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Are We Cynical About Politics or Just Uninformed?

Internet: The Center for Governmental Studies says we're both. So the nonpartisan think tank is hoping to create a more aware citizenry through a new Web site devoted to local elections.

May 27, 1997|DANNY FEINGOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's more than a little ironic that the advent of the Information Age has coincided with a crisis in American democracy. While communications technology has created the potential for a more engaged, better-educated citizenry than at any time in history, the country is lurching toward the millennium with a shrinking electorate and a political culture marked by widespread cynicism.

If Los Angeles' recent primary election is any indication, this city may be ground zero for the implosion of civic participation. Despite an ideologically polarized mayoral contest and a charter-reform measure with far-reaching implications, only 31.7% of registered voters bothered to go to the polls.

Into this breach has stepped the Democracy Network, a new Web site devoted to local politics. Conceived by the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonpartisan think tank, the Democracy Network--or DNet--is intended to reinvigorate the public sphere by harnessing the power of the Internet.

"We want to improve the debate in political campaigns," says project director Matt Stodder. "We want to re-engage local citizens on issues that directly affect them."

DNet, at http://www.democracynet.org, was created for interactive TV, but when that technology failed to catch fire, the center switched gears and devised a Web-based system. The site debuted in November in Santa Monica's elections, was expanded for L.A.'s April primary and is currently covering the upcoming June 3 general election.

Users who log onto DNet can tap into a database of information about candidates and ballot measures. In addition, they can peruse features and editorials from various publications, participate in hosted chat sessions and direct questions to a panel of experts. The site also provides links to other Web sites devoted to politics and government.

While DNet initially focused exclusively on elections, the group is enlarging its mandate. Beginning with the debate over L.A.'s next police chief, the site will cover a range of local issues. The idea is to provide a permanent place on the Internet where Angelenos can learn about--and help influence--the forces shaping their city.

Of course, creating a Web site is one thing; making a significant impact in an age of civic malaise is quite another. "We've got a huge hurdle," acknowledges Stodder. "Voter turnout is abysmally low, and people's engagement in public issues is not what it should be."

The center, which founded the California Channel on cable TV and has long been active in campaign finance reform, hopes to revive the body politic by giving it an injection of substantive, balanced information. This prescription is based on the belief that lack of knowledge is the main culprit behind the scourge of public cynicism.

CGS President Tracy Westen points to a 1996 Washington Post-ABC poll that documented the relationship between ignorance and cynicism. "The more you know, the less cynical you are," Westen says. "I personally don't believe that people are disinterested in public policy questions; they're just ignorant."

The question is, can the Internet serve as an effective tool for political education? Judging by the recent American Internet User Survey, conducted by Emerging Technologies Research Group, the answer would seem to be yes. That study found that, among the 31.3 million adults Internet users, news is the top priority.

But such figures don't necessarily paint an accurate picture. "People are going online because they want news," says Sam Tucker, publisher of WebActive, a site featuring progressive news and views, at http://www.webactive.com. "But what kind of news? Is it the recent 'X-Files' marriage or the logistics of Bob Dole's loan to Newt Gingrich?"

"My conclusion is that people who are using the Web are looking for other things," says Theodore Roszak, professor of history at Cal State Hayward and author of "The Cult of Information" (Pantheon, 1986), an influential critique of the Information Age. "When it comes to more significant intellectual activity, there just isn't the audience. The things that get hits are seemingly very commercial."

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Still, while chat rooms, sports sites and porn services draw huge numbers of people, there is some evidence that, at least around election time, Americans are turning to the Internet for information about politics. On Election Day in November, for instance, CBS' Web site recorded upward of 1 million hits an hour.

Perhaps more impressive was the heavy traffic on the Web site of Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan voter education organization that covers state and national elections. In the days leading up to the November election, this site, at http://www.vote-smart.org, received half a million hits a day, according to Communications Director Adelaide Elm.

While praising the work of DNet, Elm notes that the centerpiece of Project Vote Smart is an 800-number telephone line for election information. "It's important not to shut out people who don't have access to the Internet."

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