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E-Political Socialization, the Press and Politics

The Media and Government in the USA, Europe and China

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Edited By Christ´l De Landtsheer, Russell Farnen and Daniel B. German

This book examines the state of print and electronic media in the United States of America, Europe, and China. The latest mass communication advances demonstrate that we live in an increasingly media-centric world. The chapters include theoretical and empirical studies that shed light on the meaning of this development. The trajectory of people’s move to electronic communication is a global phenomenon affecting their daily life. Does this trend aid or impede democracy? Is there an emerging digital divide contributing to an increasing gap between the rich and poor people and nations? The four parts of this book explore various aspects of political socialization and its relationship with different media, including print, broadcasting, and the Internet.
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6 Participation Friendliness of Political Websites

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Chapter 6

Participation Friendliness of Political Websites

Christ’l De Landtsheer

Professor of Communications Science, University of Antwerp, Antwerp, Belgium

Abstract

This chapter focuses on the quality assessment of political websites. It introduces a special coding scheme which enables one to evaluate and compare the quality of websites in the political sphere. These websites include party and public administration websites and personal websites of political leaders and administrators, as well as sites from non-governmental social and political organizations. Maybe even more important is that the criteria of the coding scheme may further the building of a qualitatively good political site in terms of “participation friendliness.”

Introduction

Websites form a new and additional political communication channel in a virtual and worldwide environment, which introduces new features into relations between writing and reading, between verbal and visual media. This creates a new model of political communication that has a potential to improve existing forms of political participation as well as to introduce new forms for those who are inclined to benefit from digitalization.

As we all know, creating a successful website is not easy. This is an obvious conclusion when looking at sites that are difficult to navigate, find information from, or interact with. As users, we are struggling with poorly designed and implemented sites. As researchers, we need to tackle the problem in a new way. It is important to understand that it is not enough to make a website functional, but the site should also be usable, appealing, compelling and engaging from a user’s point of view. The “art” of creating engaging websites needs new interdisciplinary approaches, presenting perspectives from communication studies, film and media analysis, graphic design, architecture, development of digital technologies and computer science, etc., as well as a psychological understanding of the human being as an emotive, sensuous, cultural, intellectual and social being (Neuner and De Landtsheer, 2005).

This chapter will first in a general part, introduce e-politics, the use of the Internet as a means of communication in politics. It will discuss the debate between believers and non- believers in e-politics. Can we consider the Internet as a new means of more equal communication? This chapter will detail the role of political websites and e-campaigning and give an overview of research results.

The chapter will then introduce, more specifically, a method for assessing the quality of political websites or websites in the public sphere. This method is entitled “the participation-friendliness index for political websites” (De Landtsheer, ← 101 | 102 → Krasnoboka, and Neuner, 2007). A final section will explain that the coding scheme is based upon political participation theory. The method was, until now, used to evaluate websites in the European Union countries, in the Unites States, and in South Africa. Most of the websites were analyzed at the event of political elections. Besides, the coding scheme was applied to governmental sites and sites by non-governmental (social) organizations, or even by terrorists, in order to get an insight in their communication strategies.

General Part

Within the last decennia, the Internet has evolved from the pale copy of the traditional media to the full-scale virtual public sphere, the meeting place of different actors. The world of politics could not stay away from the options offered by the Internet. The new prospects of digital information and communication did not pass unnoticed by political spin doctors. From this point of view, the Internet provides cheap but effective forms of infotainment, which, while bypassing the traditional filters of mainstream mass media, connect political actors directly with their voters. However, as different research projects demonstrate, despite the obvious advantages that the Internet communication offers for political actors, not all politicians and political parties have realized and acknowledged the importance of having an online presence.

E-politics

While the Internet has become a standard means of information and communication in advanced nations, the rest of the world lags far behind. Similar to challenges in other areas of social, economic, and political development, the African continent, for instance, continues to be the least affected by technological innovation. The North-South divide, reinforced in recent years by the “digital divide,” is primarily associated with Africa’s challenges. Even a continent as digitally challenged as Africa is not, however, completely homogeneous. Levels of social development are relatively low compared to more advanced world nations, but there are significant and consistent differences across the continent. As in many other areas of societal development, both the Northern African countries and South Africa are pioneering Internet use on the African continent.

