Document Type

Dissertation

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy

Major

Political Science

Date of Defense

5-1-2012

Graduate Advisor

David C. Kimball, Ph.D.

Committee

David Kimball

Brian Fogarty

David Robertson

Nancy Kinney

Abstract

The Internet is viewed by some as a great tool for democracy. Indeed, if we believe in the value of a marketplace of ideas, there is no greater forum through which individuals can express any and every opinion on a variety of issues than the Internet. However, it is unclear whether this free and unfettered expression of ideas has been helpful or harmful to American democracy. This dissertation demonstrates, through the use of National Election Studies (NES) data that those using the Internet tend to have more negative attitudes toward political leaders and institutions than their counterparts who either do not use the Internet or make use of more traditional media. In particular, the dissertation explores the possibility that unique features of online news (namely comment sections for the purposes of this study) exacerbate the lack of trust and confidence that individuals have in their government. Additionally, data from the Pew Center shows that those taking advantage of the opportunity to post in these online comment sections tend to have demographic characteristics suggestive of increased levels of social isolation relative to those who do not post comments. Finally, a unique experimental design on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus shows that articles with online comment sections are viewed as being more “rude” or “hostile” in tone than the same articles without the presence of a comment section. Ultimately, the findings suggest that there are reasons to be concerned about the way in which individuals gather political information and formulate political attitudes in this digital age.

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