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Research Design: Internet Content Preferences Voters v. Non-voters

Research Design: Internet Content Preferences Voters v. Non-voters

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Internet Content Preferences: Non-voters versus Voters Andrew Leahey Drexel University



Abstract This paper seeks to examine the link between certain internet content preferences preferred by voters and non-voters. It utilizes quantitative data, gathered by means of a survey, to attempt to draw a link between a content preference of news and policy-research and positive voter status (voter). It builds on existing research in three specific schools of thought:; the first examines digital equivalence to old media standards, the second looks at the role of the internet in mobilizing typically uninvolved populations, and the third most plausible avenue seeks to confirm that the internet is most useful as a tool for the already politically predisposed. Keywords: internet-content preferences, voter versus non-voter



Internet Content Preferences: Non-Voters versus Voters Since its widespread adoption and subsequent ubiquity, internet access and use has strongly correlated with voter involvement; however, the mechanism behind this correlation is unknown. Recent campaigns, such as the 2008 U.S. elections have seen political parties utilizing the internet in new ways to mobilize their members and inform constituents of their policies. There are competing schools of thought as to what possible mechanisms of action may be at play. Nickerson (2007) eliminates digital equivalence to old media standards as a possible solution, finding that campaign funds spent on e-mail campaign promotion in place of direct mail methods were largely wasted. Even when the source of the e-mail was an acquaintance of the recipient, there was no effect on voter involvement. A second school of thought, typified by Ward, Gibson & Lusoli (2003),find the internet to be, at best, capable of making the political process accessible to a broader audience, but not increasing the percentage of the audience that will ultimately become involved. Studies done in this area seem to indicate the internet is serving a role as a tool for political mobilization, but it is unclear as to whether it is merely a tool of convenience for those predisposed to involvement, or it is creating voters of non-voters. Polat (2005) examines the question raised by the aforementioned second school and found that the internet increases an individual¶s access to political information, but not the individual¶s cognitive ability to absorb it (p. 441). Secondly, as a communications medium, he finds the internet to serve most usefully as a tool for those significantly dispersed geographically. Finally, as an extender of the public sphere, Polat (2005) finds the internet lacking; it merely provides those individuals already predisposed to political involvement with an additional medium by which to express their political opinion.



Despite these extensive studies of how the internet may affect with voter involvement, there has not been a conclusive study of internet use and specific content preferred by voters versus non-voters. It is an open question whether specific internet uses, such as news aggregation or policy information, contribute to voter involvement. Understanding the internet habits of nonvoters could provide blueprints for methods that would be conducive to reaching uninvolved individuals. Information regarding how non-voters utilize the internet could be invaluable to political parties, allowing them to tap in to the vast reserves of the uninvolved. This study attempts to show the method by which internet use varies between voters and non-voters by administering a survey that gathers data regarding voter involvement, internet access, and specific internet behaviors. It examines the correlation between respondents that report utilizing their internet access predominantly for news and current event tracking, or policy research, in relation to the individual¶s voter engagement. This study attempts to contribute to the overall understanding of what specific internet behaviors and uses correlate with increased voter involvement.



Three Avenues of Existing Research An informed citizenry is the bulwark of democracy. The most revolutionizing force for informing the public in modern times is, unquestionably, the internet. Holding both of these premises up as true, the conclusion that the internet is a powerful contributor to political involvement must be true as well. Just how the internet is being utilized to inform and mobilize the citizenry is not well understood; the internet content preferences of voters, as opposed to nonvoters, may very well lend an understanding to how the internet helps motivate political involvement. My thesis is that there should be a substantial difference in the content preferences of voters, preferring to utilize the internet for news, party and policy research, and non-voters, who shy away from this content. There are three discrete schools of thought that illuminate the content preferences of voters and non-voters. The first, Old Media 2.0 proponents, seek to compare the internet as analogous to older media for political mobilization; that is to say, they seek out internet-based mobilization methods that have clear links to a traditional counterpart to see if voters are any more likely to receive this content. These studies could accurately be referred to as studies of Old Media 2.0; their logic entails studying the effectiveness of political campaigns that seek not to revolutionize the mobilization process, but merely to trade expensive atoms for cheap bits. The second, The Involvers, see any measurement of the effectiveness of the internet for political mobilization as being best conducted on typically uninvolved populations. If it can be found that voters among typically uninvolved subgroups and non-voters in those same subgroups have significantly different internet content preferences, perhaps a link between content preferences and voting status can be drawn.



