Everyone believes we are on the verge of something powerful and momentous,
but its shape and form remain hazy.
-- Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post, writing on politics in cyberspace

Tapping into the wired electorate

By Bill Loving, computer-assisted-reporting editor, Minneapolis Star Tribune

For political reporters, theres more to cyberspace than finding government records and campaign data. The Internet is also a huge -- and fast-growing public meeting place, and serves as a political town forum. An estimated 10 million people now are Internet users. A small fraction of those are using the Net to participate in politics and political discussion, but they tend to be active and opinionated. They also tend to be male and Libertarian, which is important to keep in mind; its a skewed sample of the public. Although that is changing quickly.

The 1996 elections arguably will be the first in which this new medium will play a noticeable part. Think of the Nets role in the campaign as much like televisions in 1956. Online communication likely will play a much bigger role in the politics of the year 2000, much as TV had its breakthrough in 1960, but its worth paying close attention in 1996. Here is a quick rundown of the major gathering places of the wired electorate.

  • USENET Newsgroups

  • The Internets public bulletin boards: an estimated 15,000 separate discussion areas. Nearly 100 politics and issues-oriented Newsgroups listed on Project Vote Smart web site (http://www.vote-smart.org/).

  • Everything from alt.politics.socialism.trotsky to alt.fan.g-gordon-liddy. See List of Selected political and issue-oriented USENET Newsgroups
  • Rowdy and uncensored, like a cross between talk radio and a barroom argument.

  • A sample posting, from alt.politics.usa.republican: Im surprised the Speaker has the good sense to finally start distancing himself from an over-the-top nut case like (Helen) Chenoweth. This person is so far right, shed make Mussolini blush. Abe Lincoln must be spinning in his grave. (But in this same Newsgroup someone posted the complete text of a 1785 James Madison treatise against state-sponsored religious education.)

  • In addition to those catalogued at the Project Vote Smart site, Newsgroups can be searched for by topic or keyword at several Web sites, including DejaNews (http://www.dejanews.com/) and Tile.net (http://tile.net/news).

  • Another powerful application of Newsgroups is that you can search for all postings made by an individual or about an individual, such as a political candidate or an activist. This can be done at DejaNews or AltaVista (http://www.altavista.digital.com).

  • Not all Newsgroups are available everywhere. Check with your local USENET server to learn which ones are available in your area.

  • Caveats for journalists: Information posted to USENET Newsgroups is highly suspect. Theres nothing to back it up but the authors credibility. Treat postings like you would any other undocumented information: check it out before running with it. USENET is a place to locate ordinary people and monitor opinion trends rather than a place to find hard facts.

  • Internet Mailing lists

  • Similar to Newsgroups, but discussions are conducted through e-mail and tend to be more civil and focused. Some lists are moderated, others arent. If Newsgroups are like talk radio or barroom arguments, mailing lists are more like salons.
  • Nearly 100 politics- and issues-related mailing lists mentioned on the Jefferson Project web site (http://www.stardot.com/jefferson/).
  • Everything from QN (Queer Nation) to STORMFRONT-L (white supremacy). Theres an active list right now for the New Hampshire primary, NH-PRIMARY.
  • Heres a recent post from REPUB-L: Yesterday, Maine Senator "Republican" Bill Cohen retired from theUnited States Senate, as of the end of this year. Cohen was admired by all as a good Senator, at least those who were interviewed by our local TV news....But Cohen is nothing more than a liberal in Republican clothing. He voted against the balanced budget deals that would have freed America from big government, or at least started this process, he's voted along with many other liberals in the Senate who on a host of other issues. Most of these votes along with the Democrats have been listed in C-News, that I've seen. It's rumored that the Democrat who is in charge of our Congressional District, Baldacci, may go after Cohen's seat...Baldacci admires Cohen and calls him a good Senator. Other Democrats say, "He looks out for the poor." I hope we get a strong Republican to run against Baldacci should he run. I hope we get a strong Republican period...!
  • Perhaps more useful to reporters are the many regional lists, such as MN-POLITICS (Minnesota) and PATAKI -WATCH (New York).
  • In addition to the catalogue of mailing lists at the Jefferson Project, lists can be searched by topic at certain Web sites, such as Tile.net (http://tile.net/lists/).
  • Many lists keep archives of all previous postings.
  • Caveats for journalists: The same warnings about Newsgroups apply to mailing lists. These are places to find real people and monitor discussions and opinion trends. But facts offered here can be just as suspect. Although mailing lists tend to attract more knowledgeable people than Newsgroups. An additional tip: Mailing lists can clog your e-mailbox in a hurry if you subscribe to too many. Some active lists can send out 20 or 30 postings a day. Subscribe to only a few at a time and rotate them often.

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