The role of the Internet in political and social affairs is hotly debated in the literature. Scientific views vary from “cyber optimists” to “cyber pessimists.” In its pure, uncontrolled form, the Internet has all chances to develop into the proper public sphere (Bennett, 2003), where variety of ideas and comments can be relatively easily and quickly exchanged throughout the world, bypassing the channels of more traditional mass communication. This leads to “one-to-one,” “one-to-many,” and “many-to-many” types of communication, freed from any form of control, geographical, or time barriers. ← 102 | 103 →

Norris (2001) distinguishes two forms of Internet communication. The “top-down” communication enables practically unlimited stream of information from online actors. This form of Internet communication leads to the enrichment of the public with socially and politically relevant information and facts, which in its turn leads to the emergence of “bottom-up” communication, including exchange of ideas, inauguration of debates, and mobilization of public opinion.

The Internet is a cheap means of communication understood in relative but not absolute terms of the efficiency of the message dissemination. The price of the global message dissemination via more traditional channels considerably exceeds the price of the digital channel. Such convenient economic aspect of the Internet communication attracts ever growing numbers of social and political actors willing to spread their message as wide as possible. Bennett (2003) also stresses the importance of Internet communication for “global activism.” The ever growing number of world-wide networks makes possible the phenomenon of “global thinking.”

Such an often utopian vision of virtual communication is particularly attractive for the marginal and marginalized organizations and actors who embrace the Internet’s possibilities of anonymity and breadth of their message circulation despite limited financial resources. So, in the early 1990s, the Zapatista rebels in Mexico have used the Internet to mobilize their supporters. During the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the opposition to the Milosevic regime received an additional boost and support through the Internet-based radio station. Emerging African organizations for women’s wellbeing use the chance to establish Internet contact with similar organizations worldwide. For some disappearing aboriginal communities, such as the Cherokee Indians in the US, the Internet has become the essential tool to preserve and protect their cultural identity (Arnold and Plymire, 2000). And in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, the Internet helped to bring some of the power back to the citizens.

Although the Internet looks like the world of equal chances in terms of variety of opinions and possibilities for mobilization, there is no equality in terms of Internet access or intellectual and technical skills connected with Internet use. In this respect, the Internet reinforces the chances of those with necessary skills and equipment to create an e-fluential elite (Accone, 2002). Thus, only this elite can really enjoy the advantages of the new digital medium, while less fortunate actors are only further marginalized. Further widening of the gap between material and intellectual possibilities of different groups, now on the basis of Internet access, has received the name of digital divide.

The arguments of cyber optimists and cyber pessimists are also heard on the digital landscape. Optimists see in the Internet the potential for further democratic development which can bring an uncensored transnational public sphere by the means of equal access to the Internet technologies. In their turn, pessimists refer to ← 103 | 104 → the digital divide theory, stressing the unequal chances based on race, gender, and socio-economic status.

Believers versus Non-believers

There is no consensus in the literature for the relevance and significance of political websites. While practically all authors agree on the role political websites may potentially play in their parties’ or group’s propaganda, rationality of such involvement and its added value are often questioned.

Believers: Advantages of the Political Internet Compared to Traditional Media

In their analysis of the political websites in New Zealand, Conway and Dorner (2004) list five ways in which, according to the authors, political parties may improve their communication by the means of the Internet and to reach greater mobilization effects than traditional media may have. They talk about increased volume of the information transmission; speed of intercommunication; diversity of technoformats (audio, video, text); multidirectionality of communication and information flows; and decentralization of control.

Similar arguments appear in the work of McLaughlin (2003) on the use of the Internet by dissident organizations and parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and Egypt. The guarantee of publication freedom by the means of control’s decentralization is of particular importance here, taking into account the level of censorship in the Middle East authoritarian regimes.

Norris (2001) distinguishes top-down and bottom-up (vide supra) communication. The author stresses that the potential advantage of the Internet as a communication medium in comparison with traditional media is the free spreading of different types of information. This can combine posting the full text of the governmental report next to the summaries of audio and video materials from press conferences and debates. The spreading of information occurs directly and simultaneously and is available to the broader Internet public in an efficient, equal, and cheap way. Next to such examples of top-down communication, political parties can initiate additional bottom-up communication exchanges between citizens or interest groups on one side and the politicians and governmental officials on the other side. Many political websites also employ interactive tools such as chat rooms and feedback forms as well as comments pages.