The third school of thought, and the one I find most compelling, are The Echo Chamberists. They conclude that the internet has thus far served only as a mechanism for increased involvement of those already politically motivated. They see the internet as not increasing the number of people participating in the political process, but merely increasing the level to which the already politically-involved can participate; namely through discussion and socialization. I find the logic of these scholars and their line of reasoning the most compelling, as they best understand the multi-faceted and multi-dimensional nature of the internet, and broaden the scope of their study much further than the others. I will now examine each school of thought, some of its key concepts and theories, and cite key authors involved in each. I will then follow each with a brief analysis of their studies, and the overall concepts of the works cited. I have placed these schools in order from least plausible to most plausible, for the sake of readability. The Internet as Old Media 2.0 Nickerson (2007) conducts experiments that conclude that campaign emails have no positive effect on turnout; even when the correspondence comes from a ³sender [that] is a trusted source that existing literature suggests should be maximally persuasive ... These experiments strongly suggest that political campaigns employing email as a get out the vote tool are wasting their time´ (p. 377). These experiments clearly conclude that it is not the internet as a communications platform that is serving to involve the citizenry. In other words, the politically motivated may tend to subscribe to campaign-related email newsletters, but merely sending these emails to the general public will not serve to involve them.



Krueger¶s (2006) findings are consistent with this theory. He sought to look at politically involved citizenry and, post-hoc, ascertain whether they had been contacted by their political party via email; his study was an interesting complement to Nickerson (2007), seeking to examine the question from the opposite direction. Krueger¶s (2006) findings conclude that internet skills and existing political interest are the correlating factors with successful internet mobilization (p. 772); neither email correspondence, nor other methods of campaign communication were good predictors of voter status. Politically interested individuals with sufficient internet skills will seek out ways to involve themselves via new media while the politically disinterested will not be mobilized by internet campaign correspondence. Critical Assessment of The Internet as Old Media 2.0 While Krueger¶s (2006) conclusion is that internet campaign communication does not correlate with increased civic involvement for the previously uninvolved, he bases this conclusion on survey data regarding what percentage of the sample group with a high civic participation score had received online political messages; specifically campaign emails. This does nothing to illuminate what other content preferences the highly civically involved may gravitate towards. Simply measuring the number of voters that have received campaign emails only ascertains the efficacy of those types of campaigns; so all that can be concluded is what does not work, namely, email campaigns. The proponents of Old Media 2.0 would conclude that the internet is a vacuum for campaign dollars. When utilized in a manner identical to the methods that have ³worked´ for traditional campaigns, the internet does not provide the return on investment they are accustomed to. The flaw in their logic lies in the fact that, as previously stated, while their studies claim to



identify the role the internet as a whole plays in increasing voter turnout, they in fact are only examining the effectiveness of mass emailing campaign literature. The possibility remains that there is a substantial difference between the content preferences of voters and non-voters. If this is the case, the evidence points towards the failure of internet mobilization efforts being due to those efforts being concentrated on the already highly civically involved. Perhaps previous internet mobilization campaigns have just been preaching to the choir. The Internet as Involver The second school of thought seeks to ascertain the correlation between certain content preferences and voter involvement by examining groups typically not well represented. The Involvers are best represented by Ward, Gibson & Lusoli (2003); they state ³Whilst the internet does not universally lower the costs of participation, it may bring some new individuals and groups in to the political process ± notably young people´ (p. 667). Their study examined various political parties in the United Kingdom, surveying their constituents and requesting information as to how the individuals became affiliated with the party; in one case, with the Liberal Democrats, a full third of young respondents indicated that the website played a significant role in their recruitment (Ward, Gibson & Lusoli, 2003, p. 663). This seems to indicate that, for at least for typically uninvolved populations, content preferences amongst voters may tend towards party research. This theory is backed up by the work of Karlsen (2010); in his study he finds that more than ³one quarter of the most inexperienced voters visit party websites´ (p. 47). Meanwhile, he found internet news consumption to correlate only with increased socioeconomic status, and not political involvement or lack thereof. This seems to correlate with Ward, Gibson & Lusoli¶s



