Television is still the dominant place for people to get their daily dose of political content. Surprising? No, it’s been that way since the late 1990s. But while more than 70 percent of adults in the United States get their political news from television, the growing importance of the Internet on American politics is undeniable.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that for the first time a majority (55 percent) of voting-age adults engaged with politics online during the 2008 presidential election.

“In each consecutive, comparable election season since we’ve started conducting surveys, we’ve seen that reliance on the Internet and that use of the Internet for political purposes, it never goes down, it always goes up,” Pew research specialist Aaron Smith said in a phone interview. “I think the trend is fairly clear.”

The Activist Culture Online

While television remains the primary vehicle to get a political message to the largest audience, it is also a passive creature. The boob-tube got its nickname for good reason: you turn it on and watch. It’s a one way street.

The Internet is a different beast altogether. The development of advanced tools and online services has made it easy to get information, interact with other people, and share opinions, all of which are important when it comes to politics. The number of people using online social networks like Facebook and Twitter continues to grow exponentially. The Internet is a fantastic medium for participation, and the Pew research suggests that people want to use it to engage with politics.


“One of the things we clearly saw in the research is this … growth of a participatory culture or an activist type mentality that really has sort of taken root online,” Smith said. “[It] really is based on that unique ability that the Internet offers to not just receive information, but to put something of yourself out there and really interact with the information you find and other people that are out there that are interested in the same topics.”

The activist mentality percolating on the Internet has caused another, perhaps less positive trend. When examining online political discourse, you often find people using First Amendment rights to advance ideas from the radical fringes.

Smith said that for the first time the Pew data shows that people admit they go online to get information that agrees with their existing viewpoint. To a certain extent, this changes the relationship people have with news.

“They are not dispassionately weighing the evidence about two candidates to see which one they agree with — they are coming to the debate with pre-existing views,” Smith said. “When they go online for news they want to know what’s going on with their candidate. They want to know, almost like a sports mentality, what the score is, what happened today? How does it affect my team?”

As a result, the doomsday scenario that the Internet might create a so-called echo chamber online continues to be debated (see this piece by Brooke Gladstone at On the Media for background). But aside from that, two specific questions bubble to the surface: how long until the Internet is more important than television for politics? Will cable news one day suffer the same fate as newspapers?.

So long CNN

Todd Mundt, a blogger and vice president and chief content officer at Louisville Public Media, decided in May 2008 to cut the coaxial cable to his house and say so long to CNN.

In an ongoing experiment, the Mundt household is living in a world where online video and over-the-air broadcast television is the norm. Beyond a few hiccups here and there, Mundt says his consumption of political content has been uninterrupted. He also has access to breaking news.

“At local news stations where something big happens in their area, even though they don’t do it everyday, they fire up the live stream and just start sending live continuous coverage online,” Mundt said. “Like when Michael Jackson died. the first thing that I did when I heard he died was I went ABC 7 in Los Angeles and they were streaming live and continuous. Then I went to CBS 2 and the same thing was happening there. The only ones that weren’t streaming coverage online were CNN and some of the other major networks, but I got it from local stations.”

Mundt is certainly not sheltered from the news in any way — he hosts NPR’s Morning Edition — but he’s found that where he once used to flip through TV channels (what he calls “grazing”), he now doesn’t engage in the same kind of activity online. In his post-cable news home, political content is on-demand. That means he by and large sticks to his chosen sources, which reinforces the recent Pew data.

“I don’t know that I’m avoiding anything that I don’t want to see, but I certainly have chosen particular sources and I’ve chosen them for what I think are good reasons,” Mundt said. “But I am just not exposed to a wide variety of stuff. Even being exposed to CNN when it is at its goofiest is sometimes good just to see what people are talking about.”

There is an argument that suggests serendipity is involved in reading a newspaper because people can stumble onto a story they wouldn’t normally have chosen to read. Perhaps the same can be said for someone who flips through cable news channels at random. But if the Pew data is correct, then a shift towards Internet-based, on-demand news consumption could possibly lead to an increase in the polarization of political discourse. (Of course, there are others that suggest the Web is in fact the “best serendipity doo-dah ever invented.”)

At the moment, the Internet has a long way to go to catch up to television as the main source for political content. “Clearly television is the dominant mode of political discourse in this country,” Pew’s Smith said.

However, the segment of the population that most widely relies on the Internet for political content is people under the age of 30, and they will eventually become the majority.