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From Political ‘Surf’ to Political ‘Turf’?: Developing Website Analysis to Better Understand the Internet as a Political Catalyst
Paper prepared for the 6th Annual APSA Pre-Conference on Political Communication
Old Media, New Media: Political Communication in Transition

Co-sponsored by the Political Communication Section of the American Political Science Association and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy

Harvard University

Boston, Massachusetts

August 2008

Prof. Sarah Oates

Politics Department

University of Glasgow

Glasgow G12 8RT

United Kingdom


Phone: 44-141-330-5124

Fax: 44-141-330-5071


One of the most puzzling issues to face those who study the internet and the political sphere is how online activity can translate into action in the offline world. This paper proposes a development of the Gibson and Ward model for categorizing and measuring the function of political party websites. Although the Gibson and Ward model has provided a very useful method for comparing the content of political party websites across both time and space, developments in Web design and technology call for modifications to the model. Even more importantly, it is key to develop a broader understanding of the role of the Internet not just as a data retrieval tool, but also as a new type of communication tool with functions that are distinct from other mass media. This paper discusses ways in which the Gibson and Ward scheme is still important to understanding the content of the online world. It suggests that information gathered about internet content become part of a more holistic, five-step approach to the analysis of the online impact on politics by adding four more levels of analysis: communities, catalysts, constraints, and control/cooptation. This should allow us to better define to what degree political party/candidate websites empower internet users to translate their interests into political action. This should allow us to better understand how the internet can facilitate the shift from internet content consumer, to internet content producer, and possible political involvement in the offline world.

There is an old adage that dogs and owners often start to resemble one another. In the case of the internet, it would sometimes seem that the relative chaos and lack of structure on the internet is reflected in the study of the internet itself. Several decades into the existence of the internet as an important political communication tool, it would seem that there are a dearth of useful research theories and tools with which to study this social phenomenon. This is perhaps an unfair criticism, in particular as the internet has changed and evolved at a rate that makes it difficult to describe, much less analyze. That being said, it is time for a more systematic attempt to make order out of the perceived communication ‘chaos’ online, particularly as it becomes more and more apparent that the internet can equally become a powerful tool for the development of political culture or political chaos.