These and other advantages are particularly pronounced in smaller parties which previously did have proper means for political communication due to the costs involved. Bimber (1998) stresses the bridging of the financial gap between groups and parties as one of the most important outcomes of Internet communication. The Internet offers easier ways to mobilize funds and votes for those political groups which previously were unable to enjoy such mobilization through more traditional means of communication. The principle that smaller parties (left ← 104 | 105 → out by the traditional media) acquire via the Internet a cheap platform for spreading their political message and, in this way, get more equal chances with bigger parties, has received the name of “leveling of the playing field” (Norris, 2003;Tkach-Kawasaki, 2003; Gibson, et al., 2003).This fact can be seen as an explanation why smaller parties are often more enthusiastic about the potential offered by digital political communication compared to bigger parties.

Non-believers: No Visible Advantages of the Internet Compared to Traditional Media

According to Coleman (1999), “The e-campaigning hype has far exceeded any real political effects.” Compared to the generally accepted professional standards of Internet design, the majority of political websites remains considerably behind (Norris, 2003). This is particularly noticeable in terms of user-friendliness and interactive possibilities: many sites lack proper search options, site maps, or graphic illustrations. Often, official information is presented in a very dry, formal, and technical style, which requires a certain degree of prior knowledge and acquaintance with official procedures. Readability of online texts often becomes yet another challenge for regular citizens due to the usage of the simple techniques of “copy-paste” of official documents directly onto websites without any elementary adjustment, technical and cognitive alike. In many cases, the informative function of the website (top-down communication) exceeds its interactive (bottom-up) possibilities.

Norris (2003) concludes that while the Internet possesses a variety of possibilities, it should be seen rather as an addition to and not as a replacement of more traditional forms of political communication. Also, while the advantages of Internet communication before the more traditional means promoted by the “believers” are acknowledged, not all of them are realized in practice. Websites and emails are additional ways in which political actors may reach citizens, not as substitutes for more traditional ways of engagement. One of the possible explanations here is that citizens have to be stimulated in the first place to start using the Internet for political reasons (Hansen, et al., 2005). This means, among other things, that the government, the administration, political parties, and NGOs need to promote their websites first via conventional offline communication channels.

Also the argument about “leveling the playing field” has been critically approached by many authors (Margolis, et al., 1997; Gibson, Nixon, and Ward, 2003; Gibson, Rommele, and Ward, 2003). There are no signs of more even balance between different parties and interests online than what exists offline. Discrepancies and inequalities between political actors are now reflected online. Politics on the Internet is politics as usual (Margolis and Resnick, 2000), bigger parties are more present online than smaller ones (Norris, 2000; Pew Research Center, 2000). Big parties, which previously reached big numbers of voters via ← 105 | 106 → traditional means of communication, now are able to reach bigger numbers of voters online as well (Bimber, 1998). Websites of big political parties are also richer, content-wise and visually, than the websites of smaller parties (Hansen, et al., 2005) because big parties have more resources to recruit the personnel to update and design their websites. Richer parties are also capable of greater offline promotion of their websites. In other words, the arrival of the Internet does not break down financial and institutional barriers. Despite this fact, there are still a certain number of smaller parties (primarily green and left parties) that succeeded in breaking through the existing pattern, launching successful political websites. Different empirical analyses demonstrated that precisely such parties have the most user-friendly and interactive websites (Gibson and Ward, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002; Voerman and Ward, 2000; Ward, et al., 2003; De Landtsheer, et al., 2004; De Landtsheer, et al., 2001).

Research Results

Based on the previous empirical analysis of political websites in various countries, we can establish a number of empirical findings. These include that big political parties are more inclined to be present online, that newer parties will have a greater online presence, and that ideology also plays some role (Norris, 2001; Gibson, et al., 2003; Ward, et al., 2003; Margolis, et al., 1997; De Landtsheer, et al., 2005; Cuevas, 2004).