(2003) findings that party research is the chief content preference for the politically inexperienced internet consumer. This has serious implications for the role of party websites in the mobilization process, as the most uninformed and politically inexperienced users are gathering general political information from official party channels. Critical Assessment of The Internet as Involver This second school of thought, The Involvers, clearly believe the internet to play a role as involving the uninvolved; that is to say, it can give the opportunity for participation to individuals who have not previously operated within the political process (Stanley, J. W., & Weare, C., 2004). Their research illuminates a link between the politically involved and an internet content preference of party research. The possibility remains, and indeed some of the data seems to indicate, that these individuals simply possess an interest in the political process and also happen to prefer the internet as their method of research. In other words, it does not mean the internet is creating active participants of passive observers, but instead that some active participants utilize the internet to first become involved. If that is the case, the content preferences of these individuals should be listed as the preferences of voters, if not excluded from the survey altogether. They represent a subset of the community that will be voting, possessing a political interest and a motivation to civic involvement; their non-voter status is merely a side-note and, listed as the preference of a non-voter, would confound the data in any study seeking to ascertain content preferences between voters and non-voters. The Echo Chamberists Many of the issues I raise in this aforementioned second school, those believing the internet to be a powerful tool for involving the previously uninvolved, are answered by scholars



who see the internet as having thus far only served as a mobilizer and source of information for the politically predisposed. I find this particular school of thought to be the most plausible. It¶s most compelling research to date is that of Polat (2005); he sought to ascertain the role of the internet ³as an information source, as a communication medium and as a virtual public sphere´ (p. 435). As an information source, Polat (2005) finds that access to information is increased with access to the internet, but the cognitive ability to absorb the material is not (p. 441). Therefore a major caveat to his findings is an admission that it is possible that, even if political information is placed in channels frequented by non-voters, they may be ill-equipped to parse it and predisposed to remain uninterested. With the major caveat of potential cognitive shortcomings, Polat (2005) sees many of the same problems with the first two schools of thought as I have already mentioned. He acknowledges the internet to be a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional communications medium; Polat (2005) further acknowledges that all dimensions are not equally well disposed to conveying a political message (p. 446). He finds that the most serviceable method of communications for political messages on the internet is that of the group dialog, by extension this implies that members of the group are already politically involved and are merely seeking a medium to facilitate organization and discussion. Polat (2005) also finds the internet as a communication medium to be more useful in increasing involvement in tertiary aspects of the political process, such as information gathering through opinion polls and surveys; this again favors those who have signed up to receive, and are predisposed to respond to, this information ± namely, the politically involved. Finally Polat (2005) sought to examine the internet in its role as an extender of the public sphere. In this role, he finds the internet lacking. Polat (2005) sees the internet as providing a



segment of society who are already of the socioeconomic class most conducive to political involvement, with an additional medium through which to express their political opinion and support their political views (p. 449); this research is backed up by the aforementioned work of Karlsen (2010). Furthermore he understands the internet to be too segmented and disparate to generally contribute to a centralized conversation on political matters (p. 449). In this way, Polat (2005) finds the current mechanisms of internet mobilization utilized by political parties to be lacking in the area of involving the uninvolved; they are, as previously stated, preaching to the choir. Backing up Polat (2005) in his assessment of the internet as an echo chamber is the work of Lupia & Philpot (2005), who found that ³the mere existence of online opportunities to obtain political information is not sufficient to engage the uninvolved´ (p. 1133). Their research found that, while just having internet access does not seem to correlate to increased likelihood of voter status when socioeconomic factors are controlled for, specific website frequency does seem to correlate with self-reporting of ³political interest´. This statistically confirms what could logically be assumed, that there are subsections of the internet where the demographic is overwhelmingly voter, and other subsections where this is not the case. Lupia & Philpot (2005) found online news to be one such place where voters are over represented. Voters are clearly harboring specific content preferences that are substantially different from their non-voter counterparts. Critical Assessment of The Echo Chamberists This third school of thought, exemplified by the work of Polat (2005) and Lupia & Philpot (2005), would seem to point to the internet thus far as serving, at best, a resource for the



