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Internet And Democracy Essay Research Paper IF

Internet And Democracy Essay, Research Paper

IF THE UNSUBSTANTIAL sound bite is the shame of televised

election coverage, then information overload is the parallel pitfall on

the Internet.

After spending one interminable day in October reviewing Web

coverage of the presidential campaign, I can verify that the online

universe is indeed infinite, and that politics, not pornography,

seemed the most prolific theme.

Stunned by thousands of news articles, background pieces,

surveys, discussion forums, transcripts and commentary, this

human brain nearly screamed for spoon-fed mush. Election sections

on most of the major news sites were so enormous that a person

couldn’t possibly process all the sections and subsections and

sub-subsections. About 20 percent of the stuff seemed digestible; the

rest was far more than the average visitor would care to chew.

But that’s the nature of the Internet, isn’t it? Throw enough stuff

at the wall, and most of it will be used by someone. Let folks pick and

choose their news. If nothing else, all the fodder provided a number of

ready-made high school civics reports and fed the repurposing

requirements of fellow reporters.

And why not? Airtime and column inches don’t exist on the

Internet. There’s no need to decide between an interview with a

candidate’s grade school sweetheart, a 5,000-word analysis of his

position on health care or a comparison of campaign platforms. You

can do all of that and more.

This is a good thing, isn’t it? Yes. As long as an organization has the

resources and vision to distinguish its core coverage from the

ornaments that surround it.

Along those lines, cheers to all of the major news sites for their

efforts at live speech and debate coverage, solid election news and

voting resources.

Nearly every news organization with access to live video streamed

it quite successfully during the debates and provided cataloged

archives for future reference (abcNEWS.com even offered a stream

in Spanish). Nearly live text transcripts were also available on most


The innovation award goes to Web White & Blue 2000

(www.webwhiteblue.org). Sponsored by the Markle Foundation, the

project was a consortium of 17 major Internet sites and news

organizations from AOL and Yahoo to MTV and MSNBC. Each day the

presidential candidates or their surrogates would respond to a

question submitted by a visitor at one of the partner sites. The

answers and rebuttals could come in any format and were unlimited

in length.

Not only did the Al Gore and George W. Bush campaigns respond

regularly, but also the Reform Party’s Pat Buchanan, Libertarian

Harry Browne, Natural Law candidate John Hagelin and the

Constitution Party’s Howard Phillips. Only Ralph Nader declined to


Contrast those home runs with the controversial morning-after

polls that asked visitors to choose the “winner” of each televised


A full day after the third debate, abcNEWS.com’s poll showed more

than 83,000 responses and MSNBC.com’s registered more than

52,000–a much larger sample size than those used by scientific

pollsters. The trouble is that the online polls (to recall an old rant)

can be terrifically inaccurate.

Both surveys showed Bush as the victor with about 60 percent of

the votes, and Gore in the upper 30s. Meanwhile the polls conducted

by research firms like Gallup reported a dead heat.

The discrepancy was explained by two factors: Republicans

outnumber Democrats on the Internet, and Republican National

Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson mounted a preemptive

survey-stuffing campaign, according to reports on abcNEWS.com

and CNET. Both sites clearly noted that their surveys were not

scientific. Still, presenting them in the context of news coverage

could be misleading to viewers not aware of the differences between

scientific polls meant to give an accurate snapshot of viewer response

and random surveys.

Less controversial was the commentary and pseudo-news, like the

“fact-checking” features that were all the rage during the debates.

The trend started with the Bush and Gore campaigns, which

launched competing Web sites, then seeped into the mainstream


Washingtonpost.com’s “On Politics” section featured a segment

called “Debate Referee.” Click on the referee and a commentary

window pops up to cut through the debate rhetoric.

The 2000 presidential election shows that the Internet has the

potential to make debates and campaigns much more substantive. It

also has the potential to paralyze, confuse and overwhelm. But the

game is not really hit-or-miss anymore. As we learn what sticks and

what doesn’t, we should anticipate a more digestible election spread

the next time around.


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