Despite the great enthusiasm that smaller parties have shown to the arrival of the new medium, it is the bigger parties which researchers find present online (Norris, 2001). There are hardly many signs of the “leveling of the playing field” (Gibson and Ward, 2001 and 2002). More recently, De Landtsheer, et al. (2001 and 2004) confirm this hypothesis in the study of the last European elections, and Cuevas (2004) finds support for the same claim in her analysis of the Filipino political websites. This fosters the conclusion that bigger political parties have more and better chances to be present online. The data from the 2001 UK elections show that bigger parties are able to invest more time and resources for maintaining their websites, often offering extra search and fundraising options (Ward, et al., 2003). Similar results come out of the studies of the 1998 and 2000 US election campaigns (Gibson, et al., 2003): websites of bigger parties are more functional and offer extra options in comparison with smaller parties. Also Norris (2001) in her analysis of 399 websites concludes that smaller parties offer less content and often lack interactive options. De Landtsheer, et al. (2001 and 2004) registered a strong correlation between the size of political parties and participation-friendliness of their websites. Similarly, Carlson and Kjupsund (2001) suggest that websites of smaller parties in the 1999 Finnish elections had lower quality compared to the websites of bigger parties. Furthermore, Conway and Dorner (2004) argue that bigger parties in New Zealand use their websites and online presence more effectively and efficiently. De Landtsheer, et al. (2004 and 2007) reported similar ← 106 | 107 → results in their study of Belgian websites, stating that overall quality of smaller parties’ websites is lower than that of bigger parties.

Gibson and McAllister (2005) suggest that political groups which stress the importance of political participation and decentralization of powers and who rely on support of the more educated middle class are more inclined to engage in online campaigning. In another analysis of the 2000 US presidential elections, it was discovered that the websites related to the Democratic party had scored better than those related to the Republican party (De Landtsheer, et al., 2001). The Democrats put efforts into interactive features of their websites, while the Republicans use the Internet primarily for self-presentation and public relations. As far as the study of the Belgian political websites is concerned, the ecologist and leftist parties score better than others. The later study, however, shows that the differences between left and other parties are diminishing, with right-wing and conservative parties rapidly catching up.

Websites in Political Campaigning

Only ten years ago, the use of the Internet in a political campaign was seen as a strange and questionable innovation. Today, practically no important political campaign in Western societies is organized without the development of a suitable Internet strategy. Politicians, media, and civic groups employ diverse online means to present, defend, and promote their ideas and choices. Some of them dare to use highly interactive applications, others prefer to stick to the safe haven of (merely) information spreading. Election campaigns in particular have seen a dramatic increase in Internet use. Today, practically any politician or political party that competes in elections runs at least one political website. Additionally, support and partisan groups launch their own online presence. In their turn, media organizations and think tanks develop expert websites, where visitors may not only find sufficient analytical material and compare candidates’ programs, but even determine their own political preferences in case they are not sure which candidate may represent their interest in the best possible way. Alongside more “traditional” forms of online presence (such as websites and forums), newer Internet applications such as YouTube and LiveJournals are widely used for political ends.

Despite the rapid innovation of the Internet space, websites continue to be the major means of political representation online. They contain the fullest information on the parties, groups, and candidates who run in elections. Websites are directly controlled by the political actors themselves so that the (in)famous complaints about media framing and agenda setting are no longer a challenge in the case of Internet communication.

American political life has seen the most profound impact of the Internet on its conduct. The Internet has become not only the additional communicative tool for well-known candidates but also an irreplaceable means for the lesser known candidates to spread their message and to gain voters’ support. In particular, the ← 107 | 108 → Internet has become an important fundraising tool. In Europe, use of the Internet for political purposes is less pronounced and intense. Nevertheless, also here the Internet plays an ever-growing role in political and, particularly, in election campaigns.

The first prominent use of the Internet by political parties and candidates had been launched during the 1996 presidential election campaign in the United States. Many political parties lacked any sound strategy for the effective use of the Internet (Selnow, 1998; Roper, 1998). Often, parties had to begin using the Internet simply so they would not look outdated. However, the lack of a clear web strategy had become the important characteristic of political websites of the first generation. In many cases, the material which could be found then on the political websites was “copied and pasted” from the newsletters and party papers, which were first and foremost available offline. In a 2005 study of Danish websites, Hansen, et al. (2005) refer to those first-generation websites as the “telephone book generation” because the majority of websites primarily contained addresses and telephone numbers of party bureaus as well as old and new party programs and press releases.