The struggle to analyze the internet relates to a broader concern about understanding of the role of information in shaping society. Unfortunately, there is not a great deal to guide us firmly from the ‘classic’ literature of comparative political science and political communication that provides a definite hypothesis about the relationship among leaders, the public, and information. There is a broad rejection of the ‘propaganda’ theory that was popular in the wake of World War II, the notion that a public could be led, by clever manipulation of the media, into supporting regimes as diverse as the Soviets, the Nazis, or even a particular U.S. political party in a presidential election. Rather, studies in the second half of the 20th century (mostly in the United States) suggested that information from the mass media is tempered and filtered through the socio-economic characteristics held by individuals (Berelson et al. 1954, Campbell et al. 1960). This is turn has led to a wealth of studies that have attempted to find that elusive formula between information in the form of political marketing and the political act of voting. The ideas that have arisen suggest that the media have the power to set the agenda (Iyengar and Kinder 1987, Patterson 1994); educate us into better citizens (Norris 2000); propagate capitalism (Herman and Chomsky 2002); and alienate us from the democratic process with negative advertising (Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1995). The academic literature on voting behavior and media effects – used here as an example of one of the most energetic areas of political communication research – has never emerged with a particular model that describes the relationship between information and political action. We generally understand that people are attracted to media that support, rather than challenge, their world views. We know that media socialization occurs rather early in life, which explains why the older generation continues to favor newsprint more than their middle-aged children who prefer television or their internet-savvy grandchildren. We also know that media campaign coverage can make or break a candidate and change election results in a tight race – but it cannot change entrenched preferences on the part of the electorate in the course of one campaign.
What can we take from studies of media and political behavior to apply to the internet? For the purposes of this paper, we will consider one small aspect of the information online to conceptualize approaches to studying the internet in general. For this exercise, we will consider the attempts by political parties and candidates to attract voters online. While this is a very narrow part of the online world, it will allow for a consideration of political communication tools to analyze the internet that could be used in a range of different cases. In addition, there is a fairly well-developed literature on party websites across a number of countries thanks to political scientists such as Rachel Gibson, Stephen Ward, Wainer Lusoli, and others. As such, it is possible to analyze methodology developed over a number of years, assess the value of the research, and suggest ways to augment the existing research tools developed to dissect political party efficiency online to more wider analytical use in studying the online sphere. In particular, it would be useful to find a more generalized way to gauge how online chat can translate into offline action. Party scholars have a range of ways to measure this, from gauging how much people are willing to donate online to whether they can persuaded via online methods to attend offline events such as meetings and rallies. I am interested in attempting to use methods developed via the party website literature to look at more general radicalization online, i.e. when people may move from talking about possible dissent to participating in protest actions offline.
There is a great deal of speculation that online activity leads to real-world activity (particularly in terms of fears about terrorism) but there is actually relatively little tangible evidence. In fact, one of the most-oft cited examples is the Chiapas revolt in Mexico in the mid-1990s – now more than 10 years old. In addition, there is evidence that the internet has been important in augmenting recruitment efforts into alternative political movements, such as the international anti-globalization movement. At the same time, however, it is not really known how many people are drawn into anti-state or what could be termed anti-civil movements that promote terrorism, racial hatred, xenophobia, or other elements that could be seen as destructive to civil society. Nor is there much systematic evidence that the online information sphere is enlightening and empowering citizens. For example, despite large investment in E-governance, one could argue that British citizens are not measurably better informed or more active in their governance than in previous times. Certainly they weren’t overwhelming using the internet in the most recent parliamentary election in 2005 (Lusoli and Ward 2005). For a small number of information-hungry and politically active citizens, the internet provides a place for them to exchange information and hone their political skills, becoming what Linaa Jensen (2006) has termed ‘political gladiators’.
Into this dearth of information and confusion about internet effects come a number of well-designed studies of political party websites. In particular, a coding scheme designed by Rachel Gibson, Stephen Ward, and others (see Gibson and Ward 2000; Gibson et al. 2003) is useful at comparing political party websites both across time and among different countries. The scheme is outlined in full in the first appendix of Gibson, Margolis, Resnick, and Ward (2003) and is summarized here. Websites receive points for a variety of features under the following categories: information provision, resource generation, internal networking, external networking, participation, campaigning, delivery, access, navigability, freshness, and visibility. Each category is defined via a series of variables that can be measured completely via observation of the website online. For example, information provision has 16 subcategories, ranging from organizational history to article archive, and the website achieves a score of 1 for each element present. In resource generation, the website scores more highly for the ease with which people can join, donate or buy merchandise online. In networking, websites score points for internal links such as to local parties or a special web area for members only. For external links, websites obtain points via links to partisan sites, reference links (such as to media websites) and commercial links (such as booksellers). For participation, websites get points for their number of Email contacts, online forms for feedback, opinion polls, and the opportunity to debate with party leaders. For campaigning, websites score points for specific online tactics, such as by targeting a particular constituency being able to download leaflets.
The last five categories in the Gibson and Ward scheme have become slightly less useful as the central parties have moved beyond the static text-only sites of the 1990s. Websites score points for graphics, moving icons, and video but virtually everyone in the developed world has these features now. For the access category, websites accrue points for elements such as text-only options and software for the visually impaired. For navigability, websites score points for having a search engine, site map, etc. Finally, freshness is scored on how often the website is updated, while visibility is a single calculation of links in (counted by using a search engine such as Google).
