Study: Internet Feeds Political Debates

Political junkies of all stripes have gotten much of their news and political commentary during this year's campaign from online sources, and a new survey finds the Internet is contributing to a wider awareness of political views.

The study released today by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in collaboration with the University of Michigan School of Information, concludes that an often-expressed worry that people would use the Internet only to seek information that reinforces their political preferences has not held true.

Rather, the study found that Internet users have greater overall exposure to political arguments, including those that challenge their candidate preferences and their positions on key issues.

The conclusions were drawn after respondents were asked if they ever heard some of the major arguments for and against President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, the Iraq war, same-sex marriage and free trade. Consistently, Internet users -- especially those with broadband connections -- had been exposed to most arguments, including ones that challenged their opinions. This was true after statistical tests were performed that controlled for other factors, such as the reality that Internet users have higher levels of education than nonusers and generally are more interested in politics.

"Internet users do not burrow themselves into informational warrens where they hear nothing but arguments that reinforce their views," said John Horrigan, senior research specialist at the Pew Project. "Instead, Internet users are exposed to more political points of view and more arguments against the things they support. That should be heartening to those who are concerned about the future of democratic debate."

More People Get Information Online

According to the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, more than 40 percent of Americans who are online have gotten news and information about the campaign this year, about double the number who had used the Web for such information in 2000.

The current survey found that television remains the primary source of information for campaign arguments and points of view about the Iraq war, same-sex marriage and free trade. At the same time, 31 percent of broadband users now cite the Internet as their main source, nearly the same number as those who say they rely on newspapers (35 percent).

Also, 30 percent of Internet users have visited Web sites of nontraditional news organizations to get news about politics and issues.

"People are using the Internet to broaden their political horizons, not narrow them," said Kelly Garrett of the University of Michigan, who co-authored the report with Horrigan. "Use of the Internet doesn't necessarily diminish partisanship, or even zealotry. But it does expose online Americans to more points of view, and, on balance, that is a good thing."

The report also found that 53 percent of Internet users -- more than 67 million people -- had gotten news about the Iraq war online or through e-mail. Thirty-five percent of Internet users had gotten news about same-sex marriage online or through e-mail, representing more than 44 million people. And 26 percent of Internet users -- 33 million people -- had gotten news about the debate over free trade via such vehicles.

A fifth of Americans also said they prefer news sources that challenge their points of view, and nearly one in 10 Americans is more aware of arguments that oppose their candidate than arguments that favor their candidate.

Arguments Being Heard

Of the arguments being made in the presidential campaign, the most well-known about Bush is that he misled the public about the reasons for going to war with Iraq (94 percent of Americans had heard that argument). The most well-known about Kerry is that he changes positions on issues when he thinks it will help him win an election (70 percent had heard that argument).

Of the arguments being made in favor of the Iraq war, the most well-known was that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who murdered and tortured his own people (98 percent of Americans had heard that). The best-known antiwar argument was that the Bush administration had misled Americans about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction (87 percent had heard that argument).

Of the arguments being made in favor of same-sex marriage, the most well-known was that same-sex couples are entitled to the same legal rights as heterosexual couples when it comes to things like health insurance and inheritance (85 percent of Americans had heard that). The most well-known argument against same-sex marriage was that marriage is a sacred religious institution that should be between a man and a woman (97 percent had heard that argument).

Of the arguments being made in favor of free trade, the most well-known was that free trade improves U.S. relationships with other countries (77 percent of Americans had heard that). The most well-known anti-free trade argument was that it allows companies to lay off American workers and send their jobs overseas (89 percent had heard that argument).