Panel: New media has profound impact on politics

And that impact shows up in a variety of ways, from the “macaca” remark by now-ex-Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) — which sank his re-election bid two years ago — to Barack Obama’s record fundraising and involvement of millions of people through Internet and other forms of instant communications, they added.

Much of the impact is positive, as the Internet has drawn more people than ever before into the political process — and helped them make an immediate and direct impact, said the two panelists, pollster Celinda Lake and Lee Rainie, director of the Internet and American Life Project for the non-profit non-partisan Pew Center.

“One of the counters to ‘Bowling Alone’ is that you may not be Internetting alone,” Rainie adds. (“Bowling Alone” is the 1995 book where author Robert Putnam surveys the decline of “social capital” in the United States of America since 1950, which he feels undermines the active civil engagement a strong democracy required from its citizens.)

But the Internet’s impact is still evolving, Rainie and Lake said. And while the Internet is rapidly rising as a news source, especially among younger voters, local TV news — though declining — is still the most-used news source for most of the country. Respondents in Pew surveys could name more than one source.

Local TV news, says Rainie — a former Washington bureau member of the unionized New York Daily News and former editor of U.S. News and World Report—is still a prime political news source for just over half the country. That’s down from 70 percent in 1994.

Usage of national network newscasts for political news declined from 60 percent to 30 percent, while usage of cable TV news rose from 30 percent in 2002 — the first year it was included — to 40 percent now. Usage of radio was just short of 50 percent in 1994, while newspapers were at 60 percent. Each of those two have slid to the mid-thirties in percentages in 2008.

But the Internet’s “online news,” which was just above zero as a news source in 1996, is now at 40 percent — and that understates its impact, Rainie said.

“More than a quarter of voters get video online, and a lot of people are using the Internet to read whole speech texts or see entire TV ads. They’re using the Internet as pushback against mainstream media’s cutbacks in political coverage,” he noted.

The Newspaper Guild points out that rising consolidation of the mainstream media — large TV networks, cable operations, newspapers and radio — produces cuts in political and civic coverage, and jobs.

Yet at the same time, unions, notably the Steelworkers, the Communications Workers and SEIU, have turned to the Internet as an effective organizing tool.

Interestingly enough, Rainie and Lake said, while Internet use is increasing and involving more people politically, reactions to the information vary by age. Older users are more likely to accept what they get on the Internet as truthful without checking it out. Younger users, who are also more attuned to the new communications vehicles the Internet has spawned, like FaceBook, Twitter and text-messaging, are more likely to be skeptical of the information they receive.

What the Internet users are doing is interesting: A cadre of thousands of leaders take the roles once played by publishers and broadcasters, and evaluate information before re-sending it out, with comment and analysis. Rainie cited HuffingtonPost, a noted liberal “blog,” as an example.

And the best of those thousands are breaking stories themselves. Rainie noted that it was an Internet user, with a cell phone equipped with video, who broadcast Obama’s remarks at a closed fundraiser in San Francisco, about how embittered residents of small towns retreat to “guns and God” for solace.

There is also one worrisome phenomenon the Internet intensifies, Rainie warned: The tendency of people to tailor incoming information to fit their own preconceived notions.

“People want to get information that matches ‘The Daily Me’,” he explained. That refusal of information that disagrees with their own views has always occurred, but “the Internet has that (filtering) on steroids.

“There’s great concern that as we customize” information for ourselves by Internet usage, “we’ll have less to talk about, less of a common story and less of a dialog,” he added. But even then, opposing views are not always shut out. After all, many Internet users, to respond to comments on blogs, Twitter and elsewhere, find themselves researching opposition statements in order to strike back intelligently.

But while Internet use is increasing, millions of voters still want their information the old-fashioned way, Rainie and Lake cautioned. That means organizations such as the League of Women Voters and unions wind up providing their materials — everything from organizing manuals to voters’ guides — both electronically and in print form. That leaves them, the league’s president noted ruefully, with double costs.