One of the key elements to point out about the Gibson and Ward index is that it still works at drawing distinctions among political party websites in the United Kingdom. This may seem surprising in that the index was constructed several years ago and there have been massive changes to the capability of the internet. It is particularly effective at pointing out significant differences between party websites in countries such as Britain and ‘challenged’ democracies such as Russia (March 2006). While British voters may fret that Labour and Conservative websites are perhaps not the most exciting or dynamic places on the web, they do dutifully provide a range of information about party policies, party history, local chapters, and ways to join the political party. In the case of Russia, most party websites are amateur, limited in features and relatively uninformative (March 2006). This is unsurprising, in that web usage is much lower in Russia than in the United Kingdom (Cooper 2008). However, it also parallels political reality, in that parties have very little power to aggregate the interests of the masses in Russia as the dominant ‘party’ is essentially a propaganda front for the Kremlin’s interests (Oates 2006). Lusoli and Ward (2006) speculate that the use of the internet to find political information is relatively low in Britain because people are generally quite well-informed about their somewhat stable political system. Ironically, while Russians could arguably benefit far more from the ability of the internet to deliver relatively transparent and timely political information, there is much less of it online.
One way to add to the Gibson and Ward scheme would be to attempt to measure how online activity translates into offline action. This is a discussion that is more prevalent among ‘cyber-pessimists’, particularly those who fear that terrorists or others who seek to plot violence against society have an easy way to aggregate interests online. In particular, governments often voice concern that the online world provides the sort of specialized, yet accessible environment that allows those are alienated from society ways to gather together to challenge society in a violent way. The concerns range from the accessibility of information on the tools of terrorism (making bombs, finding training camps, etc.) to concerns over the power of online influence to persuade people into violent behavior. This highlights the point raised by Newhagen (1997), in that officials are simultaneously worrying about different things. They are concerned that the internet is a powerful data retrieval system that can provide the concrete ability for people to carry out violent threats. At the same time, they are concerned with the internet as a communication method and that its ability to collapse both physical space and time (with instant communication, video chat, etc.) will broaden and hasten the growth of terrorist groups. There is a great deal of classified and unclassified study of terrorist activity online (and much of it in the public sphere, such as publications from the Dark Web project at the University of Arizona, see but political science writing focuses on the fact that most terrorists are not able to take advantage of the potential of the internet. As Reilly (2008) points out, some of this is due to a lack of resources for sophisticated Web design and usage. More importantly, terrorist groups are highly constrained in their Web presence by national anti-terrorism laws and in cases such as Northern Ireland, use the Web far more routinely to disseminate information on their cause and historical interpretation than as a call to violence (Reilly). As Reilly points out, the internet serves as a ‘panoptican’, a devise in which the participants can be observed and tracked by security officials. The very openness of the internet becomes a constraining factor for terrorist groups. In authoritarian regimes, the relative transparency of the internet is a constraining factor for any alternative political voices online.
Is there any useful way to translate the work on terrorist websites to political party websites? Can the two approaches help each other? One of the key findings of the Dark Web project is that terrorist groups enjoy more use of interactive internet-based communication tools such as chat rooms and forums than their government counterparts (Qin et al. 2007). In addition, despite the difficulties that terrorist groups face in establishing permanent Web addresses, the terrorist groups provide more multi-media features than their government counterparts, which the Dark Web researchers find important in terms of the efficacy of propaganda/recruitment efforts online (Qin et al. 2007). How – if at all -- do these concerns translate from terrorist groups to political parties? Unlike terrorist groups, there is no real constraint on the part of political parties in democratic societies in attempts to spur online supporters into offline action. In particular, party websites are concerned with getting supporters to vote. In British elections, there is relatively little emphasis on real-world meetings, although they are reported on the websites during elections – as are the actions of party leaders the rest of the time. Democratic Presidential Candidate Barack Obama’s website has an emphasis on finding nearby off-line groups (with a search window to fill in ZIP codes, see, last accessed 18 August 2008). This is certainly an area in which the Gibson and Ward scheme could be augmented, particularly in coding for how many events are listed, whether there is search engine by postal code/ZIP code, and what types of events are listed. In addition, is there an ability of users to post their own events onto the main website?
The notion of posting ‘up’ to an official party website is an interesting one. Most party websites are closed to this, although there are features that allow comments. On the British Labour website, a section with links to blogs (albeit with a disclaimer that the party does not control the content, which begs the question of the value of the link) has been added relatively recently. This addresses a broader concept of ownership and authority. Despite all the emphasis on the blurring of the line between content producer and content consumer in the online sphere, the content on a party website is still delivered almost completely from the top down.
What does the Gibson and Ward scheme tell us about key contemporary party websites in political environments such as the United Kingdom and the United States? In Britain, the websites of the two dominant parties (Labour and Conservatives) achieve a similar score on the Gibson and Ward code. Thus, while the Gibson and Ward scheme will highlight differences between the web presence of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the Labour Party, for example, it doesn’t show a marked difference between the two major political players in Britain. However, a qualitative review of the Labour and Conservative websites identifies some interesting differences. The tone of the Labour Party is very much that of a party in governance, highlighting events such as the Olympics to link the party in the minds of supporters with patriotic events. The Conservative website (in keeping with leadership of a relative young, media-friendly party leader David Cameron) has a more casual approach and highlights links to social networking sites on the top of its home page. In contrast, Labour continues to promote its own membership ‘zone’ in which people can chat. This provides more evidence from a qualitative review that the Conservatives are embracing the concept of Web 2.0, in which the distinction between content producer and content user of a web space is further blurred. There are a range of factors in the British political sphere that could arguably contribute to the different look and feel to the two websites, despite their similarities in types of features as recorded by the Gibson and Ward scheme. The Conservatives are not the party of power and, in the tradition of British ‘loyal opposition’, have more latitude than the ruling Labour Party to make sweeping policy statements and plans (as they won’t necessarily be called on to carry them out in the near future). In addition, leadership and personality politics are key parts of political marketing, even in the party-centric system of Britain (Langer 2008). While Gordon Brown is struggling with image in the wake of the more charismatic Tony Blair, Cameron continues to enjoy relatively good media coverage. He appears in a fairly casual pose on the Conservative home page on 14 August 2008, in his shirtsleeves and with a microphone on this hip. On the other hand, Brown was absent from the home page of the Labour Party on the same day.
