Comdex experts examine Internet’s role in political empowerment

LAS VEGAS, NEV. — The Internet may have created a Global Village, but technology is not necessary enriching the civic life of its inhabitants, according to public policy experts at Comdex Fall 2001.

IT managers and resellers have spent most of the past week trolling the trade show floors at the Las Vegas Convention Centre in search of innovative products that could grow or improve their businesses. But politics has overshadowed this show from the very beginning. Comdex organizer Key3Media chairman Frederic D. Rosen opened the event Sunday night by thanking the approximately 15,000 attendees for their “courage” in coming to the annual IT mecca following the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11. The crash of American Airlines flight on Monday, meanwhile, cast a pall over some of the exhibitor’s enthusiasm.

Though recent studies have indicated a sharp spike in Web traffic for news-related sites covering the tragedies, a Comdex panel didn’t see significant growth for political content on the Internet in the long term.

Sean Treglia, program officer of public policy for the Pew Charitable Trust, said the Internet was not unlike radio or television in the way it has been held up by some as a hope for improved communications, only to be vilified as dangerous or inaccurate by others. The Internet, he said, has become yet another vehicle for America’s great export: content and programming. “The Nike swoosh, the McDonald’s arches — this isn’t content disseminating democratic choices,” he said. “These are about disseminating the value of consumer goods.”

Even in the United States, where there are many sources of online political information, information is not accessed by a broad spectrum of the electorate. Gerry Philpott, CEO of E-Poll, said his firm conducted an online survey of 570 adult Web users last week which examined traffic patterns for political content. Though television ranks highest as the source for current events and public policy news at 70 per cent, about 48 per cent turned to the Internet. But substantially more than 50 per cent of those users are men, most of them in a high education/high income bracket.

“If this was done years ago you’d think, of course, the Internet is all men. Today that shouldn’t be true, but if you look at what’s out there the typical power play about politics and the Internet falls along traditional lines.”

Income plays a much stronger role internationally, said Matt Warshaw, research manager at InterMedia. Warshaw has been conducting a study as part of the World Internet project to examine patterns of Internet usage and online political information in other countries. He said while Canada and the U.S. make up the lion’s share of the 275 million Internet users worldwide, Web usage in many countries falls to only a handful of elites.

The notion of this digital divide is not new, but Warshaw said the access granted to high-income earners can radically change their perception of the medium. In Romania, for example, 33 per cent of those who make up the upper financial strata said they trust the Internet, versus only 11 per cent of the rest of the population.

“With television, which is much more widely available, 20 per cent (of non-elite Romania) said they trust it,” he said. “In North America, the Internet is just one more source. If in another country, it can be an alternative source where it provides something you can’t get anywhere else.”

Part of the problem is that the economics of some countries mean the Internet won’t spread very rapidly to the mass population, Warshaw added. Philpott said there was interest in Turkey to create more localized portal content from Yahoo!, but financing those ventures can be difficult. “We’re talking about places where many people don’t even have a phone,” he said.

Universal access doesn’t solve the problem of how content can be controlled, Treglia argued. “There is an unwritten rule — but it is a rule nonetheless — in broadcasting that there are three things you will never see on TV. You will never see a negative story about an NFL owner. You will never see a negative story about (Disney chairman) Michael Eisner. And unless there is a terrible catastrophe where you can’t avoid it, you will never see a negative story about a big oil company,” he said. “That’s because they’re big advertisers. In that sense the Internet is just following in the path of its predecessors.”

Although Warshaw said he believed it could be possible to publicly provide credible political content for a relatively low cost, Philpott wasn’t so sure, pointing out the struggles in public radio and television. “Private funding will continue to drive development,” he said. “Our government’s too fractionalized to come up with one agenda it wants to push.”

In the end it may not matter, Treglia said. People don’t always gravitate to the best sources of information. “In the last (U.S.) election, what was the No. 1 channel of online information? E-mail. And what was the No. 1 source of that e-mail? Jokes. That’s how we’re learning about our politics.”

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