With a general election looming, Huw Richards speaks to an academic about the internet's effect on political participation
Stephen Coleman is one of those academics fated to spend part of his time explaining what he is not. The Cisco professor of e-democracy at Oxford University is not a techie but a social scientist. While he has no doubt that the internet is a hugely important development, he is not evangelical about it.
"People tend to make assumptions about what I'll think and are surprised when I'm more balanced. I'm in the business of making sober judgements, not visionary predictions," he says. And while on such subjects, he stresses that Cisco Systems' influence on his work is confined to having endowed his chair. The internet networking systems firm "provided the funding, but has no involvement in developing my research agenda or in its outcomes", Coleman emphasises.
But he is a typical inhabitant of the Oxford Internet Institute, which is housed behind a far-from-modern frontage between St John's and Balliol colleges.
"We're all but one of us social scientists looking at the social impact of the internet," Coleman says. There are two other professors - Helen Margetts, formerly of the London School of Economics, and Bill Dutton, once of the University of Southern California but now institute director - plus ten fellows. Like Margetts, Coleman is ex-LSE, but before joining he worked with the Hansard Society, a non-partisan educational charity.
Along with countless other political scientists, Coleman is gearing up for the forthcoming general election, keen to see if the internet's impact on politics and voting has changed since the last poll. His main research project is a study of how viewers of the TV reality show Big Brother who do not regard themselves as interested in politics experience the election.
He is profoundly unimpressed by the widely quoted "statistic" that more people voted in Big Brother than in the last European election. While this contention has been lodged in the public consciousness by repetition, it is simply not true, he says. Nevertheless, he does see a study of people who profess a lack of interest as a test for one of the most popular beliefs about the political impact of the internet - namely, that it can boost interest and participation.
Perhaps unexpectedly, Coleman is unconvinced by one of the most discussed applications of the technology, e-voting. This is not, however, because he attaches any special significance to the process of physically entering a polling station.
"I'm happy for people to vote in any circumstance that allows them to cast a secure and secret ballot," he comments. But he is sceptical about whether e-voting as yet passes the "secure and secret" test - an objection that he says applies equally to postal voting - and argues that experience so far suggests that offering an e-vote does little for participation.
Nor have British political parties shown much idea of how to use the web.
"Political parties have a top-down conception of how things should work, which is completely against the spirit of the internet. They want to control it and ensure that content stays on message, which just doesn't work on the internet."
Other institutions have done better. It was hardly surprising that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, both launched in the late 1990s into a newly internet-conscious world, should have been quick to offer voters both information and interaction. But Westminster - "rather despite itself", in Coleman's view - has also responded.
He is particularly encouraged by the success of pioneering online consultations on legislation. "The early evidence is that it does bring people who would otherwise not participate into the process, and anything that does that has to be good for democracy." Coleman cites a parliamentary consultation on domestic violence that received contributions from about 1,000 women.
One thing he will explore with his Big Brother viewers is where they get their news. He cites a US poll that found that the 18 to 25-year-old cohort placed more trust in the internet than in television. It was a finding of marginal importance in 2004 when they were also unlikely to vote, but potentially important by 2012 or 2016 when, if this group follows normal patterns, they will be more likely to participate.
British patterns, however, are expected to be slightly different. "Where Americans distrust television, we distrust the press," Coleman says. But internet users here have a significant advantage over their American counterparts in having, in the BBC, a single, highly trusted internet source for news.
"The BBC website is an incredibly important, largely underestimated aspect of British life," Coleman says. "People who have given up on papers say they look at the BBC site and know they can rely on it. It gets more readers in a month than all the newspaper sites combined do in a year."
But to locate the true political impact of the internet, he argues, we have to look beyond websites to the more informal interactions of email. This, however, creates conceptual and procedural problems. "Political scientists, like parties, tend to think institutionally and top-down, and it is very hard to get empirical data (about email). But we can ask people what they do."
American evidence shows that people are far more likely to exchange views on elections by email than via a candidate or party website. Coleman says:
"You have messages to friends, grandparents writing to grandchildren, people sending jokes to each other. It isn't a formal part of the campaign, and when parties try to do it, voters treat their messages as spam. But there's a lot going on here that we should learn about."
This does have a political impact. "We know that the more people talk about politics, the more likely they are to participate. They vote more, they join more, they watch the news and are better informed, so there is a general democratic benefit from all this informal activity," he says.
However, Coleman says he cannot answer the question that most UK politicians will be asking. "What we don't know is whether this benefits particular parties. My guess is that the Liberal Democrats might get a marginal benefit because their type of voter is more likely to have this sort of conversation. I don't see it as giving either the Tories or Labour an advantage. While Conservatives are on average wealthier, and thus more likely to have web access, they are also older. It isn't like the advantage that car ownership used to give to the Conservatives."
He suggests that the real prize, though, will fall to the first party to recognise that the key to benefiting from the internet is making use of its interactivity.
Individual MPs are beginning to recognise this. A number now run their own weblogs and invite comments. Others are finding that email is as important a component in the constituency mailbag as letters.
Parties, Coleman suggests, will become effective internet users only once they recognise that voters want to talk to them and not just receive officially approved messages.
"The internet is the greatest listening mechanism ever invented. The party that finds a way of entering into genuine discussion with voters will be the one that starts to get real benefits from all of this."
The Political Studies Association's annual conference, from April 4-7 at Leeds University, is holding a session on "Defining and designing electronic democracy".