Around any given election time, deciphering biased and partisan information sources in order to derive how candidates could be expected to act in office seems a daunting task. This might prove especially true approaching 2016, with both an overcrowded GOP field and the non-Clinton Democratic candidates often gaining much less media coverage.
This challenge of staying informed about candidates and how their values rank to yours as a voter is crucial to the Founding Fathers’ notion of America’s working democracy. The only way that the initial vision of America could work would be if it were held up by a constituency comprised of citizens who were educated on the issues they really cared about.
Becoming an informed voter is always evolving with changing technology in America. This phenomenon is made evident by the popularity of partisan news channels and the effectiveness of negative advertising campaigns that accompanied the TV age of the latter half of the 20th century. With the rise of the Internet, however, has come a change in how to convey information to voters. A prime example of this is websites like ISideWith.com.
ISideWith is a nonpartisan site that allows potential voters, through survey-style questions on various issues, to see how their views on issues compare with those of the candidates. The core issues in question are social, environmental, education, domestic, foreign policy, economic and immigration, and the quiz allows for diverse opinion by including multiple options other than just “yes” or “no.” Each issue can than be ranked from “Least Important” to “Most Important,” which helps the site’s candidate-voter match algorithm to assess how the user’s zeal for any given issue compares with a candidate’s strength of opinion on that issue.
As of August, the site has recorded nearly 20 million users for its candidate matching quizzes (including both its currently featured 2016 quiz, as well as more local quizzes for state legislature). Users can learn more about the issues by filtering by geographic area or socioeconomic status, and see how opinions vary—and, of course, always compare these to their own results.
ISideWith, along with many like-minded online political quiz and survey data predecessors, is demonstrative of the changing scope of elections (and, more importantly, this country’s electorate) in the face of the Internet. There are definitely both positive and negative shifts (in communications, cultural values, pastimes, even health) over the last few decades as a result of the Internet, as seen around the world. The same can be said for television, and how it changed the world mid-20th century. But in the case of the American electorate, and the new ways in which it accesses political information, the rise of television and the rise of the Internet are distinctly different in how they work to the benefit of their average users (the average voters).
It’s difficult to imagine getting ready to vote in an election and not having even a vague idea of what the opposing candidates look like, what they sound like, or even the air they give off when addressing an audience, therefore offering a kind of audition of how they would address the country over which they preside. This is taken for granted as the result of televised debates, interviews and more, starting with JFK and never slowing down since. The influence that television had on how voters related to presidential candidates and established impressions of them is unprecedented, but with it came a lot of drawbacks to how the electorate would come to be (and has been) manipulated to pick sides.
Partisan TV news channels are, effectively, all we really have. Yes, there are certainly broadcasts of varying levels of bias and varying agendas (be they solely political or financial, or perhaps upholding a reputation of relatively unbiased coverage). Various agents affect how a news station would choose what to broadcast and how, like location, ratings, demographics of its viewers and the beliefs those viewers already hold. All of these will ultimately contribute to the bias of any given news channel, because a network needs to uphold ratings to survive. And if viewers are likely to disagree with what the channel has to say about a world event or a politician, they are likely to change the channel to one with which they connect with on a level of values.
Even beyond viewers, TV news channels are subject to benefit from the funding of candidates and parties themselves in the form of advertising. In this way, partisan channels are a prime example of the way big money has taken hold of American politics and the American electorate. Gaining control of advertising (both through positive campaign ads and slander ads against the opponent) is a pretty effective way to get through to the voter, and is naturally best achieved with superior funding.
With televised political information, the voter has to work hard to consider the small ways in which ze is being manipulated based on the values of the average viewer different news channels are aiming to reach, or on the likelihood that they could be funded by any partisan party. By contrast, the Internet proves a less manipulative space. The ways in which the Internet differs from TV in its benefit to voters shows something about modern values today, too.
We’re lucky, today, that the openness of the Internet is cherished. The free nature of the Internet makes it likely to be a resource of diverse opinion and dynamic conversation about differing ideas. I’m not referring to when Internet users post fiery and often senseless replies against things written online that they don’t like—I believe that while the Internet is chock full of threads that look like that, there are still stable spaces of commentary, even if fewer and farther between than insensitive anonymous commentary. The fact that people can go onto the Internet, read about someone’s opinion on something (say, a political issue or candidate) and then also go into the comments section to see dozens (if not hundreds) of varying responses to that opinion is an advantage to voters. I’m not suggesting that the Internet should be taken for holy word, but instead that it is this kind of space, which allows for exposure to a variety of opinions on an issue through all of the articles and blog posts and websites that the Internet has to offer, that could lead to a better-informed electorate.
A cultural value that is increasingly reinforced by the Internet, and may result in a less biased and more engaged voter, is personalization. It’s all over the place with individual social media accounts and the popularity of Buzzfeed-style quizzes like “Which potato-based food are you?” (Emphasis on the “you”). So quizzes like ISideWith thrive because they don’t have to rely on partisanship, as TV did and does, but instead the fact that people yearn to see how they personally compare with other voters and, especially, political candidates.
One of the founders of ISideWith, Taylor Peck, acknowledged this in an interview. “’The younger generation is going to be more and more turned off by negative ads. They want something that’s personalized, just for them and how they feel,’ said Peck.”
This idea of a personalized political experience enhanced by the Internet is further demonstrated by the increasing popularity of presidential debate drinking games. If taken to have some political and social value (even if they are silly and parodying the seriousness of representative government), these games engage a younger population that otherwise might not take as much interest in the debates (or politics in general).
Maybe this picture of the Internet is too idealistic. There’s certainly the danger online of getting onto a soapbox and only contributing and gaining information from your own little echo chamber of likeminded opinions. But the potential for a better-informed electorate is there, in ways that television could never accomplish.
Aibinder is a member of the Class of 2018.