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IV. The Electorate: Cyber-Citizens?

Table 3: Online Media Traffic During GOP Convention Week
Web Site Visitors
MSNBC.com 3,745,000
CNN.com 2,990,000
NYTimes.com 1,736,000
WashingtonPost.com 1,172,000
USAToday.com 998,000
ABCNews.com 856,000
PBS.org 589,000
FoxNews.com 485,000
LATimes.com 399,000
Phillynews.com 286,000
Speakout.com 146,000
Voter.com 120,000
GOPConvention.com 106,000
Grassroots.com not available
Pseudo.com not available

Good statistics of Internet traffic are hard to come by, but early evidence suggests that the online audience responded to the Republican National Convention like the rest of the electorate: mostly, it stayed away. PC Data Online, a Virginia firm which meters and weights the choices of 120,000 home Internet users in the United States, reported a 14% dip in traffic to the four most popular news sites during the week of the convention compared with the previous week. Whereas 11,246,000 unique visitors went to MSNBC.com, CNN.com, NYTimes.com, and WashingtonPost.com from home computers the week ending July 29, only 9,643,000 entered those sites during convention week. (See Table 3) Of course, there is no telling from this outside data who looked at convention news material, and for how long; nor does the PC Data Online survey include people accessing the Internet from work. But the clear implication of their data is that there was a drop in online news attention during the Republican convention.

A case could be made that a surge in online attention would have been a good thing for Republicans, media organizations, and even democracy. Politics on the Internet has the potential to provide a powerful political tool to individual citizens. It can also increase the accountability of authority figures and institutions by keeping thorough, accessible records of their words and deeds.

The Internet removes the necessity of simultaneous attention. Millions of Americans now have a practical alternative to tuning into a broadcast and monitoring it in real time. Today, citizens can catch up with a convention speech and many other political developments at their convenience. They can also use the Internet to share their information and opinions with family, friends and political organizations. Online politics might also be the vehicle to involve young people in political life.

The overall number of people using the Internet to get news and other public affairs information is on the upswing. The emergence of effective cyber-citizenry depends on how the new technology is deployed. This presidential year is an opportunity for online news and political organizations to help voters find the information they want and compare views and communicate with political leaders and each other.

There are already many promising developments on the Internet. The California Voter Foundation, www.calvoter.org, is a model of ballot-organized information. Democracy Net, the Freedom Channel, and Project Vote Smart offer candidate- and contest-indexed information.

The Washington Post indexes its voluminous event-triggered materials. During the Republican convention, USA Today linked to the major political parties. The Shadow Convention incorporated dynamic voice-chat technology. Grassroots.com and others made it easy for visitors to link information to action. Speakout.com's instant response poll brought audience participation to a new level. Several Web sites used games and other entertaining features to draw web surfers into the political process. The New York Times' Abuzz has potential for many-to-many political dialogue. Virage gave users a campaign search engine. There is no reason to expect that one site can do everything, but political Web sites still have time to make the 2000 election a landmark in cyber-enhanced citizenship.

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