Associate Professor of Political Science and Communication at UC Santa Barbara
Research Sample: Excerpt from “The Internet and Political Fragmentation” (paper prepared for presentation at the “Democracy in the 21st Century” conference, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaigne, October 24-26, 2004, and revised for forthcoming publication)…With this relationship in mind it is possible to examine the effects of the Internet on political fragmentation. As we saw above, the Internet has been viewed almost exclusively as a development that has contributed to political fragmentation. For instance, Galston’s (1999, 2003) argument about voluntary community and homogeneity of communication online expresses a concern about the effects of Internet communication in the lower left cell of Table 1.
A Two-Dimensional Classification of Political Communication
Sunstein’s (2001) argument about the effects of personalized news, on the other hand, is a concern chiefly with the lower right cell. Both these claims are theoretically consistent with the model, since the Galston argument involves decentralized, within-group communication, while the Sunstein argument involves centralized, within-group communication.
The thrust of these criticisms notwithstanding, it is clear from developments over the last decade that the Internet facilitates communication of many sorts. Indeed, a defining feature of the Internet as a communication medium is its relative heterogeneity. Instances of online political and civic communication can actually be found in all four cells, while communication using “old” media evidenced a narrower range — most typically confined to one of the four cells in Table 1. Without suggesting anything about what fraction of online communication falls into each category, it is useful to consider a few examples illustrating the diversity of communication facilitated by the Internet.
Upper Right Cell: Centralized, Broad Communication Online
The fact that the Internet facilitates centralized communication from elites and political organizers to large groups is often lost in observations about “narrowcasting,” peer-to-peer communication on line, and the other departures from mass communication. Yet centralized communication is very important to the Internet and related new media. The American group MoveOn is perhaps the most important illustration of centralized communication aimed across political groups. MoveOn began as a single-issue protest group opposed to the impeachment of President Clinton. In the years between Clinton’s acquittal by the Senate and 2003, it functioned as a liberal interest group pursuing several causes. By the primary season of 2003, however, it had reconfigured itself as a kind of proto-party, attracting a wide-range of members on the political left. By 2004, it had become a general-purpose anti-Bush ally of the Democratic Party and the Kerry campaign. It distributed messages across issues and various political interests to a general audience on the political left.
Attention to the Web is another example of centralized, across-group communication located in the upper right cell. Despite the concerns of Sunstein and others about the fragmentation of political attention across many web sites, empirical research is beginning to show very high levels of audience concentration online. Johnson (2001) measures audience concentration across all web sites and estimates the collective audience of the top ten sites to be about an order of magnitude larger than the audience of the next hundred web sites together. Hindman, Tsioutsiouliklisz, and Johnson (2003) examine a variety of political sites and find that audience concentration at the top political websites rivals audience concentration in traditional media. Studies of online news audiences have reported roughly the same thing (Hamilton 2004; Tewksbury 2003).
The currently most compelling explanation for these high levels of concentration online comes from mathematical modeling of growth phenomena and the study of distributions of size and scale in various physical and human systems. Barabasi (2003) and others show that, like certain physical phenomena, the web exhibits properties of a scale-free network in which “naturally” occurring distributions follow an exponential (power law) distribution rather than a normal distribution. Thus, whatever its possibilities for narrow, within-group communication, the Internet clearly facilitates large-scale, across-group communication from centralized sources.
Lower Right Cell: Centralized, Narrow Communication Online
Centralized communication online also targets narrower audiences, as Sunstein argues. Specialized news and information sites, electronic newsletters, and issue-specific blogs address a wide array of bounded groups defined by particularized concerns, identities, or interests. Moreover, m any traditional interest groups seeking to identify and interact with more specialized audiences have found the Internet to be a congenial medium. Environmental groups constitute just one prominent example. After a period of stagnating and declining membership, the capacity of a number of American groups to attract and mobilize citizens was reinvigorated in the late 1990s and early 2000’s by new technologies interacting with political developments (Bimber 2003). As a result, environmental groups across the board reported increases in the number of citizens whom they contact and are able to mobilize. New media have permitted these organizations to take an already specialized group — environmentalists — and communicate with them at even finer-grained detail.
Thus, as a result of new media developments, some national organizations can operate as a federation of local and regional groups with particularized interests (Bimber, 2003). This represents a substantial advance over traditional interest-group mobilization tactics in which entire memberships of groups were targeted by mass mail appeals on issues of importance to the leadership. Sources of communication like interest groups and specialized news and information clearinghouses populate the lower-right cell of the communication matrix: centralized, within-group communication.
Upper Left Cell: Decentralized, Broad Communication Online
At the same time political elites are employing technology to sub-divide groups and constituencies into ever-smaller units, they are also using new communication techniques to assemble large-scale coalitions composed of diverse groups. The 1999 Million Mom March is a good example of this phenomenon. The March was, by several credible accounts, the largest gun-control rally in American history. It was organized initially online by volunteers and then eventually through traditional media (Bimber, 2003). Its participants were women of a variety of backgrounds, but the vast majority had not previously been members of traditional gun-control groups. Its organizers were successful at advancing a very broad frame for gun-control policy, namely maternal protection of families and children. This was the kind of breadth more traditionally associated with party-level coalitions, and the March illustrates how the Internet can be used to foster political integration.
Other examples of more novel, cross-cleavage communication fostered by the Internet are also available. So-called “social software” is designed to help people find like-minded others and develop useful interaction of a commercial, social, educational, or recreational nature. Much social software promotes within-group communication, by design. But interesting examples are available that promote across-group communication. One is Care2Connect, a sophisticated online effort designed to coordinate people’s involvement in a variety of causes. More a database than an organization, it provides a way for people to register their interests and formal group memberships across a variety of traditional organizations, as well as technological means for creating new groups. Care2Connect uses the profile it develops of a citizen’s entire range of interests and group memberships to identify other citizens with overlapping interests and identifications. It then uses this information to promote communication and interaction among citizens. Like broad-based coalitions that form at the organizational level, these groups engage in decentralized, cross-group communication.
Lower Left Cell: Decentralized, Narrow Communication
The lower left cell of Table 1 is the locus of much concern about political fragmentation online, such as that voiced by Galston. Decentralized, with-cleavage communication has probably received more attention from journalists and scholars than is warranted, but clearly many examples of decentralized, within-group communication facilitated by the Internet exist. These include narrowly focused groups assembled in chat rooms, bulletin boards, and other interactive domains online too numerous to count. As of this writing, a Google Group discussing education in Alabama had over 5,000 “threads” or discussion topics; a group on atheism had over 16,000 and a euthanasia group 13,000. The ubiquity of these groups notwithstanding, many questions remain about their effect on political fragmentation. Many people’s contributions to these online discussions are manifestly not serious. But the larger observation stands. As forums for political conversation and identity building, much decentralized online communication is indeed potentially limited to narrow, like-minded groups of individuals…
Two-Dimensional Classification of Online Communication