Nice website, shame no-one visits it: Politics still a turn-off, even in cyberspace

02/23/05

Despite soaring use of the Internet, online politics is still 'very much a minority sport', according to new ESRC-sponsored research showing that e-mails and websites have so far done little to bring us closer to our parliaments and politicians.

With a General Election perhaps weeks away, MPs and legislatures are failing to reap the benefits of new forms of communication aimed at reversing voter-apathy, says a study led by Dr Stephen Ward, of the Oxford Internet Institute, with Wainer Lusoli of Salford and Rachel Gibson of the Australian National universities.

In stark contrast with the upsurge of the Internet, interest in politics in Britain remains flat, says the study, revealing that fewer than two per cent of regular Internet users have visited the personal websites of their MPs.

There are high expectations and widespread public support for a range of online services and initiatives from MPs, the House of Commons and the Scottish and Welsh legislatures, aimed at encouraging us to play our part in democracy.

But there remains a large gap between this apparent support and actual use of new technologies. For example, people still have concerns about casting their ballots online, three years after the first e-voting pilots in the UK.

The study, based on an NOP survey of almost 2000 people in December, 2004, found that numbers contacting Britain's legislative bodies over the Internet are small and mainly existing political activists, already well-known in parliamentary circles. Some 40 per cent of Internet users visit news and current affairs websites, compared with 28 per cent who look up their local council, and 21 per cent who go online to government departments and agencies.

By contrast, only five per cent of Internet users have visited the House of Commons website in the past year, while a combined three per cent called at those of the devolved legislatures of Wales and Scotland.

When it comes to conveying our views and grievances to MPs, the telephone is still by far the favourite method, preferred by 39 per cent in the survey. Letter writing comes a distant second (20 per cent), followed by e-mail (12 per cent) and face-to-face contact (11 per cent).

However, the study found a definite swing to e-mail as an initial means of contact, especially for 18-34-year-olds, particularly students (37 per cent) and graduates (20 per cent).

In line with previous research, only 69 per cent of those surveyed claimed to know the party of their MP, while less than half (43 per cent) of the electorate were actually able to name them.

Dr Ward said: "Our survey provides a sobering antidote to the hype that often surrounds the role of the Internet in the political world, but we shouldn't write off new technologies as being of no consequence. The findings show there is potential to attract and deepen engagement, particularly among younger people."

He continued: "Simply adding new electronic means of communication to old structures, or providing information online, will not automatically spark interest.

"Publicising and marketing online initiatives might be a start, but politicians and institutions need to actively attract people outside the usual suspects by demonstrating that their contribution is valued and listened to. Without that, the danger remains that e-politics will simply exacerbate the current situation by amplifying those voices already prominent in the parliamentary system."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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