Websites of the second, “information-broadcasting generation” (Hansen, et al., 2005), are characterized by the development of specific web strategies which differed from the general campaign strategies. The primary goal was to inform potential voters on different aspects of party politics, while there was no real trust yet in the advantages of digital communication as such. Where first-generation websites were mainly known for providing administrative information (and that primarily for the party members), second-generation websites were more focused on voters and providing them with relevant information. Thus, at that stage, the Internet began to be seen as a new way to supply information. Although at that stage, a separate, specific Internet strategy emerged (different from the general campaign strategy), the message sent through the digital channel remained unchanged compared to that sent through other communication channels.

The online campaign of Howard Dean for the nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate in the 2002 US elections became a catalyst for the emergence of third-generation websites. This new type of website became known for its three major goals: to convince instead of simply to inform voters, to boost fundraising, and to mobilize supporters. Such proactive functioning of the websites was named the “integrated image generation” (Hansen, et al., 2005). Online donations, personalized blogs of candidates, coordination of online communication, and a political activism events calendar are only a few attributes of this new generation of websites.

Methodology Part

Several attempts have been made to evaluate the quality of political websites. Qualitative and quantitative methods were applied to investigate how efficiently and appropriately politicians, parties, and candidates filled their sites with content ← 108 | 109 → (Davis, 1999; Klinenberg and Perrin, 2000; Norris, 2003; Cullen and Houghton, 2000). Some studies focused on counting certain features (Hill and Hughes, 1998; Gibson and Ward, 1998; LaPorte, et al., 2000; West, 2001; Foot and Schneider, 2002; Schneider and Foot, 2002; Rosenstiel, et al., 2004) while others also included the evaluation of quality (Davis, 1999; D’Alessio, 1997). Even though the analysis of party and campaign websites is not novel, only a few studies offer a comparative perspective. Before detailing the participation-friendliness coding scheme, we will discuss the theory on which the scheme is built.

Political Participation and Political Websites

Political participation can be seen as any kind of (political) communication processes to try to influence the selection of governmental personnel and the actions they take (Verba and Nie, 1972). Scholars tried to systemize the possible forms of political participation (Milbrath, 1965). For the purpose of our assessment scheme, we focus on a categorization regarding content. Building on Hagen (1997), we distinguish four main forms of political participation:

1. Active information seeking. Diverse information about the political processes and the political actors is a base for opinion formation and activity in political life.

2. Active political discussion. Discussion between citizens and between citizens and institutions is another important act of political participation. According to Etzioni (2003) a reasoned, informed, and broadly shared position requires dialoguing. In order to influence the selection and actions of representatives, one has to build an opinion first.

3. Voting. As the most direct activity to select governmental personnel, voting is the third dimension of political participation and, in the views of scholars, the central one. In order to deepen public actions, citizens must at least participate in the choice of their public officials. In this context, political parties function as important participation channels for citizens. Parties decide about the available candidates to vote for and formulate the “supports” and “demands” of citizens as an input into the political system (Milbrath, 1965).

4. Political activity. As any activity that is directed at securing or opposing any change in the law or in the policy or decisions of central governmental or local authorities (whether inside the country or abroad), political activity is the fourth dimension. Conventional and unconventional activities include volunteering in campaign work, participating in a community forum, demonstrating, or even mobilizing fellow citizens (Barnes and Kaase, 1979).

Especially in the context of the European elections (where politics seems to be removed from citizens), political websites can extend and enhance these forms of political participation. The next part of this chapter presents a short, exemplary ← 109 | 110 → sketch of possibilities for improving citizens’ participation with the help of the Internet.

Political Websites

Given the four types of citizens’ political participation, how can a political website’s design and content enhance these activities from a citizen’s perspective? In order to address the question, we try to identify the Internet’s potential to support and improve these four dimensions of citizens’ political participation. Regarding the four categories of political participation, we argue that websites should be informative, interactive, user-friendly, and aesthetically stimulating.

The “information” quality of websites relates to information seeking by citizens. The Internet enables an information transfer with a much higher volume and speed compared to traditional mass media (Neuner and De Landtsheer, 2005). The often-claimed lack of transparency and access to the traditional media channels by citizens and minor political actors can be compensated by information provision and exchange via websites (Mambrey, et al., 1999). The new possibilities for combined text, audio, images, and hyperlinks enable new styles of multi-media messages, which can enrich and stimulate communication processes. The political parties, therefore, are expected to offer political information in an adequate format on their websites (e.g., background information downloadable as a pdf-file, downloadable speeches, linking important information).