Another issue to consider is what sort of evidence is there on the web page that can give clues to the attitude of the party to its membership or the broader electorate? Some of this is certainly captured in the Gibson and Ward scheme, particularly in its participation and networking categories. But as noted by students in one of my classes this spring, sometimes there are hints in surprising inclusions or omissions. For example, my Scottish students found it distinctly odd that the Labour Party charges (from £10 pounds or about $20) and up for people to download images of Labour leaders (see, last accessed 15 August 2008). Is there indeed a market for selling digital images of local Labour MPs to the general public? Why should constituents have to pay for a picture of their elected representative? What would they do with it? For many of the students, this was distinctly off-putting and suggested a rather arrogant, market-oriented attitude on the part of Labour. It is also interesting that the Conservatives feature four different social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, and Bebo) in the top right-hand corner of their homepage. It is clear from the Labour webpage, which does have a section promoting Labour-related blogs, that highlighting the untamed world of social-networking is perhaps a step too far.
What has the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign taught us about the internet and politics, particularly given the long, passionate fight between Obama and Hilary Clinton for the Democratic nomination? According to Micah Sifry, co-founder and editor of the Personal Democracy Forum, there has been a fundamental shift in the use of the internet in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign.1 In comparing the internet strategies of both the Clinton and Obama campaigns, Sifry found that Clinton used the internet in the more traditional way to gather, inform, and organize supporters. In contrast, Obama’s campaign relied more on semi-independent and independent networks of online supporters. Sifry concluded that networks, such as those promoted by the Obama campaign, are more powerful than Email lists as compiled by the Clinton campaign. Although a campaign may lose some control of the message via networking, those who are involved in networking would likely be both more committed and more empowered. This could make online participation qualitatively different in the two campaigns (although undoubtedly Obama had some rather passive supporters and Clinton had some relatively active ones). The point Sifry was making was that the Obama campaign was not online politics as usual; rather, Obama has created a political movement rather than activated a group of political supporters. Two key questions remain answered, if indeed the development of blogging networks has effected this sort of political transformation. First (and a particularly important question for Obama), will it deliver the critical votes in a relatively tight and path-breaking contest for the first African-American candidate to make it this far? The second and more profound question for politics and the internet in general is whether these networks will endure as political vehicles after the campaign.
Sifry highlighted that political networks, such as those developed in the Obama campaign, may be problematic. While networks are more resilient and potentially more powerful, they are not what Sifry terms ‘nimble’. Maintaining a centralized message with a series of networks would be impossible, although arguably this is not necessarily a bad thing for democracy (although perhaps frustrating at times for a candidate). While networks and campaigns can be allies, they do not have the same goals. For example, campaigns are designed to share tasks, but not authority, with their supporters. Sifry noted the example of Republican Presidential Candidate Ron Paul supporters who participated in the campaign – and then decided to buy a branded blimp with campaign funds. This raises a much more important question than the common sense of spending money on blimps. Should the ‘internet gladiators’ be given so much authority to shape the direction of politics? Is this merely the transfer of political marketing into a broader segment of the population or are the supportive blogs and networks making a fundamental contribution to the political sphere? Jack Gallagher (2008) argues that political blogs supportive of the Democratic Party (such as the Daily Kos) are key to political discussion and debate in the country as the party itself has failed to serve in a moderating or mobilizing role for the voters.
The proceeding section suggests that looking at the party website will give only part of the story. A useful way to think about this distinction can be found in Newhagen (1997). Newhagen argues that the study of new or emergent technologies should not take on the pathologies of the study of the previous dominant communication technology. For example, he highlights that textual studies that were relevant for newspapers were applied rather less usefully to television as it emerged – while important visual cues were not studied enough. Although Newhagen’s paper is more than a decade old, it is clear that the problems he highlights are still very much a factor of the study of the internet, particularly in that politicians and others tend to dismiss the internet ‘effect’ as one that can alienate and damage youth. Newhagen makes two particularly useful points about the need to conceptualize carefully when thinking about the function of a new type of media. First, is the research really about the technology, the user, or the message (p. 4)? More broadly and perhaps even more importantly, are researchers conceptualizing the internet primarily as a “data retrieval device” or as a “communication medium” (p. 4)? Most of what the Gibson and Ward scheme measures is really about data retrieval. Although the coding scheme takes into account some interactive or feedback elements, much of the coding focuses on what information is being broadcast and how it is being presented.
This leads us to a critical question: In updating coding schemes relating to political party websites, how much do we need to be concerned with whether we are discussing a data retrieval device and how much do we focus on it as a communication medium? How much should we look on content and how much at other issues that relate more directly to the opportunities offered by the internet? As application of the Gibson and Ward scheme shows, there are significant differences in how party websites function as data retrieval devices both within and among countries. It is not insignificant that the internet offers substantially more information on key policies, ideology, leadership, and track records in countries such as the United Kingdom than in countries such as Russia. While the differences to a certain degree reflect the broader political environment among countries (i.e. if Russia has weak political parties, it is not surprising that they have a weak presence on the Web), the Gibson and Ward scheme still highlights important differences among parties. It raises the question of why many political parties still fail to fulfill even the relatively basic functions of internet provision as outlined by Gibson and Ward. As such, Gibson and Ward remains a robust tool for longitudinal (particularly retrospective comparison) and cross-national discussions of the internet.
The challenge now is in adding analytical elements that will measure what Newhagen termed the ‘communication medium’ to the Gibson and Ward scheme. Newhagen probably was not specifically thinking of social networking at the time (although his arguments remain quite relevant). Some of the confusion lies in whether one conceptualizes the internet as a different type of delivery system of information (particularly as more people watch videos online instead of on television) or whether it is a fundamentally different communication tool. For teaching purposes, I define four particularly features of the internet, as compared with other forms of mass media, as follows (Oates 2008):

