club of America.

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