The “interactive” quality of websites concerns the political discussion function. Websites should support citizens for information activation and documentation (e.g., download papers and forms). Moreover, they should enable citizens to directly communicate with the candidates and parties in a reciprocal way or even enable citizens to mobilize other citizens. The interactive features of the Internet enable two-way communication (synchronous or asynchronous and in horizontal and lateral directions) between fellow online citizens, interest groups, political parties, candidates, and so on. These features of websites make interaction possible between users and a website interface (e.g., navigation, download). A user has more control since the limitations of time and space and the borders between authors and receivers of information are blurring (Neuner and De Landtsheer, 2005). Online, citizens can discuss and reflect their viewpoints, everybody can become an editor or a publisher, and community connections (e.g., online forums) can be fostered. Websites can (online) expand and optimize the existing channels of communication (e.g., political parties, mass media, and public sphere).

“User-friendliness” of websites relates to the voting dimension of political participation. The term “user-friendliness” embraces the extent to which a website supports its users in completing their tasks efficiently, effectively, and satisfactorily (Nielsen, 2000). Citizens will be encouraged to use political websites if they are user-friendly. While newspapers and electronic mass media tend to provide mostly the coverage of the major candidates and the hottest issues, websites can help to ← 110 | 111 → compensate for the deficits. Appropriate information and communication services (beyond the 30-second advertisements, sound bites, and horse race campaign coverage) can engage voters by providing more substance. In addition, candidates can contact the electorate personally via e-mail or discussion forums and try to convince or mobilize them. In this way, the gap between politicians and their electorate could be narrowed. A cleverly constructed website can target many audiences and even attract new ones, especially young people (Norris, 2001).

The “aesthetics” applied to websites relates to the dimension of political activity. The aesthetic quality of a website is directly connected to its persuasive and mobilizing functions that are based on the emotional appeal of the site. Our definition of “aesthetics” embraces the entire perception of a website by the citizen users. It addresses the arrangement and style of written words, elements of visual communication (e.g., pictures, empty space, body language), as well as the use of sound with which a website invites and challenges a user to follow its lead. It refers to the mediated tone and mood of a website’s content (Schumacher, 1999). There are many ways to become politically active. For a brief overview, people can join a range of direct (e.g., petition for a referendum) and indirect (party membership, volunteer party work, etc.) conventional forms, as well as direct (e.g., participating in actions of social movements, NGOs) and indirect (participation at citizen forums and networks) unconventional forms of political activities (Kaase and Marsh, 1979; Norris, 2003). It is often claimed that the growing popularity of unconventional “grassroots” forms of political activities exists due to an increasingly perceived “weakness” of citizens against the distanced and alienated apparatus of the state (including political parties) (Norris, 2003). Against such a background, websites can function as a “bridge” (a direct and interactive communication channel) between the MPs, party officials, candidates, and citizens. Moreover, issues can be launched by intellectuals or by advocates with limited resources and be taken up by journalists or associations off- and online. Issues, subsequently, can even turn into social movements or into new subculture; and they can finally reach the mass media and appear on the political agenda.

Participation-friendliness Scheme

The coding scheme we present here was developed and primarily applied in the comparative study of political websites in Eastern and Western Europe (De Landtsheer, et al., 2005). The term “participation-friendliness” emphasizes how the design and the content of a website can enhance, motivate, and encourage citizens to become active participants in the political communication processes on- and offline.

We have developed the criteria which take into account a wide range of factors supposedly crucial in this context. The criteria are based on the latest literature (books, case studies, articles, and web design guidelines) from the different fields of study: political science, educational and information science, communication ← 111 | 112 → and commercial studies, graphic design, and psychology. The coding scheme is easily adaptable for the study of other public actors’ websites, such as social movements, candidates, governments, interest groups, media organizations, etc.

Participation-friendliness is the major evaluation parameter of the coding scheme. It is based on the assumption that a political website can become an important information, communication, and participatory tool in election campaigns and other forms of politicians-citizens interactions only if it satisfies certain criteria. The coding scheme includes the four main categories: information, interactivity, user-friendliness, and aesthetics (for a detailed description of all categories, see Appendix 1).

