Report

The Internet and Democratic Debate

  • October 27, 2004
  • By John Horrigan,Kelly Garrett, and Paul Resnick

Wired Americans hear more points of view about candidates and key issues than other citizens. They are not using the Internet to screen out ideas with which they disagree. Instead, the Internet contributes to a wider awareness of political arguments. Fears that use of the Internet might hurt healthy democratic deliberation are not borne out by online behavior.

Increasing numbers of Americans are getting news and information about politics online. More than 40 percent of those who use the Internet have gotten political material during this campaign, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & The Press, more than 50 percent higher than the number who had gotten such information in the 2000 campaign.

As Internet use has grown, prominent commentators and scholars have expressed concern that this would be harmful to democratic deliberation. They worried that citizens would use the Internet to seek information that reinforced their political preferences and avoid material that challenged their views. They feared that people would use Internet tools to customize and insulate their information inputs to a degree that held troubling implications for American society.

Democracy functions best when people consider a range of arguments, including those that challenge their viewpoint. If people screened out information that disputed their beliefs, then the chances for meaningful discourse on great issues would be stunted and civic polarization would grow.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project and the University of Michigan School of Information conducted a survey in June 2004 to test those concerns.