Thursday, December 27, 2007

No Virtuous Circle?

The idea of a virtuous circle is that people who regularly watch, read, or seek out news typically have higher levels of trust and participation, even when you control for all those annoying demographic factors. It's a great idea.

In Finland, at least, it doesn't work that way. Or so says one study.

People who use traditional information channels and the Internet form an information-rich group of citizens. Fairly young, more often voting, and in some ways living the so-called virtuous circle. The authors find the Net limited in its capacity to enhance knowledge, but they do raise what I've always thought an interesting point, the idea of Internet Participation.

This is not the purpose of their study, but there is growing thought that young people see "participation" in a different way than their elders. In the traditional sense, participation is voting, it's attending a meeting or rally, it's wearing a campaign button or sticking one of those stupid bumperstickers on your car. Participation by doing. For younger people, chatting online or uploading stuff count as participation, even if virtual. They are not physically doing something (other than clicking and typing), but in their minds, they have participated.

Thus a disconnect between some of the questions we ask in research and the way young people understand participation. This is not unlike the tension between how we measure political knowledge and the way people think about political knowledge.

The authors finish with an interesting line:

According to the results in this article, virtula citizenry per se
is by no means less sophisticated politically than offline citizenry.

Interesting stuff, but I suppose no longer surprising given the diffusion of Internet accessibility.

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