Information pays attention to the quality and type of information. Interactivity deals with the possibilities offered to be an active citizen, contrasted to an unengaged recipient of information. Building on Rafaeli (1988), we consider interactivity as not just a technological feature, but also as a communication concept by itself. User-friendliness refers to the ease with which users can navigate the site and find information and services. Even if the Internet technologies carry a high potential to foster citizen’s participation possibilities in impressive new ways, scientists should not forget that it is still an interaction between humans and a machine. And the website interface as a mediator of this interaction plays a significant role (Norman, 2002; Dillon, 2000; Schneiderman, 1998). Since for many citizens, the computer is still a confusing or even frightening tool, it is important while assessing the participation-friendliness of political websites to consider how citizens will best interact with the website interface. Theories and research from interface design, human-computer interaction, and cognitive science provide a valuable contribution for improving political website interfaces concerning their potential to foster citizens’ engagement. Aesthetics addresses the arrangement and style of written words and visual elements with which the medium invites and challenges a user to follow its lead.

Measurement of Criteria

From a great range of possible conditions of political and electoral success of websites, we have chosen information, interactivity, user-friendliness, and aesthetics as the key characteristics of websites’ participation-friendliness. Each main category includes five subcategories. We give each subcategory a weight factor, according to its estimated power to support civic engagement. Within each category, a maximum of four points are given to each of the subcategories (0 = not present, 1 = scanty presence, 2 = average presence, 3 = above-average presence, 4 = very good presence). These points are multiplied with the corresponding weight-factors. Their sum gives points for each category. A website can score a maximum of 60 points per category, which in total gives a maximum of 240 points for the index of Participation Friendliness. The more points a website gets, the more participation-friendly it is assessed (see Table 1 for the coding scheme). For better ← 112 | 113 → comparisons, we have also given “low-average-high” labels for these points (see Table 2).

Table 1: Assesment scheme for participation-friendliness of political websites

CategoriesWeight Factor
1. Information 
1 self-representation and public relations(value 1)
2 extern information(value 2)
3 general ‘boulevard’ information(value 3)
4 political information for citizens(value 4)
5 political background information(value 5)
2. Interactivity 
1 read-only-service(value 1)
2 read-and-just-write-service(value 2)
3 electronic correspondence(value 3)
4 forums/discussion groups/virtual communities(value 4)
5 self-presentation possibilities for citizens(value 5)
3. User-friendliness 
1 actuality(value 1)
2 compactness(value 2)
3 search/navigation help(value 3)
4 investigation/documentation help(value 4)
5 links(value 5)
4. Aesthetics 
1 humor/parody(value 1)
2 symbols/political propaganda(value 2)
3 pictures(value 3)
4 visual attractiveness/appeal(value 4)
5 design/structure(value 5)

Table 2: Participation-friendliness of websites

← 113 | 114 →

The qualitative and quantitative aspects are equally important for all categories. They should be used to construct a good website, which serves users’ needs in a satisfactory way. It always depends upon the purpose of the website and the target group.

Conclusion and Discussion

The intention of this chapter is to show the need for bringing single areas together in one framework to provide a broad picture of the quality of a website. The suggested categories can still be better theoretically underpinned, conceptualized, and categorized. Moreover, their proper application always depends on the purpose and nature of the website and the cultural context. Especially, the aesthetics should no longer be ignored when talking about useable and engaging websites since they can play a crucial role in motivating the citizens to get engaged with the content of the site. The movement from book to screen, from print to digital with changed concepts of space, time, togetherness, and communication provides so many surprises, opportunities, hopes, and fears that none of us can say how it will play out. Our experiences in the “virtual world” will affect our perceptions and activities in “real world.” With changed media and communication, the concept of the public sphere and democracy also changes. But how we judge these changes is less important than combining our expertise to actively create this new public space/new part of our public sphere. A shared common world (with public and private discourse) requires the people’s participation. In order to design meaningful and attractive websites, designers must understand how citizens use and perceive the sites they visit. Therefore, the user should be in the center of the design. Moreover, users and perceptions may vary among various types of websites and tasks, so we should start with specific contexts before we draw general conclusions.

