Survey: Internet helps people gain political power

Just under 40 percent of U.S. Internet users believe people can increase their political power by going online, up from 27 percent of Web surfers surveyed in 2003, according to an Internet research center.

This year marked the first increase in percentage of U.S. users who believe the Internet can help people gain political power, said the Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California. The center has been conducting surveys on Internet use for five years.

"Print and broadcast forever changed politics," said Jeffrey I. Cole, director of the center. "They certainly made the audience feel more informed, but print and broadcast never made the audience feel more empowered politically."

Until this year's responses, Internet users didn't feel politically empowered either, Cole said. But a number of factors, including the growth of blogs and Democrat Howard Dean's Internet-centric presidential campaign, seem to have increased the visibility of the Web as a political tool, Cole said during a telephone press conference.

"Dean really went from nowhere to almost being able to get the nomination," Cole said. "From organizing to mobilizing crowds to fund-raising to getting the message out there, he practically got the nomination from the Internet."

At the same time political organizations are embracing the Internet, public dissatisfaction with both major U.S. political parties has grown recently, Cole noted. "I think you may eventually see the rise of the first successful third party in 150 years," he said. "I think there's great frustration -- bloggers saw the impact they could have on Dan Rather." Rather was the CBS News anchor who resigned in November 2004 following blogger questions about the accuracy of a report questioning U.S. President George Bush's National Guard service.

Cole noted growth in the number of Internet users who post their own content. This year, 6 percent of regular Internet users said they had their own blog, 16 percent said they post pictures on the Web, and more than 10 percent maintain their own Web site. In 2003, 3 percent of Internet users said they blogged, 11 percent posted photos, and less than 9 percent maintained Web sites.

Nearly 14 percent of Internet users under age 18 said they posted their own content, compared to about 6 percent in 2003. The growth in posting personal content is "reversing 450 years of media trends that was largely one way, from the source to the audience," Cole said.

The survey, of people residing in 2,072 U.S. households during early 2005, found more than 60 percent of Internet users saying they believed the Web can be a tool to learn about the political process, up from 53 percent in 2003. Just under 35 percent of non-users agreed. The center defines non-users as people who access the Internet less than once a month.

Forty-one percent of Internet users went online to gather information about the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign, the survey found.

Other survey results:

-- Nearly 79 percent of respondents say they regularly go online, up from 76 percent in 2003. They spend an average of 13.3 hours a week online.

-- More than 66 percent of respondents said they have Internet access at home, up from less than 50 percent in 2000, the first year of the survey.

"I think in the U.S., we're getting to the point where everyone who wants to be online is online," Cole said. However, many people who want a computer at home or who want a broadband connection do not have them, he said.

-- The Internet users surveyed were more loyal to the Web than to some other technologies. When asked which technology they would be most willing to give up, 39 percent of Internet users choose their cell phone, followed by 33 percent who would first give up television. Only 28 percent of users say they would be most willing to give up the Internet.

-- Forty-six percent of Internet users said they shop online. In 2001, 51 percent of users said they shopped online. Internet shoppers made an average of 35 purchases a year, according to the 2005 survey results. In 2001, they made an average of 11 purchases.

-- In 2005, 57 percent of all survey respondents said they had concerns about credit card security when shopping online, up from 54 percent in 2003. In 2001, 71 percent said they had credit card security concerns.

-- Three-quarters of Internet users said they often go online with no particular destination in mind. In that sense, people are using the Internet, particularly always-on broadband, more like they use television, Cole said. "The Internet is really becoming background noise," he said. "They're using it to fill time."

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