members of the population that are already politically motivated. I find this conclusion compelling, and thus warranting further research. I believe building on this conclusion, and narrowing down the scope of the study to ascertain exactly what types of content the already motivated user, as well as the unmotivated user, will gravitate towards, would be invaluable. There has already been some research in to the area of content preference of the voter, with party research as being one example; however, an examination of the content preferences of the nonvoter, and an analysis of what makes the content of the voter unappealing to the non-voter, would be useful in discovering channels by which parties and politicians can reach these individuals. If the internet is currently only being used as a mechanism for increased involvement for the already involved, what content preferences do the uninvolved harbor? If we can illuminate the content preferences of the politically uninvolved user, perhaps a more targeted approach towards mobilizing them can be constructed. Conclusion A vacuum is present in the existing literature; a study must be undertaken to locate the politically uninvolved within the geography of the internet. In order to effectively campaign to non-voters, the ³internet swing-states´ must be identified. The study should utilize a survey that seeks to ascertain the content preferences of individual non-voters. If all the current methods of internet mobilization have only been preaching to the choir, where must the communication be directed so as to reach the politically unmotivated ± the non-voters? Furthermore, we must ascertain what specifically about the content preferred by the voters makes it so unappealing to the nonvoter. It may be a matter of cognitive absorption as Polat (2005) surmises, it may otherwise be a matter of these mediums simply not being well



suited for individuals not possessing a keen interest in political matters, or it may be another issue entirely. A definitive answer to these questions could prove extremely useful in shaping future political campaign¶s internet presence, structuring ways of conveying political news, and generally reaching the nonvoting public.



Methods of Study The hypothesis this study seeks to test is that there is a positive correlation between the independent variable, voter status, and the dependent variable of an individual¶s internet use. The connection between the variables is expected to be statistically significant, and also bidirectional, with voter status being a good predictor of content preference, and content preference being a good predictor of voter status. The existing literature and statistical data contained therein has pointed towards receiving campaign information via email being a poor predictor of voter status (Krueger, 2006); conversely, voter status has been found to be a poor predictor of the receiving of such campaign promotions (Nickerson, 2007). Some link between voting blocks of typically uninvolved populations, namely the young, and the internet as a mechanism of mobilization has been found by Ward, Gibson & Lusoli (2003), but it is not well understood. The data seems to point towards policy research through official party channels as being the content preference of the young voters, but this was more tangential information derived from the survey¶s population, conducted on Liberal Democrat party members in the UK, than an aim of the study itself. In the previous literature the internet has been found to be most serviceable for political purposes in ways that heavily favor the already politically involved. Polat (2005) found tertiary aspects of the political process to be most well received on the internet, namely surveys, opinion polls, and questionnaires. The politically involved are over-represented in these areas as they have likely signed up to receive, and are most likely to respond to, such requests. The claim to be tested by this study is that individuals with a positive voter status tend to utilize the internet to inform their political knowledge. This claim can be extrapolated from, so as



