closedistances (closedistances) wrote in cmanthropology,

Is the Internet Liberal or Conservative?

Can the Internet be described as either predominantly liberal or conservative? Scholars and pundits have weighed in on this question, sometimes coming to opposite conclusions.

Different surveys have painted differing pictures of political ideology among Internet users. Citing large-scale surveys from 2000 and 2002, Hindman finds significant differences between the Internet-usage of liberals and conservatives: “Liberals seem to dominate the audience for politics online. Across a wide range of politically relevant activities, from gathering news online to visiting government Web sites, liberals outpace conservatives by a wide margin” (Hindman 2005: 179). On the other hand, Bimber and Davis (2003: 106) found, according to their surveys, that the political orientation of people visiting campaign websites in 2000 was 31% liberal, 27% moderate, and 41% conservative, and the party identification of those surveyed was 47% Republican, 45% Democrat, and 8% Independent. In studying Usenet political groups, Davis looked at the political ideology of the groups that posters subscribed to, and found “the vast majority belonged to groups on the ideological right. This was true across all groups analyzed… which suggests Usenet posters likely are more right-wing ideologically than the general public” (Davis 1999: 155-6). Providing an explanation for these apparent contradictions, Hill and Hughes write:
We started with the research question, How does the Internet affect politics? We then proposed three hypothetical answers to this question. First, we thought that the Internet would be dominanted by Republicans, conservatives, and libertarians. As shown in chapter 2, Internet activists as a group are actually more Democratic and liberal than the public at large. If we had stopped with this analysis of the demographic and political profiles of Net users in general, we may well have abandoned the hypothesis that the Internet is conservative, Republican and libertarian. But chapters 3, 5, and 6 demonstrated that the actual content of the Usenet newsgroups, chat rooms, and the World Wide Web’s political areas is in fact dominated by conservative ideas. We have an apparent contradiction here: if the bulk of Internet activists are Democrats and liberals, how in the world can the Net’s major venues be dominated by conservatives? After all, aren’t these liberal, libertarian, and Democratic activists the very people posting messages, engaging in chats, and creating Web sites? Yes and no…. we strongly believe that based on our empirical evidence, politics on the Internet is dominated by a relatively small, though vociferous and technologically savvy, conservative minority. While Internet activists as a group may not be overwhelmingly conservative, a conservative subset of those people is very active posting messages, engaging in political chats, and creating Web pages. [Hill and Hughes 1998: 179-80]


Arguing conservative dominance across all forms of media including the Internet, Alterman makes the following claim: “While the Internet has enormous value for more reasons and purposes than can be profitably counted… for political purposes it turns out to have a great deal in common with radio. Not unlike the way in which the irresponsible right-wing talk-show network forms its own self-referential information circuit, ‘news’ on the Net is passed along from one site to another with little concern for credibility. Also like radio, this tactic of combining the verifiable with a metaphorical microphone has been perfected by the far right to create a doubly deceitful dynamic of ideological extremism, false information, and accusation against which truth—and liberalism—have little chance to compete” (Alterman 2003: 75). He points to specific websites as evidence of conservative dominance: “Web sites like Drudge Report, NewsMax.com, WorldNetDaily.com, FreeRepublic.com, Townhall.com, Lucianne.com, JewishWorldReview.com, and National Review Online boast regular readers in the millions. What’s more, they are dedicated readers and in many cases…so far to the right as to tend toward outer space” (Alterman 2003: 75-6). He does point out that “Liberals, of course, have their own sites, and some generate a great deal of traffic. But the best known, Salon.con and Slate.com, are run by journalists, not activists” (Alterman 2003: 76). Looking more specifically at the conservative website FreeRepublic.com, he points out that “the average ‘Freeper’ Web visit lasts an amazing five hours and fourteen minutes. It’s not a hobby for these people, it’s a life.” (Alterman 2003: 76). There is some countervailing evidence against these claims of conservative dominance, however. For instance, liberals have sought to create their own “self-referential information circuit” called the Media Consortium (Clark and Van Slyke 2006). While the Media Consortium still appears to be a work in progress, partisanship can be seen in the blogosphere (Adamic 2005), book purchases (Krebs 2004, 2006), and news audiences (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2004), suggesting “self-referential information circuits” are already in place. In addition, while Alterman claims liberal are lacking in popular, activist websites, according to Alexa’s list of the most popular activism websites, there is no clear conservative dominance in this area:
1. Independent Media Center - news
www.indymedia.org - Site info

