Of the many grand predictions for the Internet, the most intriguing were the forecasts of its potential impact on the political process.
One prophecy held that by enabling direct voting, the Internet would decrease the power of politicians and subvert the influence of lobbyists. That prophecy remains unfulfilled because of concerns about access and security.
Another prophecy claimed that by increasing the breadth and quality of information available to voters, the Internet would help citizens make better choices -- confirming Jefferson's claim that an informed citizenry is the foundation of a free society. To some extent, this prophecy has been borne out: Many believe that Howard Dean's use of the Internet to energize supporters and raise funds suggests that the Internet now plays an important, even critical role in campaigning.
Will the Internet's influence only increase? In their recent -- and well-timed -- book Campaigning Online: The Internet and U.S. Elections, Bruce Bimber and Richard Davis suggest that the answer is: not necessarily.
Drawing on Empirical Evidence on the Limits of Internet Campaigning
Bimber is the Director of the Center for Information Technology and Society and an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara . Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. In Campaigning Online, they are careful to avoid the kind of breathless claims that riddle books about the Internet's effects on society. To the contrary, they point to evidence that in the realm of campaigning, the Internet's impact will be limited.
Bimber and Davis's work is based on detailed, empirical studies of the use of the Internet during the 2000 elections. It focuses on the presidential race, the Senate contest between John Ashcroft and Mel Carnahan (and, after his death, his wife Jean), and the campaign for the governorship of Missouri.
Analyzing the evidence as to four components of successful campaigning -- opinion reinforcement, activism, fundraising, and voter mobilization -- Bimber and Davis found that the Internet had a limited impact on each of the three elections studied. Moreover, they predict that the Internet is unlikely to play a decisive role in future campaigns.
Internet Campaigning: Primarily "Preaching to the Converted"
As the authors explain, the Internet provides candidates with the opportunity to "bypass journalists and speak directly to voters" by launching their own site and attracting interested voters. As television and newspapers devote more time to news analysis rather than news, and TV spots become prohibitively expensive for any but the most lavishly financed candidate, the Internet provides an attractive, and comparatively low-cost alternative to traditional media.
It's unsurprising that candidates, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and sophistication, have integrated online campaigning into their overall strategy. But the authors find that the effect of this campaigning is less potent than the candidates doubtless hoped.
Campaigns seek to recruit volunteers and voters via the Internet -- changing opinions and fostering activism and fundraising. But according to the authors, online campaigning simply serve to reinforce the stands that relatively well-informed citizens have already taken.
(Fortunately, the Internet also requires the candidates themselves to take their own stands -- on virtually every issue -- and post them for all to see, near the start of their campaigns. Perhaps the Internet's most satisfying role will be in getting candidates to stake out--and stick to--detailed, consistent positions.)
By connecting those who share an opinion--any opinion--with legions of like-minded partisans, campaign sites are more like pep rallies than debating forums. Indeed, few official websites are actually interactive, in part because candidates want to control their message, so most official sites don't allow users to post statements. (Instead, unofficial sites serve that purpose through links to the main site.) Meanwhile, official campaign blogs are nearly always limited to campaign staffers. As Lauren Gelman noted in a column for this site, other options may be preferable -- but so far, campaigns have taken a more constrained approach.
Bimber and Davis write that campaigns "figure that voters' choices about which candidate to support would for the most part already have been made by the time they arrived at the site," so they are nearly always "preaching to the converted." (Nevertheless, the authors did find that "a small but potentially significant minority of the audience for candidate Web sites--at least one in five--was undecided at the time of their first visit.")
Responding to the "Echo Chamber" Critique
For this reason, Professor Cass Sunstein of The University of Chicago Law School has expressed the worry that such campaigns will become "echo chambers" -- in which the like-minded communicate only with each other, reinforcing their own perspectives but precluding exposure to new ones. The result, Sunstein writes, will be to further fragment society, and to constrain and impoverish our political discourse.
Bimber and Davis find such fears overblown. While their study provides evidence for this kind of selectivity, they argue that the "echo chamber" effect is mitigated by the fact that the Internet "supplements and augments," rather than replaces, television, newspapers and other media. Few citizens get all their information online.
The authors conclude that it is unlikely that "the Internet will create the highly polarized, fragmented audiences that some fear, any more than it will create a large-scale virtual community." Instead, they predict, the Internet will simply reinforce "patterns of citizen engagement in elections."
That may be reassuring, but it conflicts with some of Bimber and Davis's other conclusions. If, as they claim, 20% or more of visitors to websites are undecided, those visitors would benefit by entering a true forum rather than an "echo chamber."
Moreover, Bimber and Davis claim that substantial numbers of both supporters and undecided citizens go to candidates' websites to learn about issues -- especially in state and local races, which receive less coverage from television and from the decreasing numbers of local papers. (The race for governor of Missouri, for example, was largely obscured by the presidential election and the Senate campaign between two of the state's most prominent citizens, one of whom was killed in a plane crash in the last weeks of the campaign.)
These information-seeking undecided voters, too, would presumably benefit from a true forum. And with an electorate perfectly divided between the two major parties, these voters may decide elections.
Professor Sunstein's concerns appear more pressing and plausible than the authors admit. If the very voters who will make the difference encounter "echo chambers" -- not only on candidate websites, but also on partisan radio stations -- that would seem to be a serious problem indeed. Worse, that problem could be compounded if television and print news sources continue to, at times, favor entertainment over news.
The Internet May Not Be Raising More Funds, Or Prompting More Voting
And even if we do see candidate websites as simply "preaching to the converted," that leads to another question: Does Internet campaigning provide incentives to those who are already "the converted" to take action to help their candidate get elected -- by donating, voting, or encouraging others to vote? Again, the authors suggest the answer is "Not necessarily."
It's true that online visitors, particularly repeat visitors, tend to vote in higher numbers than other citizens. But Bimber and Davis believe this association is correlative rather than causative: websites don't impel people to vote; they attract the kind of people who are so committed to the candidate, they're bound to make it to the polls.
What about donations? Certainly, from a campaign's perspective, there are advantages to collecting donations online. And indeed, donations collected online are increasingly important, in part because costs are limited to credit card processing fees, and in part because they can be completed quickly -- so that voters can respond virtually instantaneously to a change in a favorite candidate's fortunes, putting their money where they have been assured, by good news, that it is likely to matter. In the week following John McCain's victory in the New Hampshire primary in 2000, for example, the campaign website collected a windfall of donations.
On the other hand, Bimber and Davis state that there has not been a major shift in the flow of campaign funds, and the Internet simply "reinforces rather than undermines the financial advantages of candidates who receive the most attention from traditional media."
Modest Hopes for Internet Campaigning May Be More Realistic
In combination with the much-hyped rise and spectacular fall of Governor Howard Dean's campaign, Campaigning Online should recalibrate hopes that the Internet will radically change political contests. It's a promising alternative to traditional media, but, in the end, it may not be a transformative one.
The Internet did not do for Dean what television did for Kennedy in 1960, or what radio did for FDR. Its greatest impact may be on local races: the Dean campaign might have had better results using the Internet had he been running for Vermont Governor, and not for President.