May 3, 2010

Interactive Mass Media and Political Participation

By Deepak Gajurel

1. Introduction

The proliferation of personal computers in homes, schools, universities, and libraries have made computer-mediated communication (CMC) a mass medium. A key characteristic of CMC is the interactivity by which consumers of the computer-based media make information choices. This attribute empowers the CMC user to display and navigate hypermedia presentations or to send and receive information along the "information superhighway."

[Note: The term "hypermedia" refers to an information format in which users can search through content non-linearly. By selecting a symbol, either graphic or textual, new information related to that symbol is accessed. Users can "criss-cross the virtual landscape," i.e., re-access information through different conceptual linkages.]

Computer bulletin boards (CBBs) comprise the first "many-to-many" mass medium due to the potential for many bulletin board messages to be received by an unlimited number of CBB participants. Also, along the information superhighway, interactive hypermedia presentations in "webspace" and in "gopherspace" offer unprecedented opportunities for information archives, of various symbol sets, to be disseminated and accessed.

[Note: The terms "webspace" and "gopherspace" refer to CMC information protocols. webspace refers to the world-wide web (WWW), a multimedia information protocol which allows for hypermedia links. gopherspace refers to a protocol which presents information archives indexed within menus. Both WWW and Gopher employ the internet to connect conceptual links between information sources.]

This article concentrates on the use of interpersonal, interactive CMC within the context of popular political participation. The unprecedented involvement of the "audience," if indeed that term is appropriate to the "new media" information consumer, raises questions regarding both media uses and effects. Will a media which suits itself to individual become a force for social unity or separatism? Will social barriers between different socio-demographic and interest groups intensify or soften? Will this new media serve to decentralize media influence on social and political interaction? Can we expect popular adoption of CMC to lead to greater citizen influence in political discourse and policy decisions? Communication and social psychological theory will be utilized to frame some of these questions.

2. Personal and Interactive Media

Until a few decades ago, political media consisted almost exclusively of broadcast and print mass media. Individuals and groups who wanted to disseminate a message to a broad spectrum of citizens were limited to newspapers, magazines, books, radio, film, and, later on, television.

Following World War II, a number of technological developments resulted in a proliferation of "personal" electronic media. The term "personal" describes media to which individuals and small groups have meaningful access, and which can be used to acquire, create, store, and/or disseminate information. It also connotes a measure of independence from entities, such as film processing labs, which make the production of information tedious or subject to censorship. Citizens band radio emerged in the 1940s, followed by transistor radios and reel-to-reel audio tape in the 1950s, dry copiers, audiocassettes, and reel-to-reel video in the 1960s, portable video recorders, video cameras, and satellite dishes in the 1970s, and personal computers, personal fax machines, and camcorders in the 1980s. These innovations, which diffused quickly into western society, have arguably widened the ranks of individuals and groups who might spread political messages. “It is no coincidence that, along with this development of personal media, we have moved into an economically postindustrial society.” (Hiltz & Turoff, 1993: 454).

The impact of personal media technologies on the political and social landscape can be both deliberate and accidental. Reductions in size and price have made the personal computer practically available to individuals. In its present form, it is also arguable that computers are widely used for purposes of communication as well as mathematical calculation and other data processing. While the personal computer has joined the ranks of "personal" media, computer-mediated communication (CMC) has qualities of interconnectivity and interactivity which provide the user with far greater power in sharing messages on a global scale.

"Interconnectivity" refers to the capability of any entity on a network to send or receive messages from any other such entity. Along with the development of the personal computer, computer communication networks have spun interconnecting webs across the globe. The main conduit for the international computer communication, the Internet, has evolved into a collection of information sites capable of transferring information at ever-increasing speeds. Corporations, universities, governments, institutions, and organizations have established presence on the internet.

