Friday, July 23, 2010

How the Internet Fails to Redress Participatory Inequality in American Politics...

Since its inception people have touted the internet's potential as a democratizing force; that it would transcend issues like geography, income, and education levels, ultimately empowering more Americans to participate actively in politics.

Has it lived up to its promise?

This is the question asked in the article, "Weapon of the Strong? Participatory Inequality and the Internet" co-authored by Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba, and Henry E. Brady, and published in the journal, Perspectives on Politics (vol. 8 no. 2).

In short, the answer is "No". The authors' extensive research study uncovered that, when it comes to political participation, the internet has failed to ameliorate the inequalities that have existed offline for decades. As any freshman student of Politics 101 learns, those who are disadvantaged are less likely to be politically active, and thus far the internet has failed to disrupt the pattern of association between that socio-economic disadvantage and the lack of political activity.

Even when only that subset of the population with internet access is considered, participatory acts such as contributing to candidates, contacting officials, signing a political petition, or communicating with political groups are as stratified socio-economically when done on the web as when done offline.

The are three reasons why people don't become active in politics: They can't; they don't want to; and nobody asked. The internet is certainly capable of lowering each of these barriers, however, rather than raising the level of political activity, it has instead simply "repackaged" it. The authors conclude that "instead of citizens undertaking political action that they ordinarily would not, people who would have participated anyway might simply be taking their activity online".

A convincing amount of data is presented in support of these conclusions (even if the multitude of charts and graphs require strenuous effort to decipher), and most potential criticisms of the research methodology, like the outdated 2008 time frame, is openly addressed and acknowledged by the authors themselves.

These results are certainly disappointing, but perhaps the most important finding is that, while the internet has failed to transcend the socio-economic inequalities of political participation, it has actually shown a real potential to mitigate a different participatory deficit - the youth. It's common knowledge that younger citizens, particularly those just joining the electorate, are notorious for being less politically engaged (especially when it comes to voting). The internet has indeed demonstrated a transformative shift among America's online youth as they are less underrepresented than they are offline. In fact, they dominate blogs and politically relevant uses of social-networking sites, and are more likely than their elders to receive and send requests for political activity by email.

So if the internet has virtually no effect on the political participation gap among socio-economic groups, but is showing some potentially significant effects on the political habits of youth voters, the original question remains unanswered...

To what extent is it a truly democratizing force?


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