Wednesday, November 30, 2005


RESEARCH: Youth using Internet to engage in civic affairs, Wisconsin study finds


SOURCE: Univ. of Wisconsin news release

Youth log online for civic engagement
November 29, 2005

By Dennis Chaptman

Use of the Internet as a resource and a forum strongly influences participation in civic affairs, often more than traditional media and even face-to-face communication, according to a study by a UW-Madison
journalism professor.

The study by Dhavan Shah, published in the October edition of the journal Communication Research, analyzes data from surveys conducted during and after the 2000 presidential election and concludes that the Internet can rival the effects of newspapers in spurring citizens to action.

That is a significant finding, since Internet use tends to be more prevalent among young people - a wired generation often assumed to be disconnected from civic life.

"One hopeful piece of news from this is that young people are taking advantage of the Internet in a way that may be a sign of civic renewal," Shah says. "Everything points to the idea that this may be an important pathway to the involvement of young people in civic life."

Shah says his study illustrates how the Internet can be a potent tool not just for community organizers, but in promoting the long-term health of democracy itself.

"The Internet is something that tends to involve those who are least inclined to be public-spirited - if they use the Internet in certain ways - to become very public spirited and very civically engaged," he adds.

The study's conclusions are also significant because they show the potential for the Internet to be a dynamic, interactive medium able to build citizen participation in public life. Although some scholars have criticized online communication as eroding social connections and encouraging people to withdraw instead of become engaged, Shah's study found that certain uses of the Internet can actually heighten civic participation.

"Although this analysis cannot vindicate the Internet as a cause of social withdrawal, it certainly suggests that when two of the most popular uses of the Internet - browsing and e-mailing - are used to gain information and express opinions about public affairs, they have substantial potential to affect the health of a civil society," the study found.

That potential has likely increased since the surveys were conducted, with the rise of online phenomena such as blogging, says Shah, who plans to expand on the study by analyzing data from the 2004 elections - in conjunction with political advertising data developed by the Wisconsin Advertising Project.

The strong correlation between using the Internet as a tool of political expression and engagement in public life underscore its potential to enable civic participation without the traditional limitations of face-to-face communication, Shah says. Additionally, the study concluded that television news - despite claims that the entire medium has a demobilizing effect - has some positive, indirect effects on triggering civic participation.

The study also found that both online and offline information gathering culminates in civic participation. That tends to discount earlier theories that there are two distinct pathways to civic participation - one online and the other offline - and that political uses of the Internet dampen civic action and often lead to a dead end.

Shah says that future research needs to probe how people use various media over time, instead of concentrating on how much they use them, when studying their effects on civic activism.

© 2005 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System

Dhavan V. Shah is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he teaches and studies political and strategic communication. He is faculty in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and affiliated
faculity in the Department of Political Science. His research concerns the social psychology of media effects with particular attention to communication influences on political judgment, public opinion, and civic participation. To date, he has authored nearly 50 journal articles and book chapters.

DHAVAN V. SHAH, Professor
School of Journalism & Mass Communication
Department of Political Science
University of Wisconsin-Madison
5162 Vilas Communication Hall
821 University Avenue
Madison,WI 53706-1497
Phone: (608) 262-0388
Fax: (608) 262-1361


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