The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Morgan Shiver, Contributor • June 20, 2024
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Students forgo politics online

For many SMU students, next Tuesday will be their first chance to vote in a presidential election. In the same way that the first televised presidential debates of 1960 forever changed the way elections are covered, the Internet has become a hot bed of political information and opinion.

Youth are leading the online political movement, and the way they use the Internet this year to vote will shape their habits for future elections. Advertising students Rennie Gibb, Krishna Parmar, and myself developed a study to investigate the habits of several politically minded SMU students.

We tracked students who were heavy users of political sites and specifically how these politicos would cope without access to all election-related blogs and news websites. As students in Dr. Alice Kendrick’s Advertising Research class, we asked seven students to participate in our “Deprivation Project” and go without any online political information for five days in mid-October-during election crunch time.

We faced a methodological dilemma as we initially asked online political junkies to agree to two full weeks of online deprivation. That proved to be too much to ask so close to election day, so we lowered the deprivation period to five days.

Participants were female and male undergraduate SMU students of varying political opinions and background, but all defined themselves as heavy online users, averaging more than six daily visits to the political realm of the Internet.

During the deprivation period they were allowed to watch television, read newspapers, and listen to the radio, but they could not go to any newspaper, television network, or candidate websites, political blogs, candidate “fan pages” on Facebook, online publications such as “Huffington Post” or read E-mails about the election.

Prior to the study, participants indicated that they felt they were more “informed” than non-online users. One said he felt this way because of the “vast amount of information online-quick to access, easy to sort through. There is opinion — more so than in traditional media — of every imaginable angle in this election.”

Throughout the week we asked them questions, many of which centered on the issue of feeling “informed.” As the week went on, their perceived level of election knowledge “slid.” Most participants reported having urges to access political information numerous times throughout the day and said they experienced feelings of loss as well as frustration at their restrictions.

We found it interesting that few of our participants turned to television, newspaper or radio coverage to compensate for lack of online access. Instead they chose to go basically without political coverage for most of the five-day period, or they queried friends or family for “the scoop.”

Convenience was the main reason cited for not turning to traditional media. Participants said they experienced “cravings” to visit their favorite blogs during class, work and in between studying, but that television and newspapers were not readily available and would prove too time-consuming.

The second reason they did not substitute was the belief that traditional media would not fully satisfy their political cravings. They described their ability online to seek out coverage on specific issues and to compare differing opinions side-by-side with the click of a mouse.

Those who claimed loyalty to specific blogs and publications whose style and opinion they appreciated said that most other media would not be able to fill their customized media void.

As one participant said mid-study, “I’m just feeling frustrated that I can’t see things online because its harder to cross check information on TV. They rarely are talking about the same things and oftentimes are talking about irrelevant things I don’t care about.”

We realize that if we had studied them for a longer period, as first planned, they might have been more likely to turn to other sources over time rather than go without political coverage altogether.

Most of the seven participants felt that they were typical of many time-strapped students who seek the convenience of technology for political information.

“I feel that most people my age are busy like me, and most may not keep up with the election at all because it is not convenient. The Internet is really the quickest and best way to get information and if they are not using it to read about politics, they probably don’t really keep up at all,” said one.

Use of the Internet by political candidates, journalists, bloggers and the general public has escalated during this presidential election. Internet politics is dependent on the participation of many.

With online forums, blogs, Facebook and MySpace, anyone with an Internet connection has the opportunity to share an opinion, which gives supporters a new way to assist their candidates. For college students with limited funds, they can show support for their pick by letting all 500 of their Facebook friends know who they are supporting, and why, without having to open a checkbook.

Both presidential candidates have realized that this online support is nearly as important in their campaign as adding zeros to the end of their campaign budget. And both presidential candidates are reportedly using sophisticated targeting techniques for their Internet advertising, serving tailored ads to prospective voters based on their online behavior.

It was interesting that our participants perceive themselves as better informed than non-online users based on the sheer amount and variety of information online. They are undoubtedly drawing from a much wider pool of data and opinion than has been previously available.

However, issues have been raised about the accuracy and reliability of Internet political sources. Since anyone can post online, a type of “flattening” of political coverage has been noted in which a media institution such as The New York Times shares a similar space as an individual with a blog.

Will this generation of first-time voters be persuaded by “Obama Girl” (a homemade music video that garnered over 10 million views on YouTube), or by coverage in traditional news media? Most likely a combination of sources will be used, which will develop a new kind of voter with a different perspective on the election than previous generations.

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