"Interactivity," as Rafaeli (1988: 42) explains, “is a communication characteristic which is greatest when discursive role assignment and turn-taking are non-automatic or nearly so.” This implies a level of conversationality, a blurring in the roles of sender and receiver towards serving some shared information goal. In such a scenario, no single or collective participant has absolute power over the transmission and reception of messages on the part of others. Printed media are essentially non-interactive. TV and radio, which allow for channel control, are slightly more interactive than printed media. Computer aided instruction (CAI), hypermedia, and simulations, including video games, are more interactive due to the user's continuous engagement in controlling the display of information. Computer bulletin boards and e-mail are more interactive than CAI and simulations because of their potential for asynchronous conversational interaction. Face-to-face and telephone are most interactive because of their synchronous conversational character.

Because of its capacity for interconnectivity, CMC can be considered a mass medium. CMC interconnectivity enables one to send a message to a multitude of receivers simultaneously. This is often accomplished through the CMC formats of computer bulletin boards (CBBs) and electronic mailing lists. Moreover, the internet is becoming popularly perceived as a mass medium. Originally a channel devoted to military and academic purposes, the internet is now accessible to anyone with a personal computer and modem. One count puts the growing number of internet users at nearly a billion.

3. Democratic Participation

Political participation may be loosely defined as the exercise of meaningful influence toward policy decision. The role of mass communication and citizen participation within a democracy is directly circumscribed by the model of democracy exercised within the political system. Slaton (1992: 103) outlines four models of democracy which describe different functions of citizen participation.

In a Limited Representative State, citizens are highly restricted in the extent to which they might participate in determining public policy. Their options are limited to voting for representatives, lobbying them, and campaigning for them.

In the Expanded Representative State, citizen participation is expanded to include such activities as referenda and ballot initiatives, whereby citizens may occasionally be called upon to set policy. This is similar to the notion of a Plebiscitary Democracy in which citizens participate by casting their votes on specific issues. Because policy decisions are subject to plebiscites, there is a theoretically tighter fit between public opinion and public policy. Plebiscitary democracy is well-suited to the opinion that more direct forms of democracy, including public deliberation, would prove unwieldy in large populations with fragmented and divisive interests.

In the Participatory Representative State, citizens recognize a shared responsibility and interdependency in formulating policy. Political interaction would include public discussion and debate to which political representatives would be mindful. When the interaction is characterized by uniformly shared interests and concerns as well as a common national identity, it resembles a Communitarian Democracy. “In order to maintain the vitality of a democratic system, citizens are expected to participate in ongoing conversation and debate toward choosing and effecting policy. When the interaction exhibits free competition among groups with differing interests and strategic alliances of complementary interests, this resembles Pluralist Democracy” (Abramson et al. 1988: 105).

A Representative Participatory State would assume that all or most citizens would be prepared to serve some representative function at some point in time. This model shares the characteristic of public discussion and debate. However, the determination of representatives would come about from a combined process of election and random selection. This random selection would eliminate structural biases which otherwise limit participation to those with the requisite time, money, and other resources to serve as representatives.

Within each of these systems, CMC could enhance the capability of conducting polls by efficiently distributing background information and by collecting poll data interactively. Interactive systems can improve election polling because of their ability to tailor questions based on prior response. A greater depth of information is obtained and the respondent's experience is more pleasant and less intrusive in nature.

Interactive polling would also address long-standing concerns regarding the failure of standard polling practices to tap the complex nuances of public opinion. Public opinion is, "a kind of complex organic whole which mirrored the organization of society into functional groups. The only entity worthy of the name of public opinion is something generated by interactions in such a structure and which is 'effective' in the sense that people in positions of power judge it to be worth taking into account" (Blumer, 1948: 551)

The capacity of CMC for group conversation would not be utilized under the limited representative and expanded representative states. The latter two models, participatory representative and representative participatory, would make better use of CMC's capabilities to manipulate greater volumes of information, decentralize media control, and provide interactive communication capability to citizens.

It is conceivable that a wider citizen participation within CBBs might resolve whether the character of a participatory representative state is communitarian or pluralist, and under what conditions. The characteristic of decentralization might lead one to surmise the latter. Toward this end, it would be useful to measure several groups of content-analytic indicators, including the following:

a) Homogeneity/heterogeneity of interests expressed by individuals;
b) Organizing tendencies within and across interest groups; and
c) The degree to which polarization of opinions encourages and/or inhibits dialogue.

