Monday, October 13, 2008

Voting across the digital divide

According to a recent survey from MediaVest, there's an interesting split between supporters for the two presidential candidates. John McCain's supporters tend to rely almost exclusively on TV and radio for their news, while those in Barak Obama's camp are "media generalists" -- that is, they get their information from a variety of sources both off- and online.

At the same time, most of those polled saw the Internet as the least reliable source of information, while TV got the highest.

So what does it all mean? Personally, I believe we're seeing a transition from old to new media.

Traditional politics tend to be most effective on the offline side of the digital divide (which makes sense, as their techniques were developed long before there even wasy an online side). The sources of information are limited. Events, once broadcast, soon decay into short clips and sound bites before disappearing entirely, only to be referred to when necessary. Accuracy isn't so much of an issue, as any position can be stated, spun, refuted and/or ignored depending on the moment. In the world of broadcast media, there's no time for reflection, and impression is everything.

Online, it's different -- as Hillary Clinton discovered early on with her story of a dangerous mission to Bosnia. Anything that's a matter of record remains so, and usually remains available long after the moment has past. Within hours original CBS News footage was available on YouTube for all to see (and it's still there). Fact-checking had come to the campaign.

Almost all the claims and accusations made by the candidates can be easily checked online -- and usually from the original sources. For those who use the Internet regularly, it's a fairly simple matter to separate fact from fiction.

So why does the Internet rate so poorly as a source of information? Because while there's a great deal of information out there, a majority of it is unverified. Rumors crop up with regularity, and repeated from blog to blog and news site to news site, take on the appearance of reality simply by the shear number of appearances. Anyone can publish anything -- and they do. On the web, authoritative and well-researched articles have equal weight with ill-conceived delusional rants.

Mainstream media (MSM) content is subject to editorial control, which is perhaps why it's seen as more reliable.

But there's another level to the digital divide. Plenty of people only marginally use the net. They forward jokes and recipes, putter around on a few sites, but for the most part they don't really use the Internet -- and therefore have no way to filter (or in some cases no interest in) the sea of information it contains. Those are the ones, I think, who prefer MSM to the Internet for information.

Those who are used to actively using the Internet, though, have a different perspective. They're the ones who avoid constructing echo chambers that only feed them the information they want to hear. It's the active users who don't accept stories at their face value, but expect to see links back to the source material -- links that they'll follow to look at the sources and judge for themselves.

Are these the media generalists? Partially. You can get your information from many sources, but unless you examine it, you're not much beyond accepting what MSM dishes out. While there are plenty of folks who take everything the McCain campaign says as true, there are plenty who do the same with Obama's messages.

So how to make sense of it all? Well, I always ask the question, "Oh, yeah? Says who?" And with a little help from the Internet, I can usually find out -- and then make an informed decision.

- Ralph

Day 118 of the WJMA Web Watch.

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