Web Sites Change Political Climate

This story was written by Katelyn Johnson, Daily Trojan
Political websites are becoming more popular during this election year, with online campaigns such as Vote Smart, Declare Yourself and YourThreeCents dedicated to increasing voter knowledge and participation, particularly that of youth voters.

Many sites started as a way to offer unbiased political coverage geared toward the computer-oriented population.

"We felt that there wasn't a place for youth," said Laura Neroulias, one of the cofounders of YourThreeCents. "We don't just want their two cents... we want their three cents."

Students often use online websites to inform themselves about the candidates.

"I do think the Internet is becoming an increasingly important medium for young voters - and the entire electorate - to access politics," said USC Democrats President Tim Fehr, a junior majoring in international relations.

In addition to websites where visitors can learn about the candidates and their proposed policies, more and more websites are offering chat rooms and personalized interaction.

"Students aren't just asking and answering questions," Neroulias said. "They're discussing complex issues, and most of them have very strong opinions and are very intellectual."

Online tools are the most effective when a youth voter "either opts-in to the conversation or gets to interact in some way," according to a study by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Earlier in the year, the YouTube presidential debates allowed participants to ask their own questions of the candidates, and many saw it as a way to appeal to youth voters.

"Young people... have a new set of tools that make it look different from the enthusiasm that greeted other politicians 30 years ago," Lee Rainie, director for the Pew Internet and American Life Project, said in a New York Times article published earlier this week. "They read a news story and then blog about it, or they see a YouTube video and then link to it, or they go to a campaign website, download some phone numbers, and make calls on behalf of a candidate."

Experts said that discussing politics - or any subject - is easier online because of the protection offered by anonymity.

"They are very strong political activists on the site and we don't know who they are," Neroulias said. "Any of the strong Republicans could be McCain; it could be Bush, or it could be his daughters. There's no way that we know or students would know."

Despite the prevalence of online politics, however, many don't feel it matters if their thoughts and opinions are posted online.

"The problem with posting your political thoughts online is that often times they are not viewed as credible," said James Pita, a graduate student studying computer science. "People don't know whether they can consider you a reliable source so it's not worth really looking into the perspective of an online post. Typically people will go to news sources or other reliable information to make their opinions."

Some question the validity of political debates if they take place online, instead of in a classroom or face-to-face.

"The problem with political discussions online is that you lose a lot of the context that goes along with what you are saying," Pita said. "Distinct emphasis on certain words, facial gestures and expressions. You just can't convey the same things online that you can in person."

USC will be featured as College of the Week on YourThreeCents starting the week of April 7.

"We choose colleges that are influential and intellectual, and USC seemed like a perfect fit for us," Neroulias said.
© 2008 Daily Trojan via U-WIRE