On a smaller scale, it would be useful to determine the degree to which the CMC context itself influences the nature of participatory democracy toward communitarian or pluralist interaction. This would require either quasi-experimental or field study comparing participatory decision-making patterns in CMC and non-CMC contexts. It is likely that the incidence of a participatory representative democratic state and adoption of CMC as a popular forum for political discourse would be related in a model of mutual causation.

3.1 CMC Adoption - Participatory Representation

Following Rogers's (1983: 302) model of diffusion of innovations, specifically the issue of "reinvention," it is conceivable that the growing use of CMC for academics, industry, and commerce will lead to the acceptance of CMC for political communication. As citizens increasingly use CBBs as informal forums for political discussions, it is conceivable that candidates and elected officials will try to disseminate political messages and collect opinion feedback through that channel. If CMC is publicly perceived as a mass medium, there may develop a societal expectation for political issues to be addressed through such means in a participatory representative state.

Free speech is a major foundation to participatory representative democracy. While the interactive quality of CMC presents the capacity for individuals to be "heard" by all who care to listen, the interconnective quality of CMC, in a sense, safeguards it as a free speech forum.

3.2 Participatory Representation - CMC Adoption

A participatory representative democratic state could exist only with the coincidence of interactive communication channels linking citizens for the purpose of political communication. Such a channel has not existed which could realistically link populations of modern nation-states. Furthermore, even if all of the "voices" could be heard, it has been questionable whether individual citizens would be able to filter them in order to participate meaningfully.

As mentioned above, the interconnective and interactive characteristics of CMC make it uniquely suited to such political participation. Heuristic computer information technologies may develop to the point of sophisticatedly content analyzing verbal information, providing users with textual digests which might help a political participant cope with what might amount to reams of discursive content. It is also worth noting that protocols and customs on CBBs have developed which serve to compartmentalize CMC discourse according to discrete topics. Examination of the USENET system reveals an intricate breakdown of topics in which interested parties can quickly locate a forum of interest. When a particular topic acquires too much "traffic," subtopics are quickly established. These are some of the ways that CMC can serve as a participatory forum and pragmatically accommodate large political discourses.

4. Group Participation and Interactive Media

The employment of CMC in political discourse, in both representative and participatory contexts, present new questions and possibilities for productivity, decision-making, representation, and access to system-level discourse.

4.1 Productivity and Decision-Making

Abramson et al. (1988: 312) assert that “decision-making would become inefficient in any of the participatory systems. In public contexts, bargaining, negotiation, and compromise do not occur easily or speedily.” However, while this view might be supported in a face-to-face, teleconferenced, or vocal context, the results of studies on CMC productivity and decision-making indicate otherwise.

It is generally accepted that the text-only character of CMC strips away nonverbal and paraverbal cues which exist in face-to-face (FTF) communication. This reduces the degree to which cues of socioeconomic status differences, norms, physical appearance, and speech behavior might erect social barriers related to group stereotypes and social expectations. “This reduced cues situation would likely have an impact upon sociopolitical discourse. Users tend to participate more equally on CMC systems than in many FTF interactions” (Rice & Love, 1987: 214). Furthermore, Hiltz and Turoff (1993: 567) contend that “CMC is better thought out, better organized, and richer than natural conversation.” The verbal quality of CMC raises interesting questions of how the present mass media preoccupation with political image would be affected when candidates face an audience who read, rather than watch, their responses. Furthermore, in CMC, audience members have the capacity to directly indicate when they feel their concerns are not being seriously addressed.

Aside from the text-only characteristic, there is the matter of asynchronous communication which is afforded by CMC. Synchronous communication refers to the simultaneous presence of communicants on the communication channel, as in FTF, telephone, live radio/TV broadcasting, and teleconferencing situations. In debates and call-in shows, candidates and decision makers must answer on the spot and are often as preoccupied with how they appear in a confrontational situation as they are with how they conceptually address issues. The accent is on image and performance in the immediate sense rather than meaningful discourse.