to assert that the internet is in fact informing the voting public to a great extent. The voting public is seeking out information to inform their vote online, and individuals looking to ascertain policy information for upcoming elections are following through and voting in those elections. The claim, therefore, is that the internet as a mechanism of informing the public on policy issues is in something of a positive loop with voter status. If the non-voter can be located within the broader geography of the internet, and introduced in to this loop, the outcome will be an increase in the informed voter base. The chief instrument of this study is a single stage survey questionnaire, administered to 6666 individuals across the United States, at random, with randomness insured by selection from the population list being chosen by a random number table; a large-N approach to a quantitative study. Consideration was given towards implementing a stratified random sampling, wherein age was broken down in to separate subgroups; this approach was ultimately abandoned as further understanding of the research topic concluded that controlling for the age of respondents was unnecessary when the survey questionnaire contained questions assuming the respondents utilized the internet. Furthermore, a micro chasm of the role that certain internet content is playing on informing the public at large was the ultimate goal, and therefore an inclusion of all age groups in the data was acceptable. The total number of individuals surveyed, 6666, reflects an estimated expected response rate of 75% with a response number of 5000 required for confidence in the data. The 75% figure is conservative, and stems from the survey itself being brief, containing only ten (10) total questions and taking no more than five minutes to complete. A field test of the survey will be administered to ten individuals, with comments or clarifications suggested by their experience noted and taken in to account for modifications to the final survey.



The survey itself utilized questions tested and used by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, by the Pew Research Center, in a survey from March 2010. This helped to insure the validity of the survey and the questions contained therein; that is, it best insured that the survey questions were in fact gathering the data they were intended to. The individual questions utilized for the survey can be found in the appendix, along with citations where available, indicating the survey title and year from which the question was sourced. They are of the categorical variety, measuring positive and negative responses to a series of questions. First, the respondent voter status is ascertained: Thinking back to the 2008 presidential election when Barack Obama ran against John McCain...A lot of people tell us they didn't get a chance to vote in the 2008 presidential election. How about you...did things come up that kept you from voting, or did you happen to vote? (Pew, 2010) Following the assessment of voter status, a series of questions intended to convey internet content preferences follows. As previously stated, these questions can be found in the appendix. The survey will be mailed out to addresses selected at random, across the United States. The first correspondence with the sample group will be an advance letter informing them of the survey, and requesting their participation. The survey itself will be followed by the advance letter after one week (7 days). Five days following the mailing of the survey, a follow-up card will be mailed asking again for the individual¶s participation. Finally, three weeks (21 days) following the survey, a hand-written letter will be mailed to all non-respondents, along with a selfaddressed stamped envelope, requesting their participation for a final time. This should provide a sufficient response rate to meet the 5000 individual sample size requirement.



We can make a series of predictions with regards to how the data should cluster. There should be a statistically significant portion of the respondents to the survey indicating a positive to the question of voter-status also indicating a positive response to utilizing the internet to inform their voting decisions. Furthermore, there should be a number, smaller than the mean, of the positive voter respondents indicating that they primarily use the internet for ³entertainment´ purposes. In essence, the data should trend towards voters indicating a use of the internet for research purposes and tending to utilize the internet, in general, for something other than ³entertainment´.



References Pew Internet & American Life Project. (2010). Pew Research Center. Karlsen, R. (2010). Online and Undecided: Voters and the Internet in the Contemporary Norwegian Election Campaign. Scandinavian Political Studies, 33(1), 28-50. Krueger, B. S. (2006). A Comparison of Conventional and Internet Political Mobilization. American Politics Research, 36(6), 759-776. Lupia, A., & Philpot, T. (2005). Views from Inside the Net: How Websites Affect Young Adults' Political Interest. The Journal of Politics, 67(4), 1122-1142. Nickerson, D. (2007). Does Email Boost Turnout?. Quarterly Journal of Political Science, 2(4), 369-379. Pew Internet & American Life Project. (2010). Pew Research Center.

Polat, R. K. (2005). The Internet and Political Participation: Exploring the Explanatory Links. European Journal of Communication, 30(4), 435-459. Stanley, J. W., & Weare, C. (2004). The Effects of Internet Use on Political Participation: Evidence from an Agency Online Discussion Forum. Administration & Society, 36(5), 503-527. Ward, S., Gibson, R., & Lusoli, W. (2003). Online Participation and Mobilisation in Britain: Hype, Hope and Reality. Parliamentary Affairs, 56(4), 652-668.

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