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Wired for Politics? Researchers Examine Internet's Impact

Date: March 3, 2000
By: Carey Hoffman
Phone: (513) 556-1825
Photo by: Colleen Kelley
Archive: Research News

There's a specific reason quotation marks were used in the title of Michael Margolis and David Resnick's new book, Politics as Usual: The Cyberspace "Revolution."

image of authors

No one can be quite sure it is a revolution. Undeniably, the Internet has had a tremendous impact upon society. But Margolis and Resnick, both on UC's political science faculty, think the long-run verdict on the Internet may be less a revolution and more comparable to that of other mass media, such as radio and television.

"Each medium as it came into society was going to remake things," said Margolis. "Television was going to bring culture. People were saying it was going to bring ballet to a mass audience," added Resnick. "But it only works if it reflects the mass interests of its audience."

And what Margolis and Resnick found was that most people aren't interested in using the Internet to change the world. They prefer to use it as consumers looking for entertainment, information and opportunities to socialize.

"Our conclusion is that the world has changed the Internet much more than the Internet has changed the world," Resnick said. Their book, part of Sage Publications' Contemporary American Politics series, takes a broad view of all political aspects of the Internet. In addition to examining the Internet's impact on politics and campaigning, the authors also tackle topics such as the political implications of regulation of the Internet (e.g. the current debate over taxing e-commerce), and the Internet's impact upon the way governments and citizens relate to each other.

With presidential campaigns in full swing right now, both authors are naturally paying close attention to how the Internet is being employed. What they've found doesn't veer far from other recent campaigns they've studied - established political forces continue to dominate, even while absorbing the Web into their efforts.

"Even taking the (John) McCain rebellion, you are still within the Republican party," Margolis said. "But there are advantages to be taken advantage of. Campaigns can save considerable communication costs and they can use the Internet for organization. Jesse Ventura's campaign (for Minnesota governor) was very successful in organizing and moving people around with the Internet, so that's a success story."

Much has been made of McCain using the Internet to raise between $4-5 million for his campaign. Ironically, though, Resnick points out: "What's he spending that money on? Traditional media buys." McCain's fund raising is showing one variation on Internet use the authors find interesting. Prior to his campaign catching fire in January, only 30-35 percent of McCain's campaign contributions had come in gifts of $1,000 or more, compared with percentages in the 60s for the other three main presidential contenders. About 30 percent of McCain's total came in amounts of $200 or less. "The point is, political fund-raising on the Internet does facilitate small contributors, if you decide to go after them," Margolis said.

Beyond politics, accessing government services is one area where the Internet is having an impact.

Government agencies have moved into the business of setting up their own web sites. Common transactions like license renewals have been made simpler for everyone involved. The Internet is also an effective avenue for citizens to request government services. "To the extent that citizens are clients of government, this is like what has happened with the business world," Resnick said.

The big question still developing for governments is regulation of the web. "If you really want to see the future of the Internet, you have to go offline and see the regulation going on behind the Internet," Resnick said. The authors compare this stage of development to the Old West, where people were moving into a frontier and starting to ponder where they would turn for services for their new lives.

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