Asynchronous communication refers to contexts in which communicants "post messages" in order of their reception, affording unlimited time and space to a message's composition. This is in sharp contrast to the exposure of television reporting, which has accelerated its news gathering to the point that a candidate's risk of verbal error is much greater than in the pre-electronic age.

4.2 Access and Ability

“Popular participation in a political discussion presupposes that the general population has both the means to access and the ability to use the relevant communication channel” (Splichal, 1993: 423). Despite the reduction in the purchasing cost of the necessary computer hardware, it is clear that a significant percentage of the population do not own, and cannot afford to purchase, this equipment. Therefore, it is a responsibility of local and national governments to ensure physical access to computer systems which are configured for such use.

Physical access, however, is not the only means issue. Another concern is the ability to use and understand the communication technology. A societal ability to engage in CMC would rely on basic instructional resources and an orchestrated program of socialization for participation within children's and adult education systems. At this point in time, issues of physical access and technological ability still combine to pose thorny questions of how far a democratic system must go to satisfy criteria for popular democratic participation.

4.3 Representation, Interests, and the Political Agenda

A reasonable query would ask how a public agenda would be set within a CMC context, with so many diverse issues being discussed simultaneously, with each interest group organizing and deliberating. How will policy and media agendas be affected? Will we see a decrease in the influence of media agendas upon the polled public agenda? Will it be appropriate or useful to derive a single public agenda? Will the representation of these non-interactive agenda-setting media entities on the internet affect the variety of perspectives expressed? Would the presence of partisan news services, including those belonging to political parties, on the internet influence the undecided or convert the opposition?

These concerns essentially converge on the question of whether the volume of messages and the number of participants drown neutralize the effects of messages because of a human inability to attend to a great portion of the traffic. It will be interesting to note whether fringe and disenfranchised groups end up with greater satisfaction at having a voice in the public forum or greater frustration in the event that they are ignored nonetheless in a din of electronic cacophony.

5. Individual Participation and Interactive Media

Previous CMC research efforts (Rafaeli, 1986: 317; Selfe & Meyer, 1991:289) have examined the ways that individual differences affect participation and the nature of CBB discourse. These differences might have special ramifications for political participation.

5.1 Gender and Power

In the case of gender, there are elements of socially expected behavior differences and power asymmetries. Women are socialized to be interdependent and cooperative while men generally exhibit communication patterns of independence and hierarchical power assertion (Tannen, 1990: 523). Herring (1993: 45), in her discourse analysis of a CMC bulletin board, distinguishes the different characteristics of woman's language and men's language. Features of women's language include "attenuated assertions, apologies, questions, personal orientation and support", whereas some features of men's language are "strong assertions, self-promotion, rhetorical questions, authoritative orientation, challenges and humor." Kaplan and Farrell (1994: 156) observed that “women's on-line conversation resembles” what Tannen calls "rapport" talk rather than "report" talk, a style men tend to favor.

Both of these styles have different strengths in political discourse. On the one hand, male communication patterns, with their focus on independence, secure a measure of empowerment through assertion. In a communication forum in which a multitude of messages vie for the attention of decision-makers, those which are imperative and unambiguous may receive more attention than those which are conciliatory or otherwise construed as equivocal. On the other hand, in a political situation where there are many fractionated interests, there may be a distinct advantage to exhibiting interdependence which would cull alliances of shared interest. It would be worthwhile to see how men and women express themselves differently in pursuit of political empowerment.

5.2 Reduced Cues, Identity, and Democratization

As mentioned previously, CMC strips away nonverbal and paraverbal cues which might, in FTF conversation, identify ethnicity and emphasize social status. This reduced cues social environment has been described by Kiesler, Siegel, & McGuire as having a "democratizing" effect on organizational communication. Visual cues such as complexion and dress, as well as audio cues of accent and inflection are nonexistent in text-only discourse. The absence of these cues imply fewer sensory stimulants which trigger stereotypical perceptions and expectations. Therefore, this characteristic might increase the incidence of empathy and alliance across the political spectrum. It might be argued that the lack of these cues limits our capability to distinguish between conversing entities, thereby lowering our levels of social comprehension. However, research findings cited by Walther (1992: 36) indicate that CMC participants are able to use textual symbols verbally and graphically to express socioemotional information. It is therefore likely that individuals may distinguish and schematically categorize their fellow participants to the same degree of uniqueness in CMC as in FTF communication.

