Citizen politics (V): Impacts on Knowledge and Participation

Notes from the workshop Citizen Politics: Are the New Media Reshaping Political Engagement? held in Barcelona, Spain, on May 28-30th, 2009. More notes on this event: citizen_politics_2009.

The Political Knowledge Gap in the New Media Environment
Eva Anduiza, Aina Gallego and Laia Jorba

Knowledge gap hypothesis (Tichenor, Donohue and Olien, 1970, 159-160): As the infusion of mass media information into a social system increases, segment of pupulation with higher socioeconomic status tend to acquire this information at a faster rate than the lower status segments.

What is the impact of new media on the knowledge gap? There’s much more information of any kind; more choice and possibilities, etc. Two approaches:

  • Cognitive abilities are more relevant, so the knowledge gap is due to capability; same with motivation.
  • On the other hand, serendipity (when surfing the Internet at random) can play an important role in decreasing the knowledge gap

A survey on Internet uses and political knowledge showed that Internet users are more knowledgeable in political issues (leaving aside age, education and other variables that could influence political knowledge).

There is also a positive interaction between Education and Internet use, meaning that more educated people can learn more about politics in the Internet. But also a negeative interaction between Interest and Internet use, that is, less interested people learn more on the Internet about politics than interested ones. Why is it so?

Reinforcement and mobilization: the influence of the Internet on different types of political participation
Marta Cantijoch

What’s the impact of the Internet on political participation? We’re seeing a decrease of representational forms of participation and an increase of protest and other extra-representational activities. Reasons could be dissatisfaction, disaffection (as less involvement) and apathy, discontent (but eager to get involved), etc.

Three theoretical profiles:

  • Disaffected: low levels of involvement, dissatisfied with the political system, low feelings of engagement. Expected not to participate whatever
  • Critical: High political involvement and feelings of engagement, but low satisfaction wiht the sisyte. Expected to get involved in extrarepresentative activities
  • Institutionalised: High political involvement, and feelings of citizen duty, matched by the political system. Expected participation in representative models.

What happens with these three profiles when the Internet comes in? More information available, higher diversity of discourses, unplanned exposure to information. If the Internet fosters extra-representative forms of participation, Disaffected and Institutionalized citizens will be mobilised, but Critical ones will find their eagerness not to mobilize reinforced.

A survey+analyses were performed to measure turnout, representational and extra-representational participation according to Internet use, and voluntary search for information and proclivity to be exposed to serendipitous political information.

Findings are that the more the Internet use, the higher the probability to be mobilized at al levels. In other words, using the Internet increases the likelihood of participation in extra-representational modes, though it has minimal effects amongst disaffected (mobilizing in institutionalized and reinforcing amongst critical citizens).

On the other hand, being exposed to more political information also increases the probability to mobilised, regardless of it being voluntary (active search) or involuntary exposure to political information.

Political participation, alienation and the Internet in Spain and the United States
Mike Jensen

Political alienation can be explained, from the demand side, by several reasons. Putnam (1995, 2000) states that it might be because of a loosening of personal ties with the civil society. Also due to a generational shift in participatory repertoires away from hierarchical political engagement.

On the supply side, Stoker (2006) or Hay (2007) explain it by the increasing complexity of politics. Political marketing could well be another reason.

Does low specific and diffuse support negatively impact participation? Are there differences between offline and different online forms of participation? Is there evidence that the politically alienated offline are participation online? Do we find differences between Spain and the US?

After two surveys (Spain and US), we test trust in the central governemnt, in political parties and the local government, responsiveness of authorities, complexity of politics and elite interests domination. In both countries we can group (principal components analysis) the variables in two factors: diffuse support (concerning the former three) and specific support (latter three).

US: In general, either diffuse or specific support seems not to affect political participation. Only diffuse support has a weak association with offline political participation in the US. Reading online political news does have a political impact in participation at any level. And there’s a segment of the population that expend a lot of time surfing the Internet as a way of expressing aspects of their lives, participating in Web 2.0 related platforms.

Spain: A negative relation between being for a major party and online participation. Diffuse support is positively related with online participation, while specific support is positively related with offline support. Again, reading political news leads to higher probability to participate, whatever the means.

There is either no or a negative relationship between participation and support. We find evidence of younger cohorts particularity participation oin Web 2.0. Some evidence for cultural shaping of the Internet as there are difference sin how the major parties relate to the Internet.


Bruce Bimber: What happens with long-term participation and whether we believe it is good or bad? Is it really useful so treat the Web 2.0 differently from online participation? For older generations there might be a difference, but is that difference there amongst younger generations?

Ismael Peña-López (re: Aina Gallego’s paper): reasons why less interested learn more through the Internet could be that more interested have a wider range of information sources and rely not on serendipity. On the other hand, because their threshold for new information is higher than non interested. It would be useful, then, to add a couple more variables: (1) do you rely on other sources to get political information and how many (2) how well do you think you are informed on political issues.

Rachel Gibson: It might also be a case that the information you find on the Internet is low quality and thus it has a negative effect on your knowledge level.

Citizen Politics workshop (2009)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2009) “Citizen politics (V): Impacts on Knowledge and Participation” In ICTlogy, #68, May 2009. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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About Me

    I am Ismael Peña-López.

    I am professor at the School of Law and Political Science of the Open University of Catalonia, and researcher at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute and the eLearn Center of that university. I am also the director of the Open Innovation project at Fundació Jaume Bofill.