Distinguishing the Internet and why the distinctions matter to the political process

In Standage’s The Victorian Internet, he traced the function of the Internet back to the Victorian epoch where he explained that the invention of the telegraph and the laying of cables resulted in a paradigmatic shift, unlike the quantitative shift with the advent of the Internet. After all, not only did the newspaper industry came to be reliant on the telegraph, the fact that the telegraph was used to reveal the brutalities and British disorganization in the Crimean War, in the same way that political historians have argued that the media was crucial in turning the tide of public opinion against the Vietnam War, meant that politicians were subjected to increasing pressure. Standage also discussed how the telegraph had connected a global community, in much the same way that the Internet had, when it allowed the world to keep up to date with President Garfield’s condition.

However, it is arguable that the Internet represents more than a quantitative shift when one attempts to assess its impact on politics in a variety of ways. Traditional sources, unlike the Internet do not provide one with multiple information sources and stimulate voter involvement. Furthermore, it is arguable that the most crucial, and important distinction between the Internet and the conventional media is that the Internet is extremely interactive. This interactivity not only allows users to build social capital, but importantly, also displaces politicians from the pedestals and puts them in touch with the sentiments on the ground. Given that the Internet provide numerous bottom-up feedback channels prior to elections, and is a site where opinions can be monitored, unlike conventional media outlets that tend to reflect information that comes from above, the political process has changed dramatically, regardless whether the media actually affect voting behavior. After all, a perceived threat is enough to spur politicians to either deflect the attack, or attempt to remedy his/her oversights.

The interactivity element is also critical and is a particularly important point that dovetails with Katz study. In his study, he documented the explanatory utility of the two-step flow theory and its ability to influence political behavior. For instance, he argued that voting studies indicate that there is a high degree of homogeneity of political opinion among members of the same families, and among co-workers and friends. He also points out that the effectiveness of group pressure in affecting political behavior is manifested when potential deviates who had intended to vote differently from their friends or family, changed their vote choice at the end. Given the influence of social/group pressure on political behavior, the pertinent question then is how does the Internet, unlike conventional media, fit into all this?

Apart from the argument I presented earlier (in which I argued that the interactive element of the Internet allows close contact between politicians and the masses, and hence, render it more likely that the masses views will be heard), it is arguable that the interactivity element of the Internet has also accentuated and reinforced the relationships between social groups, and networks. By virtue of the public nature of social networking sites, and the fact that one is more likely to be aware of what peers and family members are doing and their preferences are, without even having to communicate, the Internet therefore has the potential to exert social pressure that impels political action. According to Katz, opinion leaders are crucial, and because the Internet is a forum where opinion leaders can air their views, and one can ascertain if one’s view conform to those in one’s social group, it is plausible that the action of a few enthusiastic members in one’s social group can incite political action and affect political behavior. This is dissimilar from conventional media, a one-way communication system, that isolates viewers because: 1) the characters on screen are likely to be outside one’s social group 2) it isolates one from the constant bombardment of information of what peers are thinking, doing, and saying, all of which can put social pressure affecting political behavior.

In Pasek’s study, it was argued that website culture might be able to hinder or encourage social capital. I believe that the attention paid to the ‘structure’ of the website is important. If one were to consider the institutional dissimilarities between the Internet and conventional media, and how, as a corollary to those differences, the Internet and conventional media have differing news emphases, it seems evident that newspapers are more inclined to provide factual/procedural political knowledge while the Internet, by virtue of its interactive and decentralized nature, is a place where conceptual knowledge abounds. As such, my second question is, does the difference in the type of information provided via newspapers, and through the Internet matter, if at all, to the political process?

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