February 26, 1996
MARK BONCHEK, DIRECTOR OF THE POLITICAL PARTICIPATION PROJECT,
ON CAMPAIGNING IN CYBERSPACE
director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Political Participation Project,
answers your questions about campaigning over the Internet. In
his recently published article, It's About Community, Stupid,
Bonchek criticizes the way current campaigns are utilizing the
Internet. He argues that candidates simply treat the Internet
as another type of television. Until a candidate realizes the
interactive nature of the medium, they will continue to under-utilize
the possibilities of the Internet.
Bonchek examines the shortcomings of current politicking on the
World Wide Web. "Candidates think the Internet is television.
Take a look at their Web sites. The biographies, press releases
and downloadable screensavers are essentially an amalgam of C-SPAN,
the Home Shopping Network and good old-fashioned television spots."
for a background piece on campaigning in cyberspace featuring
Click to see a Forum Menu.
A question from Clifford Anderson of South Pasadena, CA:
The function of the Internet, for now, is to serve those who have
access to it. Therefore, the Internet is still a communicative
form for an elite class of citizens... It is clear (however) that
the Internet has the power to trigger an information movement
that will advance knowledge (for all people). (After that,) time
will tell whether our use of the medium will turn the Internet
into (just) another device to entertain, (or something more substantive).
(What is your opinion?)
Mark Bonchek responds:
There are two issues here. The first is whether the Net is a medium
for the mainstream or the elite. The second is whether the Net
is a medium for entertainment or substance.
Currently, the Net is an elite medium primarily because of significant
barriers to access. The Net requires users to have access to a
computer network and a sufficient degree of technical competence,
literacy, and interest. These requirements account for the demographics
of the Net.
Who has access to a computer network? Subsidized access is available
to college students and some corporate employees. A variety of
Americans pay for network access indirectly through an online
service or directly through an Internet access provider. In all
of these cases, there is a significant economic barrier to access.
In the case of subsidized access through universities or corporations,
individuals must pay the substantial cost of tuition (in the case
of university students) or education (in the case of corporate
employees) that allows them to obtain that subsidized access.
In the case of online service users or direct Internet access
customers, individuals must pay the upfront cost of the hardware
and the monthly cost of the information utility bill. Put the
technical and literacy requirements on top of these economic barriers,
and it is no surprise that the demographics of the Internet are
skewed towards higher socio-economic groups.
But what about in the future? Will the Internet continue to be
a medium for the elite or will it become mainstream? Two trends
are likely to equalize Internet demographics on their own. More
and more companies will need to be networked for their marketing,
customer service, financial, and organizational needs. As a result,
more individuals will have subsidized access through their employment.
But this only helps individuals who use computers at work -- a
somewhat elite group in and of itself. For individuals without
the prospect of subsidized access at work, the cost of access
at home will need to fall dramatically. Technology is providing
some of these changes. Computers and modems are getting faster
and cheaper all the time. Companies are also designing cheap (under
$500) computers designed for Internet use and developing methods
of providing Internet access through cable tv lines, telephone
lines, or wireless broadcast at a reasonable cost. Overall, the
cost of Internet access is likely to fall considerably over the
coming decade. This should reduce some of the economic barriers
and help to mainstream the Internet.
The barriers that are less likely to come down are the ones that
are educational and cultural. It is relatively quick and easy
to make a cheap computer. It is difficult and time-consuming to
raise a child to be sufficiently educated to know how to use a
computer and sufficiently interested in the world to want to use
one to communicate with other people. If we do not put our efforts
into making the Net easier to use for adults and providing children
with an education that gives them the skills and interests to
use the Net, then the cost of Internet access will be irrelevant.
The question of education brings us to the second point: Will
the Net be used for entertainment or substance? Much of this depends
on whether we use the Net as a broadcast medium or a many-to-many
medium. As a broadcast medium, the Net will devolve into entertainment
-- citizens passively receiving information with no opportunity
for engagement, discussion, interaction, or development. As a
many-to-many medium, the Net has the prospect of fostering community,
education, involvement, and relationship. Think of the difference
between the telephone and the television. The telephone is largely
substantive because it is interactive; the television is largely
entertaining because it is one-directional. The Net can be used
either way. How we use it will determine how it affects us.
[Related links regarding Internet Demographics ]
A question from David Sudmeier of Seattle, WA:
I wonder what sort of "change of focus" is necessary
to make political Web pages truly interactive? Is the power of
community in a Web page strong enough to become a major influence
on voting? It seems to me that the sort of interaction Mr. Bonchek
refers to occurs rarely. I'm interested in finding out if Mr.
Bonchek knows of research that speaks to this issue.
Mark Bonchek responds:
There are two issues here. The first is whether the Web can be
made interactive. The second is whether interactivity can influence
The Web is not very interactive because of its current level of
technology. Most Web pages simply display information or provide
a means for people to send electronic mail. What is needed is
for Web pages to become more dynamic and interactive -- closer
to electronic mail or chat rooms. The experiments with Web chat
and groupware are a step in the right direction. The introduction
of features such as frames and Java scripts into Web browsers
should also help. Users could have a few threads of a discussion
going simultaneously and incorporate applets that update the pages,
bring in related materials, and add to the conversation automatically.