  1. A low-cost (often virtually no-cost) ability to distribute information to a potentially limitless global audience;

  2. Potential freedom from editorial filter and controls;

  3. Relative freedom from national media control and an ability to build an international audience;

  4. An interactive environment in which people can easily cross from being news consumers to news producers.

The first three elements in this list relate most closely to what Newhagen would consider data retrieval – it is about how the internet can provide a broader spectrum of information. However, the final element – the interactive environment – suggests something fundamentally different and, as such, needs a fundamentally different approach for analysis. Although the Gibson and Ward scheme touches on this by acknowledging the presence of forums, feedback opportunities, etc, on political party websites, it doesn’t allow for a measurement of what is being said. In addition, with the development of online social networking, there needs to be much more consideration about how the interactive discussions that leap off from a particular webpage relate back to the page – or take off in an independent political direction. Some of this type of content analysis has been undertaken in particular by those trying to monitor and understand terrorist rhetoric online (for an overview, see Qin et al. 2007). Civil forums and discussions also have attracted the attention of political scientists, particularly the deliberations of E-Democracy based in Minnesota (Linaa Jensen 2006) and the DEMOS debate on the new strategic vision for the city of Hamburg (Albrecht 2006).

Findings from studies by Linaa Jensen and Albrecht suggest that the online communication is constrained in similar ways to the offline world – and that online communication tends to emphasize the opinions of those who are already vocal and empowered, rather than change the relationship between the political empowered and the masses. Albrecht, however, develops this idea into a useful model (See Table 1).
As is clear from the model, Albrecht is suggesting that the internet has to be considered vis-à-vis a range of societal factors. This is a point that often is not acknowledged in studies of the internet and usually places internet analysis more into the mainstream of social-science research. Despite a dearth of data showing widespread mobilization online, there is enough evidence to suggest that we are missing important developments by focusing primarily on content. Content analysis of websites generates important analytical information, but this paper suggests that evidence from studies of both the civil and uncivil web hints that there is something more.
A recent, innovative study of the Russian blogosphere suggests some intriguing ideas for methodology. The project at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University focused on three prominent Russian blogs, seeking to study those that might be active in the pre-electoral period in late 2007 (Russian Duma elections were held on 2 December 2007, with the presidential contest following in March 2008). In particular, the researchers were looking for evidence that these blogs in some way were able to cultivate political conversations; support the establishment of alliances; foster mobilization; and/or stimulate cross-cultural, political and social dialogue. The blogs that were studied were Velikaya Rossiya (Great Russia, political opposition/nationalists with a central blogger named Vladimir Tor/Vladlen Kralin); Drugaya Rossiya (Other Russia, political opposition/liberal, blogger Marina Litvinovich) and Svoboda Vybora (Free Choice, a motorist’s interest/support group with blogger Viacheslav Lysakov). In their preliminary account, the researchers reported that there was substantial evidence that even these prominent blogs held little independent power from the Russian government. This parallels the traditional media sphere in Russia. For example, although Viacheslav Lysakov had been vocal about problems on the Russian roads with accidents caused by speeding bureaucrats in special cars, he was notably less critical after meeting with the government about this issue. Nor did any of the blogs played a meaningful role in the December 2007 parliamentary elections. While some the lack of influence could be ascribed to relatively low internet penetration in Russia, the researchers were particularly concerned by the way in which the blogs failed to fulfill any of the four internet criteria listed above.
A parallel finding of the Russian blog study through the Reuters Institute was an interesting development of coding in the blogosphere. The project, in keeping with the idea of the institute, drew on resources of both social science and journalism in trying to ‘code’ blogs. As those who work in Internet Studies are aware, coding even static web pages can be difficult and time consuming, while separating the possible wheat from the chaff on blogs seems almost impossible. At the same time, in the era of Web 2.0, one cannot ignore the content found on blogs, forums, and chat rooms. The preliminary findings from the Reuters Institute project suggest that they have found some promising angles of attack for analyzing blogs. Their coding scheme contained the following elements:

  • Form of exchange (dialogue/monologue/discussion)

  • Type of exchange (emotional/calm call for action/protest)

