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Political methods and ideologies have been constantly changing all over the world for thousands of years. Political philosophy, beginning with Aristotle (384 — 322 BC), known as the Father of Political Science,” restructured the way rulers held power and allowed the masses to have a say in elections. It was only centuries ago that new ideas in politics were developed, from monarchy and oligarchy in the medieval times, to communism and democracy, which are more common today. Every governmental structure requires communication between the leaders and the constituents in order for things to run smoothly and effectively.
Today in the United States, this communication is being renovated by the growing Internet. Created in 1969, the Internet has substantially influenced America’s politics. Historically, methods of political communication, particularly election campaigns, involved sending letters or walking door to door. These are still in use today, but with the Internet people are able to discuss politics much faster and much simpler.
Essentially the Internet is reshaping politics in three ways: increasing voter turnout, speeding up communication, and expanding the exposure of political candidates.
In the U.S., the Internet has modernized politics in a way that millions of people are engaging in political news and campaigns through the web. This is important because it allows the members of our democracy to instantly interact and develop, thus uniting the country. I will begin with the impact social media has on politics because of its popularity and efficiency. In particular, Twitter and Facebook are two social networking sites that both possess hundreds of millions of users.
One of their features is giving their users instant messaging to millions of people using the same social network around the world. This messaging is often used solely for chitchat, but in some cases it gives politicians an edge. Robert Bond and James Fowler, writers for Nature magazine, performed an experiment in which 61 million random Facebook users were sent a message concerning the 2010 United States congressional elections. It was found that “the messages directly influenced political self-expression, information seeking and real-world voting behavior of millions of people” (Bond and Fowler 1).
Furthermore, it resulted in an increase of voter turnout, thus bringing more people to have a say in our government. This idea of information seeking, however, is not always applied when using online social media. Lee Rainie and Aaron Smith, writers for the Pew Research Center, argue against this assertion that social media benefits our democracy. In their article titled Social Networking Sites and Politics, it talks about a survey they took from January 20 – February 19, 2012. In this survey, 2253 adults were asked how they engaged in politics through social media. The results show that 66 percent of the adults use social networking sites, but are not using them to express political belief or gather information on politics (Rainie and Smith 2). With this data, Rainie and Smith came to a conclusion that the Internet’s social media is used mainly for entertainment, thus distracting people from participating in politics. Although their research seems convincing, I argue that with so many accounts on social media there are plenty that discuss politics, which give users a chance to inform themselves on political news and current events.
John Dickerson, Slate magazine’s chief political correspondent and political director of CBS News, wrote an essay called Don’t Fear Twitter on how readers can actually benefit from reading Twitter entries. For those who do not know, Twitter only allows posts or “tweets” up to 140 characters long. So one may ask how informative reading can be had with such a small entry. Well Dickerson explains that these entries are like “snapshots” of information, which intend to lure the reader to deeper reading on the topic (Dickerson 6). I like how he uses the metaphor of a snapshot because when looking at a picture, one often wants to know where it is taken, who is in it, what is happening and so on. They go and find the answers just like one would find an article related to a “tweet” in order to learn more. Dickerson perfectly explains that “Twitter entries build a community of readers who find their way to longer articles because they are lured by these moment-by-moment observations” (Dickerson 8).
So if readers use social media to engage in deeper reading, then they would become more informed in political debate. Historically, deeper reading was a laborious process. Years ago, people would have to make a trip to the library to find a book in order to become more knowledgeable on a subject. Now, the Internet allows us to only walk to our computer in our house to read valuable information. Boban Markovic, writer on the Fair Observer website, describes this phenomenon of the Internet’s instant access. In his article, Will the Internet Remake Politics, he explains how “the Internet’s impact on society in our contemporary world can be compared to the effect of radio and television in the 1930s and 1960s” (Markovic 1). The radio in the 1930s allowed a president to talk to people all over the country at his desk for the first time ever. The television in the 1960s actually gave people a visual of political candidates and their campaigns. The Internet today now gives easy access to information on political candidates and allows people to quickly message almost anyone.
Markovic emphasizes how John F. Kennedy won the 1960 election by effectively using the television while Barack Obama won the 2008 election by influencing voters on the Internet through YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter (Markovic 2). YouTube in particular is one of the more effective ways politicians communicate with people. Steve Grove, Director of Community Partnerships at Google, would agree with Markovic in that YouTube helped Obama win the 2008 presidential election. Grove states that “each day on YouTube hundreds of millions of videos are viewed at the same time that television viewership is decreasing in many markets” (Grove 7). This is mostly due to the fact that watching content on YouTube does not cost a nickel, thus politicians make accounts on YouTube and post their campaign videos knowing they will be easily accessed by the masses for free.