In general, technological developments should enable the merging
of chat rooms and newsgroups, which are more interactive, into
Web-based multi-media collaborative applications.
The change of focus necessary is for Web designers to get out
of the broadcast model of thinking that has dominated our culture
for centuries due to the dominance of print, television, and radio
as our primary communication media. The Net is a many-to-many
medium, allowing messages to be shared among groups of people,
rather than broadcast from a single point to a mass audience.
So the sort of collaborative, community-building interaction that
I am advocating will occur through a combination of technological
change and paradigmatic shift in thinking. We need to stop thinking
about how to deliver messages to target audiences, and start thinking
about how to create shared meaning through networks of relationship.
The shift in thinking will take longer than the technological
change, but eventually it will all come together.
As far as research goes, I have done some work on the use of grassroots
organizations for political activity. Most of the successful uses
of the Net are through electronic mail because it is low cost,
interactive, and has the ability to "come to you" as
opposed to you having to "go to it." There is also some
work in the field community networking. Unfortunately, research
on the impact of the Internet on political participation is still
in its infancy.
[Related links on computer-mediated-communication, community networking,
and political participation.]
A question from Margaret Friedenberg of Richmond, VA:
Can Senator Bob Dole sue anyone for the Web site that is a parody
of his campaign, (http://www.dole96.org)? How can he trace the
author of the "fake" Dole pages?
Mark Bonchek responds:
I am not a legal expert, so I can't really speak to how the rules
of slander and libel are being applied to cyberspace. I do know
that many people are working on this (see below).
To trace the author of the "fake" pages, you could contact
the organization that registers Internet domain names to determine
who is responsible for the server that is serving the files. If
the server owner is not the author of the pages, you would have
to convince the person or organization to reveal their identity.
In general, this problem of authorship reveals the challenges
of a world based, in Negroponte's distinction, on atoms instead
of bits. In cyberspace, there is no 'there' there. No geography
or physicality. Location therefore has a different meaning than
we are accustomed to. What does it mean to be an author in cyberspace?
What does it mean to "trace authorship?" Our whole conception
of identity and anonymity are likely to change as we move online.
[Related links on civil liberties (EFF
and CDT) and online identity.]
A question from Bobbie Saunders of Baco Raton, FLA:
Does easy access to transcripts make politicians more vulnerable
to attack? For example, The White House Web site publishes Clinton's
speeches just hours after the words come out of his mouth. The
Republicans are said to be scrutinizing Clinton's words for possible
contradictions and mistakes.
Pat Buchanan seems to have figured this out. It appears he's practicing
a secret strike strategy by going on radio talk shows unannounced
- so that his words cannot be collected and analyzed. Will this
trend continue with other politicians?
Mark Bonchek responds:
One effect of the Internet is to reduce the cost of archiving.
Information can be easily stored in digital form and easily retrieved
afterwards. Easy access to transcripts therefore does make politicians
more vulnerable to attack. At the same time, it makes it easier
for politicians to keep track of what they have said in the past
to ensure consistency and to marshal information in their defense.
Pat Buchanan's policy is likely to be short-lived. Eventually
most radio stations will be carried or available online so that
collection and analysis will be possible regardless. I am not
sure that Buchanan's strategy is entirely due to his desire to
avoid subsequent analysis. By appearing unannounced on stations
known to have a friendly audience, Buchanan reduces his chances
of having the telephone lines besieged by callers who oppose him,
thereby reducing the effectiveness of his appearance.
[Related links on radio stations and other media .]
A question from Betty Shevitz of Potomac, MD:
How successful can campaigning on the net be, if Phil Gramm -
who had the best Web site of all the candidates - ended up doing
Mark Bonchek responds:
First, the quality of how a medium is used is only partially related
to electoral success. Forbes spent millions on television air
time, which is known to influence voters, and he still has not
been successful. Politics will continue to be politics even in
a world of cyber-campaigning -- if you don't have the right things
to say, and you don't say them to the right people in a way that
they want to hear them, you won't win. Retail politics won't die.
Face-to-face interactions won't disappear. What Gramm and Forbes
were missing was enough of the good ol'-fashioned network of volunteers
and supporters on the ground ringing doorbells, registering voters,
and handing out leaflets.
The best use of the Web is to organize traditional campaign activities,
not to try to replace them. As long as the Net is an elite medium
(see question #1) in which Net users are more politically active
than non-users, the Net should be used to organize and mobilize
political activists who then use traditional approaches to organize
and mobilize voters. When candidates figure out how to use the
Net to make their existing campaign strategies more effective,
rather than to try to map their existing strategies onto the Web,
they will be successful.
A question from Susan Minogue of Montreal, Canada:
What would motivate a candidate to make a Web page interactive
when so few people can actually access the Internet?
Mark Bonchek responds:
Continuing the line of thought from the previous question, the
incentive is to use the Net as a way of reaching people off the
Net. I imagine that everyone reading this Web page has shared
information obtained on the Net with people who do not have Internet
access. There is therefore a two-step flow of information. Information
moves from a source to a group of Net users, who then pass the
information along to people off the Net. Interactivity can improve
the ability and appeal of a Web page to involve political activists
in the first stage such that they pass the information along to
people off the Net. This approach takes advantage of the current
nature of the Internet as an elite medium rather than resisting
or ignoring it.
Mark S. Bonchek
MIT Political Participation Project