  • News (eyewitness report/video/audio)

  • Information/opinion (rational/irrational)

In addition, the Reuters Institute project coded for some intriguing indices, such as an Aggression Index, Rationality Index, and Dialogue Index, as well as tracing the number of readers, the number of comments made, and the number of comments received. They monitored the central URLs used by the organizations daily in October, November, and the first half of December 2007. In September 2007, the researchers interviewed the ‘gatekeepers’ of the three blogs (listed above) and also interviewed 10 Russian internet and politics experts. It is interesting to note that the researchers reported that their interviews with the website gatekeepers were particularly illuminating and revealed that the communication tactics, strategy, and goals could not merely be imputed from the web content. This suggests that talking to webmasters, etc., is an important part of research strategies when examining Web 2.0.

In welcome news for internet content analysis practitioners everywhere, the Reuters Institute researchers decided that reading and analyzing all information on websites was not particularly useful. Instead, they coined the phrase of looking for ‘traces of fires in the forest’ in blogs. This means that the key points to study are evident when events and/or discussions create such a large number of postings that it is akin to ‘seeing’ a forest fire (p. 21). They also found critical and interesting differences in the blogs/websites, which they will present in their final report along with the full details of their methodology.
In a relatively modest project, the Reuters Institute report suggests an important way forward in terms of internet analysis. The Reuters Institute project involved several people from the Russian political sphere itself, who had detailed and nuanced understanding of the internet content and the political influences at work. As such, they were particularly good at establishing which blogs were targeting which communities (from liberals to angry motorists to nationalists) and how those blogs resonated with these communities. They chose to look at particular catalysts, such as innocent drivers blamed for accidents caused by government drivers or protest meetings in the streets of Moscow. They were particularly aware of the political constraints of the Russian system, in which direct and visible challenge to key Kremlin policies will result in sanctions ranging from closure to threats. Finally, the Russian researchers were very much aware of how high-profile bloggers could be co-opted by government officials and were able to provide evidence of this.
The key question is whether the internet as either a data retrieval tool or a communication tool can fundamentally change the relationship between those who rule and the ruled/the elites and the masses. The elites/leaders are interested in whether they can better control information as well as behavior via online methods. This relates mostly to the use of the internet as a top-down information and mobilization tool. There has been much less research about this than research about attempts by non-state or opposition actors to use the power of the internet to create social capital that is outside the government or state. Are these fundamentally different things to study, e.g. the use of internet functions by those who already hold power or the use of internet functions by those who seek the power of aggregating interests? The government is interested in top down; the opposition groups claim they are interested in many-to-many although how much that is true remains to be seen.
Newhagen may be correct in pointing out that we are fettered by viewing the internet as just another type of media. Instead, we no doubt need to be much clearer about the power relationship from the off-line world that is dictating much of the direction of the online world. Coding of party websites via the Gibson and Ward scheme makes much of this clear. Much of what political parties are saying fits well within the traditional notion of parties ‘broadcasting’ their ideas and running campaigns. Attempts to involve citizens in discussions are pretty much just window dressing, particularly in the case of the Labour Party website. There are suggestions that some parties and candidates are embracing a different way of using the online world. The British Conservative Party website shows an indication of this via its highlighting of social-networking sites at the top of its home page. As Sifry suggest, there is evidence that the Obama campaign might have spawned a resilient political network. However, without further study, it is hard to tell whether this is just window-dressing or a genuine attempt to engage citizens in a meaningful debate about the future direction and policies of political parties? The notion of a ‘bottom-up’ structuring of party goals and ideology is in direct opposition to the idea that parties stand for recognizable ideology rooted in the history and beliefs of the parties. It is acceptable for parties to change over time and reflect the shifts in the beliefs of the population – but will the real discussion about the core party values ever be devolved to a Facebook page? Where does democratic discourse end, and mob rule begin, online?
At this point, there are two possible avenues for exploring political websites suggest themselves. Aside from updating the list of features, the real challenge lies in incorporating Web 2.0 into the analysis of political party websites. One could expand the content/feature analysis of Gibson and Ward to include a more sophisticated examination of linkages in and out of the websites – essentially mapping the centrality of the party websites in the infosphere. This type of analysis, showing the linkages among web pages, has advanced into useful sophistication. However, while visibility and connectivity are important, they tell a limited story. Another approach would be to look at the content of linked sites, particularly blogs and social-networking sites, to see the relationship of the internet audience to the website. This suggests a more nuanced approach that asks a fundamental question: In the era of Web 2.0, is the line between internet content producer and internet content consumer actually becoming more blurred? Are users generating meaningful commentary, content, and dialogue for political parties via blogs and social-networking sites -- or are they just a faithful echo from a handful of party supporters? Do the comments tend to support or challenge the party? Is there meaningful dialogue and any genuine exchange of ideas? Underlying this is the key question about whether Web 2.0 and social networking has in any way meaningfully created a discussion (as opposed to reflection of a party line set in the real world by party members, supporters, candidates, PR specialists etc.) and effectively widened the political discussion from the party itself?