Another benefit of YouTube is that all ages use it! According to Grove’s research, “20 percent of YouTube users are over age 55 – which is the same percentage that is under 18″ (Grove 8). This means that YouTube’s audience includes the majority of the population, which may help increase voter turnout in elections. Since there are sites like YouTube that connect most of the population, the Internet proves to be a strong source of communication with its instant access to these sites. Markovic and Grove put emphasis on the Internet’s efficient use of communication and Rand Strauss, writer for the Huffington Post, elaborates on how the Internet provides effortless access.
In his article, How the Internet Has Changed the State of Political Debate, he pinpoints the fact that breaking news and other information is updated all day, every day, so “citizens who want to keep up, can and do” (Strauss 7). This instant access allows political news to be reached at peoples’ fingertips, making the effort much easier and less time consuming. Also, it stimulates what Strauss calls “fact checking”. With search engines, people are able to quickly search for the facts on a candidate and what issues they may have. This greatly changes politics as it makes people much more knowledgeable of who they are voting for. And when one knows more about the people he can choose from, he will more likely vote so the ones he does not like have a lesser chance of winning. Although the Internet provides global communication and instant access to information, there are critics who claim it hinders the growth of our democracy.
Essentially, they argue that people do not get a sufficient amount of information from the Internet. According to Dan Kennedy, a published journalist, blogs are separating from traditional journalism. In his article, Political Blogs: Teaching Us Lessons about Community, he explains “The rise of blogging as both a supplement and a challenge to traditional journalism has coincided with an explosion of opinion mongering” (Kennedy 1). Notice how Kennedy does not simply say blogs have pulled towards opinions, but says they have “exploded.” To me, this means the majority of bloggers now post their partial views on current events, thus creating a lack of information. Kennedy’s argument later concludes that if this is the new type of journalism people are reading, then they will only be seeing political issues through one lens, therefore becoming biased in political debate.
Biased material is not the only factor supporting Kennedy’s argument. The Internet itself contributes to users potentially getting a lack of information. Eli Pariser, chief executive of Upworthy (a website for “meaningful” viral content), introduces what he likes to call a “filter bubble.” In his speech, Beware Online “filter Bubbles”, Pariser articulates that it’s “sweeping the Web. There are a whole host of companies that are doing this kind of personalization. Yahoo News, the biggest news site on the Internet, is now personalized — different people get different things” (Pariser 3:21). What he is saying is search engines tailor individuals search results based on their search history. Let’s say if someone consistently searches conservative related ideas then the Internet will begin to lean his search results conservative. This a very alarming aspect of filter bubbles because if someone only searches for what they believe in, then the Internet will continue to draw him to those topics, thus he would not be exposed to different perspectives or other valuable information.
These shifts of information correlate to the biased material aforementioned by Kennedy. With more biased information on the Internet, filter bubbles are more inclined to pull users to read that material. This is a problem, but it can be fixed. Jonathon Stray, a well-known journalist, proposes five solutions in his brief article called Are we stuck in filter bubbles? Here are five potential paths out. One answer he gives interests me, which is to create “better filtering algorithms” (Stray 17). This is a lot easier said than done, but Stray proposes “to analyze social networks to look for alternate perspectives on whatever you’re reading” (Stray 19). This could possibly filter your computer in a way that brings multiple views to the table instead of one. On a side note, though, it is completely up to the individual to decide what he searches for.
The Internet ultimately provides information on all views of all topics, so the user needs to take responsibility in finding valuable information. All the information is there, so in a sense, Kennedy, Pariser, and Stray are arguing about a seemingly insignificant part of the Internet. Overall, the great part of the Internet is that it has all this information that people can access quickly and easily. Recently, this excess of information is being geared toward political news and elections. Nine years ago, Adam Nagourney, writer for The New York Times, wrote an article called Internet Injects Sweeping Change into U.S. Politics. Nagourney discussed how the Internet’s usage in politics is growing. In one section of his piece, he used data from the Pew Research Center to compare the percentage of Americans using the Internet for political news from the 2002 election to the 2004 election. He found that Americans “jumped from 13 percent in the 2002 election cycle to 29 percent in 2004” (Nagourney 9). He also found “that 50 million Americans go to the Internet for news every day, up from 27 million people in March 2002” (Nagourney 9).
Based off this rapid growth, since this dates back in 2006, it can be concluded that there is a very high percentage of Americans getting news from the Internet today in 2015. Above all, this means the majority of the U.S. population is informing themselves on current news and politics, thus becoming more involved in our democracy. In all, the Internet has greatly modernized politics through accessibility and communication. Based off of my research, the Internet helps to increase voter turnout through social media. Bond and Dickerson both convey this through their experiments in Facebook and Twitter, respectively. The Internet also gives politicians a chance to effectively reach out to millions of people through video. Grove explains this is efficiently done though YouTube. Furthermore, the Internet increases communication between people and generates habituation, according to the Pew Research Center’s data on the increasing percentage of Internet users. All of these factors reshape politics in a way that more people can be informed with our government and current events. With more people knowledgeable of political news, the more likely they are to vote for state laws or elections. This is what strengthens our democracy as more people become knowledgeable about and involved in politics.
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