There has been much discussion of online political phenomena such as Howard Dean’s campaign for the Democratic nomination. Much was made of Dean’s “Deaniacs” who formed a massive popular base of support for their ultimately unsuccessful candidate. However there has been little detailed analysis of what role the Internet might play in a grassroots unit of political activity. In the United Kingdom this local unit is usually a local or constituency party. The “Deaniacs” helped to create a hope that grassroots politics might be rejuvenated through the use of the Internet. There is much talk in the Western world of ‘apathy’ in politics, hence the need for rejuvenation. Certainly the UK has seen a marked decline in membership of political parties from the early 90s. This is in clear contrast to many issue-based groups who have been steadily growing their memberships.
Political parties are keen to use the Internet to recruit new members, retain existing members and enhance the capabilities of their activists. The US military talk about technology being a ‘force multiplier’ which enhances the impact each of their soldiers have. Parties have a similar viewpoint, technology allows them to do more with less.
This paper summarises the findings of a detailed survey conducted in 2003 of a local party’s membership. It is hoped that some of the findings can inform not just political users of the Internet but all those charged with building and sustaining online communities.
Internet users in the local party examined were demographically different to the average British Internet user. The majority of party members had been using the Internet for much longer than the average user with a third having been online more than 6 years. Two-thirds of members surveyed accessed the Internet at least once a day. This access was primarily from home with the workplace being the second most-likely location.
There remained a bias towards party member Internet users being male, just as with the average British Internet user. Similarly online party members were skewed towards higher incomes when compared with the average party member.
Nearly half of the members surveyed used a dial-up modem to access the Internet while a quarter had broadband access. How they used this access was of particular interest. Members were asked which political activities they had performed online and which they had performed offline. With the exception of signing petitions every other activity was predominantly conducted online. Of particular note was a huge preference for receiving news bulletins through email rather than in a print format. This was reinforced when members reported that their preferred online service from their party was receiving minutes of meetings electronically.
The final finding of note was when members were asked to record their interactions with issue-groups such as Oxfam or Greenpeace. Members were asked to note if they were members of the group, active in the group and/or if they used any of the group’s online services. It was found that using online services from a group made it no more likely that a user would become an active member. There was no link found between online activities and offline involvement. That is not to say there is no link, just none was found from the data collected.
Political parties are keen to leverage the Internet to build and enhance their network of grassroots activists. Members of local political parties tend to be heavy, long-term Internet users. However they mostly still connect through dial-up modems and so rich interactive online media will only reach a small portion of party members. There is a huge preference for performing political activities online and news in particular is well received through email.
The findings paint a picture of a solid foundation onto which low-bandwidth but highly functional political applications can be built. Party members want to be kept up-to-date electronically and they want to be political online. The challenge is now for the parties and their advisors to respond to these needs.
The full research is available in ‘Click Here For Participation: The Role of the Internet in Party Political Participation’ by Jason Kitcat. It can be downloaded from here [PDF]