658F7135d01 - The Internet and Citizen Communication With...

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Unformatted text preview: The Internet and Citizen Communication With Government: Does the Medium Matter? BRUCE BIMBER The Internet ofihtrs (i new means by Which Citiattts may. contact government to ex- press their views- or concerns. tit-id it raises interesting empiricai and theoretical questions about Whether citizen contacts are dfii‘c‘if’ti in: eomtnnnicotitm media. This ttrtieie ttses survey data to emit-ire hypotheses about whether means of communica- tion shape contacting activity. it conmnres Internet-based contacts with traditional contacts. showing statisticaliv significant but for the most part sttbston'tiveiv snictii differences. Effitcts of terhnoiog‘r-are of two kinds. those afflicting only the iikeiihooti of ci-t'i:ens being itctit-te in romaine-iterating with government out! those ofiittmhig the frequency or intensitv of camrnhtn'catitm among those who are active. The article discusses these findings in terms of transitional effects of terhtmiogy. which wire from uneven distribution of the technology in society. and in terms of inherent efiects. which attend to the teeht'toiogy itself. The mini important inherent (filters involve gender and poh‘tit‘rti connectedness: The gender gap in contacting is iurger on the interact than in traditional forms of comm-uhica-n'rm. and political connected- ness has a weaker association with communication through the internet. Keywords citizen contact with government. cleclronic mail. Internet. political par— ticipalinn The rapid evolution of the Internet as a venue for political communication presents researchers with a host of interesting problems. Perhaps the most fundamental of these concern what new technology implies for models of political behavior. The Internet offers new opportunities for citizens to engage in various political actions. such as attempting to persuade others how to vote, learning about issues or candidates. or attempting to coordinate or organize political action. How the public responds to these opportunities is potentially revealing about the factors that shape political participation in general. as well as about the specifics of political use of the Internet. Many claims have been made regarding the Intemet‘s effects on politics and public life. For instance, an emergent school of Internet communit-arians argues that the internet is creating new social bonds that transcend physical. proximity. In this view. improve— ments in the state of social association and trust that arise from the Internet may provide the foundation for altered politics (Etzioni. [997; S. G. Jones. 1995: Porter. 1997; Rhein- gold, 1993). A debate has also emerged about whether the Internet enhances the “public sphere" or fragments public discourse (Sassi, I996; Schneider, 1996). Perhaps the tnost common claim regarding the Internet and political behavior Bruce Blather is Assistant Professor of Political. Science at the University of Califomia— Santa Barbara. He thanks the anonymous reviewers for their assistance. This research was supported by grants from line National Science Foundation and the Regents of the University of Califomia. Address correspondence to Bruce Blather, Department of Political Science. University or Catharina—Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara. CA 93-106. USA. Email: [email protected] 40.9 Political (‘rmnt‘nmir'rttirtn. 16:409425. 199‘? Copyright © [99.9 Taylor & Francis Iti5l‘i-4GUW9‘J $12.0“ 4'- .liil 410 Bruce Bimbo:- concerns increased levels of political participation by citizens. Internet advocates and activists argue that expanded communication capacity can lead to more political learn» ing and more frequent acts of participation (Browning, 1996; Rheingold, 1991). A cen- terpiece of this expectation is the idea that citizens will become more actively expres- sive because of the Internet—that they will seize new opportunities to communicate wishes and interests to government officials. This idea is theoretically interesting for several reasons. Among the many forms of political participation possible in a democratic society, the contacting of officials by citizens is uniquely capable of conveying a wide range of very specific infomtation to government about what individual citizens want. The possibility that the Internet is en- hancing the information available to the state about constituents’ wishes is intriguing. Contacting officials has also long been one of the most common acts of political partici— pation after voting, undertaken by somewhere between one quarter and one third of adults in the United States each year (Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, I995; Zuckennan & West. 1985). Increased acts of contacting would represent the enhancement of a form of participation in which US. citizens already compare quite favorably to citizens of other democracies. There is a causal claim implicit in this expectation of a connection between the Internet and expanded citizen cortu‘nunication with government, namely, that changes in communication technology lead to changes in political behavior. The. idea is that the into-met will increase the flow of communication between citizens and government and. thereby, alter patterns of influence between elites and the mass public. This idea pre— sents an interesting problem. Extant theories of political behavior explain the act of contacting government officials in terms of independent variables such as education, gender, skills. social or political connectedness. need for services, and the like (Rosenstone & Hansen, 1993; Thomas, 1982; Verba. 8: Nie, 1972: Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995). Conspicuously absent from these theories is communication medium, despite the fact that the vast bulk of contact between citizens and government is technologically mediated—by the telephone system, by fax technology, or by the techniques of letter, envelope, and mail carrier. The Internet adds a new possibility to the mix, offering citizens a yet wider array of choices in how to undertake an act of communication with government. The theoretical problem is: Does the medium matter? Does the forth of communication have an effect on contacting that is independent of other key variables such as education and gender, or are various technologies simply politically neutral means for communicating public sentiment? This article addresses that problem by. examining several well-established empirical relationships involving citizen-contacting of government. 