In a study which compared mixed gender discourse in both pseudonymous and real-name computer bulletin boards, Jaffe, Lee, Huang & Oshagan (1994: 92) concluded that men tended to exhibit greater social support and socioemotional language in pseudonymous CMC than in real-name CMC contexts. Furthermore, women in the pseudonymous context tended to choose pseudonyms which were either gender-neutral or cross-gender (male) while men exhibited no such cross-gender identification need.

Because CMC is less "media rich" than FTF communication, there is a greater ability for individuals to "manage" their identities. Individuals may reveal what they wish about themselves to serve social goals, including political goals. An individual might exhibit identifying characteristics of other participants for the sake of political influence. This would certainly fit in with persuasive communication research which explores the exploitation of in-group bias on the part of salespeople.

5.3 Cognitive Dissonance in a CMC Forum

The theory of cognitive dissonance asserts that people seek consistency in their behavior and attitudes (Festinger, 1957: 91). Participation on a computer bulletin board constitutes a commitment in time as well as cognitive effort. The CMC medium is not one in which users are completely passive spectators, as they are when consuming broadcast information. Participants continuously make choices such as what topic to observe and/or discuss on the bulletin board as well as design what are usually thoughtful answers. In order to consistently reconcile the expenditure of this effort, participants might more likely to project characteristics of greater informational worth onto the bulletin board. For example, users might come under the impression that they are more politically knowledgeable as a result of such CMC participation. Political biases might become strengthened when participants make consonant assertions within the CMC discourse.

5.4 Self-Efficacy and Political Participation

Based on the theoretical framework of social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986), purposeful action is largely contingent upon an individual's belief in his/her ability to perform that action correctly and/or effectively. This belief or degree of confidence is called "self-efficacy." According to Bandura, self-efficacy perceptions are a positively correlated function of four types of conditions:

(a) previous enactment of the behavior or similar behaviors,
(b) vicarious experiences with the behavior as communicated through live or symbolic (i.e., mediated) modeling,
(c) verbal persuasion regarding capabilities to engage in the behavior, and
(d) inferences from physiological states experienced when engaging in or anticipating the behavior.

It would be intuitive to state that a person who was both accomplished at using CBBs and experienced in political participation would be more likely to adopt CMC as a medium for political communication than one who was not so initiated.

6. Conclusions: Systemic Considerations

We live in the age of the "permanent campaign," in which incumbents are always looking toward the next election. It seems a common perception that the constant campaigning detracts from the substantive task of legislating and governing. Furthermore, rather than serving to bring candidates and elected officials closer to their constituents, the constant, immediate eye of broadcast and cable media dampen the prospects for a candid disclosure and discussion. Engineering a candidate's image is a full-time, resource-draining political necessity.

An asynchronous, cues-filtered medium, such as a CMC bulletin board, presents an opportunity for participatory representation encompassing candidates, elected officials, and constituents. Whereas the permanent campaign will probably remain an occupational nuisance of the career politician, the conduct of the campaign can follow a more efficient and collaborative communication process. It is possible that wide scale adoption of such a political communication channel, and its effective use, might increase public trust in government.

In summary, CMC, which follows a parade of personal media, have been used to produce political messages. However, the application of computer-mediated communication for political discourse has the potential to serve our present state of representative democracy or to significantly change it towards a more participatory system. For different reasons, the societal adoption of such a system might significantly alter the national character of different social groups towards either unity or separatism. Much of this might hinge on whether different segments of society have equal access to and understanding of the communication technology involved in an electronic political forum. The conduct of election campaigning might also change as a result of a more direct, verbal, and asynchronous connection with the voting public. Finally, there is the question of how this communication technology might affect some of our basic cognitive, heuristic processes which govern how we interact socially and politically.


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