Web gives power to the people, surfers say

American Net users believe going online helps them have more of an impact in politics, according to a survey.

Anne Broache
Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
3 min read
American Internet users believe they can wield influence in politics simply by going online, a survey released on Wednesday suggests.

Nearly 40 percent of U.S. Web surfers polled by researchers at the Center for the Digital Future at the USC Annenberg School said they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "By using the Internet, people like you can have more political power." That tally is several points higher than last year, according to the report.

Political empowerment "means the ability to actually have an impact, and not just gain insight or knowledge," Jeffrey Cole, the project's director, said in a conference call with reporters.

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Jeffrey Cole, Research Professor at USC, explains the increasingly important role that the Internet plays in the political process.
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The Digital Future Project, now in its fifth year, surveyed residents older than age 12 from 2,000 American households, which were intended to provide a representative sample of the nation. Responses came both from Internet users (defined as those who log on at least once per month) and from "nonusers" (the remainder).

The findings come as the prospect of campaign finance rules being extended to the Internet continues to draw outcry from politicians and bloggers. These groups have touted the grassroots, democratizing merits and low cost barriers of Net-based politicking. Despite this, a measure that would have exempted Net activity from campaign finance rules was shot down in the U.S. House of Representatives last month.

According to the University of Southern California study, more than 40 percent of surveyed Internet users went online to gather information2004 presidential campaign season. About three-quarters of them said they did so because they were undecided on those matters, and the vast majority said they were "satisfied" with the content that the Web supplied.

Less than 5 percent of the Internet users relied on blogs for campaign information. "Traditional media" Web sites and official campaign sites received the vast majority of visitors, the survey said.

"There's no doubt that the Internet has become more than just another form of media," Cole said. "It's really changing the political process."

The research project also compiled answers to more than 100 questions spanning topics like e-commerce, social habits and general usage patterns. It was funded in part by such companies as America Online, Microsoft, Sony, SBC and Verizon.

Not surprisingly, the number of survey subjects who go online (78.6 percent), their time spent on the Web (an average of 13.3 hours per week), and their average monthly spending online ($113.34) have all climbed steadily over the last five years.

But Internet users' confidence in the information they find online has declined for three years in a row. The percentage of survey subjects who responded that they believe "most" of what they encounter is reliable and accurate dipped to 46.8 percent this year, from a peak level of 56.1 percent during the 2001 study.