A new study from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) says that people believe the Internet has become an important source of political information in the United States, but that its power to actually influence decisions made by elected officials is minimal.
The findings, part of a larger ongoing project, were timed to be released during the current political convention season. The full “UCLA Internet Report” is scheduled for release in October.
When asked, “If, by using the Internet, you can better understand politics,” 45.6 percent of the respondents identified as Internet users and 28.1 percent of non-users said “yes.” However, when asked “If, by using the Internet, you have more say about what the government does,” only 23.9 percent of users and 16.8 percent non-users agreed, while 42 percent and 50.4 respectively either disagreed or strongly disagreed.
“Even those who have never used the Internet express understanding of its potential as a powerful political resource,” said Michael Suman, research director of the UCLA Center for Communication Policy, which sponsored the project. “However, the Internet is still evolving as a potential tool for wielding political power, and influencing public officials and government.”
Power To Transform Politics
The survey analyzed four topics involving the Internet: privacy, the credibility of online information, the relative importance of mass-media information sources, and the effect of the Internet on political influence and knowledge.
Results showed that both Internet users and non-users consider the Internet a threat to privacy, and both groups still cite books and newspapers more often than the Internet as important sources of information.
However, users ranked the Internet third, ahead of both television and radio, while non-users ranked the Internet last, behind books, newspapers, television, radio and magazines.
“The fact that the vast majority of Americans who use the Internet consider it an important information source — even though it has been commonly available for only a few years — vividly demonstrates how this technology is transforming the political process and the knowledge of voters,” said Jeffrey Cole, head of the World Internet Project.
Only a little more than half of the users surveyed said “most” or “all” of the information available on the Internet is reliable and accurate, while only a third of non-users said the same. Of non-users, 22.1 percent said they thought that “none” or a “small portion” of information on the Internet could be believed, while only 7.5 percent of the users expressed skepticism to that degree.
“If online organizations and individuals hope to rely on the Internet as a communications vehicle, the public’s perception of information delivered through this technology must shift considerably,” Cole said.
The policy center is sponsoring the larger World Internet Project, which includes the UCLA Internet Report and similar studies worldwide. The first year will focus on the United States, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Singapore, Sweden and Taiwan.
The project will then expand to include 15 European countries as well as Asia and Latin America in 2001. Organizers say the year-to-year study will be the most comprehensive Internet study of its kind.
“By going into households every year for a generation, the study will help us understand how non-users become users, how current users become more advanced and comfortable with the Internet, and perhaps most importantly, who remains a non-user — and why,” Cole said.
Project funding comes from an alliance of corporations and foundations, including the National Science Foundation, America Online, Microsoft, Disney, Merrill Lynch, Sony and the National Cable Television Association.