This suggests the possibility of a new model, based not only on the Russian study but also on a review of the difficulty in finding how the internet may – or may not -- serve as a political force distinct from other mass media. We know the potential of the internet, as listed in the four features above. But merely looking for people to fulfill global potential with little or no reference to local political content is not the most useful exercise. For example, attempts to understand the mobilizing potential of the internet in Russia would be meaningless without some understanding of political culture, media laws, constraints, and the violent threat against free journalism in general in Russia (Oates 2008). Thus, given the benefits and limitations of existing studies, I would suggest the following multi-level analysis to establish the political influence of the internet: content, community, catalyst, constraints, and control/cooptation (see Table 2).
In this five-step method, content is just one factor in a range of elements that could possibly better illuminate the political power of the internet. At each level, there are specific methods although some of them overlap. As tempting as it would be to ignore the huge amount of content on the blogosphere or on forums, this content holds important clues to the function of the internet as a political tool. Fortunately, methodologies for taming the information overload of the blogosphere, and internet content in general, are emerging (Qin et al. 2007, Li and Walejko 2008, Hargittai and Walejko 2008, Turnšek and Jankowski 2008). Yet, it is not only the content itself but a broader notion of community that is important. Why do some people find internet content or interaction particularly meaningful? As Albrecht (2006) suggests, what particular socio-economic factors are determining their internet usage and – moving beyond Albrecht’s 2006 study – how are these users finding and expanding a sense of community online? Community is a concept that has been linked to websites, but often not in any systematic way. We need to consider both factors in the offline world that lead people to seek out online communities – and look more closely at the interaction among people in one-to-one or one-to-many -- and even many-to-many online communication.
Much of what is understood about online/offline synergy comes about when there is a particular event that is a catalyst for an online community. In the report on the Russian blogosphere, anger over blatant attempts by the government to blame innocent drivers when official cars caused accidents (generally due to reckless driving on the part of government chauffeurs) was an important part of the dialogue on the Free Choice website. Examples of the ‘power’ of the internet are often cited through events or protests (such as Chiapas) that essentially only received significant attention due to online communication. However, firm examples of this interaction are relatively rare and almost always retrospective. By the same token, there is a need to ‘bring the state back in’ to Internet Studies, in that there is significant variation in the use of the internet across country boundaries. While some of this is related to wealth and opportunity (Norris 2001), the potential of the internet as a communication medium is significantly constrained in many countries by censorship and control. If we do not take this into account, we risk missing a significant element in understanding how the offline environment shapes online issues. In a world in which many people are jailed for what they post online (particularly in China), we cannot pretend there is equal access and opportunity for social engagement online. This is an important development to Norris’ concept of the digital divide. Finally, perhaps the most neglected area of Internet Studies is in conceptualizing how the internet can effectively be deployed by the powerful (and/or nefarious) to consolidate information control. This can include the process of co-opting existing bloggers, websites, forums, etc. and changing a democratic experience into propaganda.
The study of the internet suffers from the existing problems in political communication research and presents some new challenges as well. When one considers the two distinct functions of the internet suggested by Newhagen, it is clear that the real problem is in considering the internet as a communication ‘tool’. When we observe it as a data retrieval tool, its function is relatively easy to measure using traditional methods of content analysis, audience use, etc. But the new communication ‘tool’ is more slippery, leaving us unsure how to understand the role of the internet as a social catalyst. What is the evidence? How do we look for it systematically? Is it possibly to measure this? This is possible, but it cannot be performed in the same way that one can analyze the data retrieval function of the online sphere. Rather, understanding how the internet acts as a catalyst – in getting the traditional Democrat to the polls, in convincing the shy Republican to canvass, in enabling the British citizen to join in a protest march – we need to look at a broader range of elements than the content that is shown on the website. Rather, as in the Russian blogosphere study, we need to find case studies that reflect issues in the offline world and measure how the internet has an effect (or lack of effect) on political change.


Albrecht, Steffen. 2006. Whose Voice is Heard in Online Deliberation? A study of participation and representation in political debates on the Internet. Information, Communication & Society 9 (1), pp. 62-82.
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Gallagher, Jack. 2008. Why is there no Right Wing Daily Kos?: An Examination of the Content of Blogs and the Online Disparities between the Progressive and Conservative Blogosphere. Paper presented at Politics: Web 2.0: An International Conference, Royal Holloway, University of London.
Gibson. Rachel K., Margolis M., Resnick, D., and Ward, S.J. 2003. Election campaigning on the WWW in the USA and UK: a comparative analysis. Party Politics, 1, 2003: 47-75.
Gibson, Rachel K. and Stephen Ward. 2000. A Proposed Methodology for Studying the Function and Effectiveness of Party and Candidate Websites. Social Science Computer Review 18 (3), pp. 301-319.

