Personalized News. People can customize many Internet news sources to reflect their personal priorities. For example, users can utilize a topic selection
mechanism to notify Internet sources of their specific interests and
create an individualized news page where issues important to them are
highlighted and topics that are less critical to them are filtered out.
They also can request advance notification when new items that match their interests are posted and define the level of detail—headlines versus short descriptions versus full articles—that they initially receive from Internet sources.
Alternative Views. People can access easily multiple Internet
news sources in order to receive diverse coverage of the same issue.
For example, many Internet portals serve as clearing houses for
numerous online news sources, providing one point of contact for many
different editorial points of view. Advanced news search engines
allow users to find quickly and easily specific information about
political topics from a large number of sources using cross-referenced
search criteria such as issue key words, types of content (feature
articles, editorials, or short news items), and defined time periods.
Repeat Access. People can use the Internet to provide immediate
access to an extensive online repository of past news items. For
example, many Internet news sites offer full-text versions of all their
stories from the preceding several months, often in a free, searchable archive. Some also offer the same option for stories going back years for only a nominal charge.
Facilitating Political Individual Action
Citizens generally think
of gathering political information and engaging in political action in
response to that information as distinct processes. Although finding
out about a particular candidate or issue from a newspaper or television
program may spur individuals to become more politically active,
initiating actions such as registering to vote, expressing a policy view
to a public official, or making a contribution to an advocacy
organization, requires a person to put down the newspaper (or turn off
the television), find the appropriate person to contact, write a letter
or make a phone call, and wait for a response. When people become
informed about political issues through Internet sources, however, they
often are provided options to take immediate political action. Two such
mechanisms available to Internet users are:
- opinion registration; and
- online organization membership.
People can use many Internet information sources to indicate
immediately their positions on political topics they find out about on
the site. For example, a number of sites offer users who have accessed
an online news item the opportunity to register their position on the
candidate or issue addressed in that item in an instant poll.
Generally, these polls provide immediate feedback on how many other
people share the user's view and how many hold different views. Other
sites provide a mechanism to facilitate an immediate e-mail opinion letter
that a reader can send directly to a news reporter/editor or to an
elected representative to indicate the reader's position on a particular
Online Organization Membership.
People often can move directly from an Internet political news item to
other Internet resources that help them identify and join advocacy
organizations that are addressing the political issue raised in the
item. For example, Internet political news stories often contain contact information
(Web sites, phone numbers, and addresses) that allows users to reach
organizations involved in political action on the issue covered in the
story. In addition, the Web sites of many of these organizations
provide online enrollment and contribution mechanisms that allow people to take immediate action to support the organization's efforts.
Energizing Community Political Action
Using the Internet to gather information on political issues, inform
officials about positions, and identify organizations involved in the
issue helps people engage in individual political activities more
efficiently. But the Internet also can connect individuals with others
who share their political interests and facilitate the collective action
of these groups of people. Two of these capabilities are:
- online dialogues; and
- tools for collective action.
People can use the Internet to identify others who want to discuss the
same policy issues and to engage them in an exchange of views. For
example, some Web sites support these online communities by providing group communications tools,
such as e-mail list servers (where e-mail from any community member is
distributed to all members of the community), discussion boards (where
one member of the community posts a message and other members can
respond, creating a threaded online discussion), and chat rooms (where
members of the community share ideas in real-time text, audio, and/or
video conversations). Other Web sites take a more active role in
shaping online community discussions, providing a moderator to direct
debate in a guided discussion.
Tools for Collective Action.
People can use the Internet not only to discuss political issues but
also to facilitate more effective collective action. People that become
more informed about an issue through Internet sources and use online
tools to join organizations that are acting to shape policy on that
issue also can turn to the Internet to help them work together with
others with similar policy goals. Organizations can facilitate this
collective action by providing online advocacy resources. For
example, a site may offer a calendar that is linked directly to online
tools to register for a policy event (such as a public hearing),
coordinate travel arrangements to the event, and provide contact
information for other groups that will attend the event. Other sites
provide citizens with message points, sample letters, and other material
to help communicate their views to public officials.
The Implications for Public Affairs Campaigns
The Internet is
having a profound influence on how citizens gather information to shape
their positions on political issues and how they become politically
active (both individually and collectively) once they are informed. For
example, as noted above, Internet mechanisms that promote active
information gathering allow individuals to decide what political issues
are covered in "their" news source. The ability of individuals to
create a personalized news profile drawn from multiple sources means
that they have greater control over what issues they follow, decreasing
the influence of major print and broadcast news outlets.
In addition, the ready
access to alternative viewpoints available on the Internet allows people
to select for themselves, from a larger and larger universe of diverse
sources, what information is most critical for developing policy
positions. In other words, the Internet's personalized news and
alternative viewpoints capabilities mean that people are no longer
constrained by editorial decisions made by others; instead they are
learning how to be their own news editors.
Changes such as these,
in turn, are altering the management of campaigns seeking to influence
policy debates. Although these forces are just beginning to take hold,
several observations—about the Internet's impact on the process of
political engagement and the standards to guide successful political and
advocacy campaigns that emerge as a result—can already be formulated.
For example, in order
to reach the millions of individuals-as-news-editors that are emerging
from the growth of Internet news sources, issue managers need to:
- germinate ideas among a wide range of Internet sources;
- develop advocacy material designed expressly for the Internet; and
- ensure even tighter message discipline.
Information prepared to educate and persuade the public may never reach
audiences that rely on the Internet: as noted above, the traditional
model of focusing media outreach on the most prominent outlets does not
reflect how news items are disseminated on the Internet. Therefore,
issue managers need to supplement their normal media outreach efforts by
germinating their advocacy material among a wide range of Internet
outlets (from which their messages can be widely forwarded). This
germination can be accomplished both through person-to-person outreach
to many online editors and by new technology services that automatically
disperse material to sites likely to have users who would be interested
in those materials.
Even when material reaches Internet audiences, it may not always be
read: much advocacy material designed for distribution through print
medium (such as long, text-heavy position papers) is not reader-friendly
on the Internet. Issue managers can address the need for
Internet-friendly presentations of advocacy material by developing
integrated packages of documents that each communicate the same basic
message but that are designed differently to take best advantage of the
medium through which they are delivered.
Finally, material that eventually reaches (and is read by) Internet
audiences may still present a garbled message: because the Internet
promotes abridged material, which is then often combined with material
from sources with a competing view, or juxtaposed to contradictory
material from supposed allies, material dispersed via the Internet may
not deliver the intended message, especially if that material originally
had inconsistencies or lack of focus. As a result, issue managers need
to become even more vigilant in exercising message discipline over all
As the Internet
reshapes the public affairs campaign landscape, issue managers will be
well served to reassess their communication strategies to reflect these
changes. New strategies must address the needs of an audience that is
no longer passively, but actively gathering information and seeking ways
to become more politically active, both as individuals and as
Effective use of the
Internet produces a more powerful and sustainable public affairs
campaign. By using the Internet's capabilities to get the right
information to people who now use the Internet as a primary source of
political news, and by providing these people with online tools to help
them take supportive political action, issue managers can continue to
create one of the greatest assets to political and policy campaigns: an
energized public that is echoing and amplifying the campaign's own
This brief is a preliminary examination of the impact of the Internet on
public affairs campaigns. A more detailed examination will be
available later in the fall.
For more information about how the Internet is reshaping the rules for policy campaigns, please contact Alisa Ferguson.