1 consider how these compare in the case of contacts through the Internet and the case of traditional contacts, by phone or letter. As will be evident, my findings suggest that the devil lies in the details of on-line political behavior. I argue that claims by Internet advocates that the technology will revolutionize citizen communication with government appear quite wrong. indeed, communication technology does affect the structure of citizen communication with gov» ernment, but the connection is more incremental than revolutionary. i show that this connection takes two forms, which i call transition effects and inherent effects. Transi- tion effects are a product of the uneven distribution of the technology among citizens and its uneven adoption by various political institutions, while inherent effects are inde- pendent of the distribution of technology. I conclude that the medium matters in this form of political communication, but not by much. The Internet arr-rd Citizen Contramncrm'mr 41} My data come front two surveys described in some detail later. one a random digit- dial telephone survey conducted in October 1996 and repealed in February 1998 and one a large—sample on—line survey that ran for l year at selected politi‘al and govern- ment-oriented Internet sites in 1996 and 1997. 1 describe the findings here first by com- paring bivariate analyses of contacting through traditional means and through the Internet and then by interpreting a set of multivariate models. Theory of Citizen Communication With Government The act of citizen communication with government is. not as well understood as voting behavior. but some of the important empirical and theoretical boundaries of the phe— nomenon have been established. For the most part. these are the same boundaries that define electoral participation and political behavior more generally. but some of the variables have slightly different relationships in the case of contacting. Research on citizen contact with government has its origins in models showing correlations betWeen participation and variables such as education and age. This work has been refined to focus more closely on resources. mobilization, and factors such as social connectedness as key explanatory variables. Descriptions of the empirical relationships that characterize citizen contact with gov- emment are available in Verba. Schloztnan. and Brady (1995'): Rosenstone and Hansen (1993): Hero (1986); and the classic work of Verba and Nie (1972). As a starting point for examining the Internet and political behavior. I have focused on five of these rela- tionships. which can be summarized briefly as follows. Socioeconomic status (.5138) is of course the foundation for evaluating contacting behavior, but it is especially important to disaggregate SES. Early studies that examined SES produced contradictory findings. Some researchers found no SES relationship (Verba & Nie. 1972). some found a parabolic relationship with contacting behavior most fre- quent for middle SE3 (Coulter. I992; Hero. 1986; B. D. Jones. Greenberg. Kaufman, & Drew, 1977). and some found a linear relationship (Sharp. 1982; Verba, Nie. & Kim. 1978). Mom of these discrepancies have been explained.‘ The first principle of citizen contact with government that falls out of SES is that the probability of communicating with government is a function of education and of age. The more education. the more the activity. And the older citizens are. the more likely they are to contact an elected official (Hero. 1986; Rosenstone & Hansen. 1993: Verba, Schlozman, & Brady. 1.995: Zuckerman & West, 1985). Verba, Schlozman. and Brady (I995) model some of the underlying causal links in terms of civic skill-s. Contacting an official requires knowledge of whom to write or call and how to do it, so those with more skills are more likely to be engaged in acts of political communication with elected officials. The skill threshold for contacting is higher than for many other forms of participation, such as trying to persuade others of a politi- cal position or even making the trip to the voting booth. Another important empirical relationship is that the probability of communicating with government is a functiOn of gender. Contacting elected officials is different from voting behavior where gender is concerned, because women are substantially less active than men. Schlozman. Burns, and Verba (1994). measure a statistically significant. 8-point difference between men and women in frequency of contacting. as compared with a nonsignificant, 3-point difference in voting. Rosenstone and Hansen (1993) esti- mate that gender explains about 4% of the probability that a citizen will write to Con— gress. and they find no gender effect for voting.2 412 Brt-tt'e Bimber It has also been shown in different ways that the probability of communicating with government increases with political connectedness. Not surprisingly, citizens' degree of involvement with political activities in other arenas is a predictor of communicating with government. Relationships between connectedness and contacting have been mea— sured by Rosenstone and Hansen (1993-), who shew that those who are contacted by a political party in connection with a campaign are substantially more likely to be active in contacting government than are others. They estimate that party contact explains about 8% of the probability of citizen contacting. They also measure connectedness through citizen work on national and local problems and find that this measure explains about 36% of the probability of contacting. Zuckerman and West (1985) measure political connectedness using citizen involvement in campaign work and find a significant, posi- tive relationship. The last variable of concern here involves institutional proximity and the fact that the probability of communicating with government increases with locainess of office. Unlike voting behavior, where turnout is characteristically higher in national elections than state or local ones, more citizens are active contacting government officials at the state and local levels than at the national level (Verba, Schlozrnan, & Brady. 1995). The effect may be explained by familiarity or personal bonds: Citizens may be more likely to contact officials with whom they have a connection of some kind or with whom they simply feel more familiar personally (Zuckerntan & West, 1985). Such connections are likely to be greater at the local than the state level. and greater at the state than the national level. The effect may also be explained by the type of contacts made: Citizens may contact local or state offices more frequently than national offices in order to place requests for specific services or assistance, because citizens have a much greater degree of involvement at the local and state levels with a variety of educational, social. service. infrastructure, and public-order agencies. Indeed, a good deal of the early literature or: citizen contacting was based on studies focusing exclusively on urban or local contact— ing in the context of service delivery. The question raised by the Internet is whether means of cumtttwu'cation has any independent effect on these relationships. Does the Internet alter the importance of edu- cation, age, gender. political connectedness, or proximity, or are these well established relationships invariant across different forms of communication? 