Hargittai, Eszter and Gina Walejko. 2008. The Participation Divide: Content Creation and sharing in the digital age. Information, Communication & Society 11 (2), pp. 239-256.

Herman, E. and Chomsky, N. (2002). Manufacturing Consent. New York: Pantheon Books
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Li, Dan and Gina Walejko. 2008. Splogs and Abandoned Blogs: The perils of sampling bloggers and their blogs. Information, Communication & Society 11 (2), pp. 279-296.
Linaa Jensen, Jakob. 2006. The Minnesota E-democracy Project: Mobilising the Mobilised? In Sarah Oates, Diana Owen and Rachel K. Gibson (eds) The Internet and Politics: Citizens, Voters and Activists. London: Routledge, pp. 39-58.
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Norris, Pippa. 2001. The Digital Divide: Civic Engagement, Information Poverty and the Internet Worldwide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Oates, Sarah. 2008. Introduction to Media and Politics. London: SAGE.
Oates, Sarah. 2006. Television, Democracy and Elections in Russia. London: Routledge.
Qin, Jialun, Yilu Zhou, Edna Reid, Guanpi Lai and Hsinchun Chen. 2007. Analyzing terror campaigns on the internet: Technical sophistication, content richness, and Web interactivity. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 65, pp. 71-84. Available online at, last accessed 17 August 2008.
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Turnšek, Maja and Nicholas W. Jankowski. 2008. Social Media and Politics: Theoretical and Methodological Considerations in Designing a Study of Political Engagement.

Table 1: Albrecht’s Theoretical Model – Determinants of Participation and Representation in Online Deliberation. Paper presented at Politics: Web 2.0: An International Conference, Royal Holloway, University of London. Archived at

Determinants of political participation

Determinants of internet usage

Properties of large-scale communication

Economic background



Political interest

Economic background




Online skills

Value orientation

News factors

Economy of attention

Communicative tradition

Rhetorical forms

Mediating factors

Cultural practices of technology use

Embeddedness in political context

Determine who participates

Determine what is communication

Source: Albrecht, 2006, p. 76.

Table 2: Five-Step Method of Internet Analysis

Level of analysis


Suggested methodology


Base comes from Gibson and Ward, but needs to be updated to reflect greater capability of online functions (especially video streaming).

  • Content analysis

  • Interviews with web masters about production, editing processes

  • Studies of what people view online via page hits + more sophisticated methods

  • Audience surveys about what they view, whether they feel it influenced them


Who participates and how? This would involve in-depth study of interactive elements of internet (forums, chat rooms, blogs, etc.) but also use theories of community (and alienation) from the offline world

  • Content analysis, tracking individuals through qualitative software such as NVivo – can one discern patterns of leaders/followers?

  • Interviews (online or real-world) with people who participate in blogs, chat rooms, forums, etc.

  • Participant/observation both online and offline – but this involves ethical issues.

  • An example of emerging research in this area is by Andrew Hoskins at the University of Warwick, who is looking at how ‘radicalization’ is justified in online discourse, see for details.


As in the Oxford Reuters Institute report, look for real-world events and trace their relationship to the online world. Is there a reliable and valid way to predict when online chat can become offline activity? What evidence is there that online movements are formulating/growing and ready to move to action rather than just communication.

  • Find and track relevant events (flashpoints), looking for events that appears to start online, those that gathered momentum online and those that essentially failed to attract online support.


The Digital Divide reloaded -- While the internet is touted as a free, global phenomenon, nation-states regulate the internet. In some countries, this is relatively minor, in that the open nature of the internet allows security officials to trace anti-social behavior (terrorism, child pornography, financial crimes, etc.) However, in other societies such as Singapore and China the internet is heavily policed for views that do not support the regime.

  • General media environment in country under study.

  • Internet laws and regulations that relate to website (typically in country of origin)

  • Government cyber-harassment and cyber-punishment track record



There is relatively little work on how regimes/governments use the internet for state information/propaganda. Yet, there is evidence that states can use the internet as another effective political communication tool. This can be viewed as positive for state stability, but negative in the sense that the greater web resources of the state can (perhaps unfairly) silence voices of critics (particularly if they are deemed criminals for challenging state orthodoxy). As the Reuters Institute report highlights, the fact that the internet now creates credible media sources, it leaves them vulnerable to state attention, control or cooptation.

  • As above, but also incidents when internet sites are targeted by governments when they achieve political weight/interest.

1 The remarks by Sifry were reported by Simon Collister on his blog:

The author attended the conference, but failed to take notes that were as good as Collister’s.

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