2. Free Republic
www.freerepublic.com - Site info

3. BugMeNot.com
bugmenot.com - Site info

4. The Petition Site
www.thepetitionsite.com - Site info

5. The Association for Progressive Communications (APC)
www.apc.org - Site info

6. ZNet
www.zmag.org - Site info

7. NewsBusters.org
newsbusters.org - Site info

8. Democracy Now!
www.democracynow.org - Site info

9. Global Voices Online
www.globalvoicesonline.org - Site info

10. Speakupwny.com
www.speakupwny.com - Site info [Alexia Internet Inc. 2007]


Clearly, some very different conclusions about the prevalent political ideologies of Internet users can be drawn depending on which political activities we look at. Are we considering reading political news online, visiting campaign or government websites, self-identification with a political party or ideology, participating in online political discussions, donating to political organizations, or using the Internet to organize political meetings offline? In addition, the use of simple binary categories of party and/or political ideology may mask important differences in cultural beliefs, as Segal and Handler point out in their article on the alleged bias in academia:
Reports that squeeze the range of political views in academia into the Democratic/ Republican binary collapse a range of political differences that is in fact broader than that present in any other major institution or sector of US society. Consider that within our secular colleges and universities alone, one typically finds an identifiable minority of “conservatives” (notably free-market economists and foreign policy hawks), a large glut of “liberals” (many “classical,” some “neo-”), and yet another minority of “leftists.” The complexity and range of this ideological field is obscured, however, when it is reduced to the question of which of the two mainstream political parties garners the most faculty support. [Segal and Handler 2005: 5]

Therefore, in order to claim either liberal or conservative dominance online, we must not only operationalize what practices constitute this dominance, but also describe the cultural homogeneity/heterogeneity of those within these categories. To a large extent, online social networks and have been forming around these emic categories of political identity, with liberal and conservative groups often forming “nodes within the broader party networks” (Skinner 2005: 1). Which “liberals” and which “conservatives” are being overrepresented and underrepresented within these networks? How can we describe the complex network of political actors and their negotiations of these political identities? Arturo Escobar, in his discussion of biodiversity discourses, states: “As they circulate through the network, truths are transformed and re-inscribed into other knowledge-power constellations. They are alternatively resisted, subverted, or recreated to serve other ends, for instance, by social movements, that became, themselves, the sites of important counterdiscourses” (Escobar 1998: 56). We may similarly ask: how are political discourses transformed as they travel through the “broader party networks”? Answering these questions should give a more nuanced view than simply claiming liberal or conservative dominance of the Internet.

References:

Adamic, Lada
2005 The Political Blogosphere and the 2004 U.S. Election: Divided They Blog. Electronic document, http://www.blogpulse.com/papers/2005/AdamicGlanceBlogWWW.pdf, accessed February 1, 2007.

Alexia Internet Inc.
2007. Alexia – Browse: Activism. Electronic document, http://www.alexa.com/browse?&CategoryID=361, accessed February 1, 2007.

Alterman, Eric
2003 What Liberal Media?: The Truth About Bias and the News. New York: Basic Books.

Clark, Jessica, and Tracy Van Slyke
2006 The Emerging Progressive Media Network 2006: In These Times. Electronic document, http://inthesetimes.com/site/multimedia/mediamap/, accessed December 8, 2006.

Davis, Richard
1999 The Web of Politics: The Internet’s Impact on the American Political System. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Escobar, Arturo
1998 "Whose Knowledge, Whose Nature?: Biodiversity, Conservation, and the Political Ecology of Social Movement". Journal of Political Ecology 5:53-82.

Hill, Kevin A. and John E. Hughes
1998 Cyberpolitics: Citizen Activism in the Age of the Internet. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Hindman, Matthew Scott
2005 Voice, equality, and the Internet (Howard Dean). Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Politics, Princeton University.

Krebs, Valdis
2004 Political Patterns on the WWW -- Divided We Stand. Electronic document, http://www.orgnet.com/divided2.html, accessed February 1, 2007.
2006 Political Books and Polarized Readers. Electronic document, http://www.orgnet.com/divided.html, February 1, 2007.

Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, The
2004 News Audiences Increasingly Politicized. Electronic document, http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=215, accessed December 24, 2006.

Segal, Daniel and Richard Handler
2005 Republicans, Democrats, Anthropologists and Others. Anthropology News 46(2 Feb.): 4-5.

Skinner, Richard M.
2005 Do 527's Add Up to a Party? Thinking About the "Shadows" of Politics. The Forum 3(3):Article 5.
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