1 hypothesize that these variables do take on somewhat different relationships in the case of electronic com- munication. There are several reasons to suspect altered relationships. One is straight- forward and is more interesting normatively than theoretically, namely. that awareness and familiarity with the Internet vary across socioeconomic and demographic groups. It is widely believed that younger generations are more familiar with the Internet than are older ones. If this is true, one would anticipate that aggregate measures of age and contacting would show an altered relationship, in the direction of an attenuation of the traditional positive correlation between increasing age and increasing participation through contacting. Other variables may have similar effects in the aggregate, as a func- tion of socioeconomic differences between those with and without access to the interact. These differences should disappear when one controls for access or familiarity with the technology. The more theoretically interesting reasons to suspect that contacting through the Internet is different from contacting traditionally concern cost and affective aspects of communication. For those with access, the lntemet reduces quite dramatically the time and inconvenience involved in Contacting a government office, because an e—mail mes— sage can typically be composed and sen-t in much less time and with less effort than is The Internet and Citizen Commit"it"urt'un 413 required to prepare and mail a letter. Electronic mail is much less costly in terms of time and convenience. and it is also somewhat less costly financially, although the marginal cost of- a single letter is not great. These cost reductions over traditional media are magnified substantially in the case of contacts with multiple offices (cg. in the United States. sending copies of a letter to both of one‘s senators. one‘s Congressional repre- sentative, and the White House). Time and cost considerations can be thought of as barriers to contacting. The citizens who surmount these ban'iers are those with sufficient. political interest and concern to judge the value of doing so to be worth the effort. The Internet appears to lower barriers of time and cost and so could lead to contacting behavior by those with conunensurately lower levels of political interest and concern. One would expect to see a weaker relationship on the Internet betwoen political con— nectedness and contacting. Research on gender and the Internet provides another reason to hypothesize differ- ent models for cont-acting on-line than contacting through traditional means. This reason entails affective attributes of communication—4hr: emotional and psychological experi- ence of using particular forms of communication. In survey research on Internet use. Ford and Miller ([996) used 'a detailed battery of attitudinal questions about the lntemet. along with a cognitive styles assessment. They report a comprehensive connection be- tween gender and attitudes about Internet Use. Women in their study revealed higher levels of disorientation and disenchantment with the Internet than did men. They found that women are less likely than men to “browse" the lntemet. preferring purposeful and direct searches for information.3 And nationwide surveys of Internet demographics have historically—in the sense of the brief “history" of the Intemetfireported lower levels of access and use of the Internet by women than men. (GVU, l999: Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, I996; Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press. 1995). The implication is unattractive: Various means of political communication may appeal differently to people on the basis of attributes beyond the typical demographic or socioeconomic characteristics that political scientists associate with political behavior. and this variation may be associated with gender. If so. one should expect gender to have a stronger effect on citizen contacts with government through the Internet than through traditional means. That is. one should hypothesize that the gender gap in con-. tacting is even larger on-line. Data and Method A discussion of data is appropriate before moving on to the analysis, because study of the Internet is fraught by the absence of good. systematic data sets. There are several contributors to the problems with data. The first is that few- standard definitions of fundamental variables such as “Internet user" have emerged. For instance. one set of studies identifies Internet users by asking survey respondents. whether they ever “go on-line" from their home. workplace. or‘ school [Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. 1996). Another study defmes as internet users only those people who use both electronic mail and at least one other feature of the Internet. such as the World Wide Web_—~a more. restrictive definition (Find/SVP. 1996). Another differentiates be— tween those with direct access to the Internet (not a dial-up connection) and who have used the Internet at least once in the previous 3 months. those with dial-up access, and those with no access at all. including both the United States and Canada in the sample (Nielsen. 1996). Still other studies examine strictly Web users te.g., GVU. 1999). The National Election Studies program, which included Internet items for the first time in 414 Bruce Bimbcr 1996. uses a variation on the access definition, asking respondents “Do you have access to the Internet or the World Wide Web?"4 The lack of consistent definitions has limited researchers' ability to make comparisons across studies. Another obstacle to Internet research has been sample design. At present. about half of the adults in the United States have access to the Internet? About 1 in 4 adults can be considered regular users. and less than 1 in 5 have used the Internet for any political purpose. The fraction that has used the Internet to contact an elected official is in the neighborhood of l in 20. For this reason. obtaining a workable sample of I...
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