It is clear that the potential of the Internet to enhance citizens’ participation not only depends upon the design and content of their websites, but on a number of factors, such as an institutional framework of a political system, access to the websites, electronic literacy of citizens, resources, and the goodwill of the political actors.

Acknowledgements

This chapter was earlier published in pages 99-124 in Marczewska-Rytko, M. (ed.) 2012, Democratic Thought in the Age of Globalization. Lublin, Poland: University Maria Curie Sklodowska Press. It was delivered as a lecture at China University of Mining and Technology (CUMT) Xuzhou, China, as the guest of Professor and Dean of Graduate Affairs, Song Yingfa, on May 13, 2011. The author thanks Cornelia Neuner for her contribution to an earlier version of this chapter (Neuner and De Landtsheer, 2005). ← 114 | 115 →

Appendix 1. Criteria for the Assessment-Scheme

Information

This category focuses on the general utility of the information in terms of its volume, quality, and type. It is not intended to evaluate how democratic and reliable the actual content is.

1.1. Self-Presentation and Public Relations (value 1)

Does the website provide information about the organization, its purpose and belonging? Is the Internet used as a vehicle for appropriate public relations (the purpose of the website, major events and dates, self-presentation)? Is the news service well organized (press releases, press and picture archives, contact person)? Does the website provide enough information to form opinion about the people and institution behind it (curriculum vitae, point of view about actual issues, present political position, etc.)?

1.2. External Information (value 2)

It concerns additional information service (e.g. actual news, situation abroad, links to other organizations, information about the actions of social movements, and members of the constituency). Mobile information services about upcoming events, weather, etc., are also included here. We assume that citizens can benefit from this in an indirect way by gaining broader knowledge in their preparation of activities. It may change their position or spur them to action or at least attract their interest. It gives them a good overview of actual political and public processes and allows them to get more detailed information about the subjects and organizations they are interested in.

1.3. General/Boulevard Information (value 3)

Information can be made available online from or about government departments, citizens’ advice bureaus, libraries, council offices, and many other (public) institutions, particularly at the local level (e.g., opening hours, job offerings, contact-addresses, associations, registered societies, statistical data, information about the use of the public purse, events and cultural offerings, other information which helps to organize daily life of active citizens).

1.4. Political Information for Citizens (value 4)

This criterion considers whether political information contributes to the transparency and facilitates political participation. During elections, the following would be of special interest: candidates with their personal aims and point of views, statements, speeches, articles, interviews, publications, and other information on actual issues reflecting the (partisan) viewpoints as well as other opinions, election results, political agendas, information about elections, and planned actions in the constituency, information focused on local issues. ← 115 | 116 →

1.5. Political Background Information (value 5)

This subcategory examines whether diverse opinions of citizens, media, or opponents are shown as well as comments and polls. Can citizens find a range of different opinions, origins, reasons, and expectation of the political message that are not found on the evening news? Is there any information which contains comparisons between candidates, messages, issues, party policies?

Interactivity

This category deals with the possibilities which a website offers citizens to use and debate the supplied information. Does the site treat users as passive recipients of information rather than as active citizens?

2.1. Read-Only-Service (value 1)

Websites can simply post essays to provide citizens with (political) information without giving the possibility for any kind of interactions like comments, requests, reaction, or deliberation. Does the website give pure passive information without input or feedback possibilities for the citizens? This one-way communication is better than no information, but it would not meet the needs of a politically interested user and does not exploit the potential of the Internet.

2.2. Read-And-Just-Write-Service (value 2)

Does a website offer possibilities for sending an e-mail (e.g., for further information, complaints or direct contact with a politician, a party member, candidate, or activist, etc.)? Is there a feedback possibility via e-mail? Contacting the e-candidate might be the first step of getting involved in politics.

2.3. Electronic Correspondence (value 3)

Does the website promote online transaction services with regular feedback loops? Do they guarantee that communication can be reciprocal? For example, are there emailing lists, a guest book, newsletter, and online campaigns to join on the website? Does the website link political experts or administrators with “ordinary” citizens? Can citizens, for example, attend online consulting hours, fill in feedback forms about the site, register online for a campaign or party membership, make reservations and order brochures online, conduct or participate in opinion polls, enroll for a course, or apply for a job online? ← 116 | 117 →

2.4. Forums, Chat Groups (value 4)

Does the website provide a chat room so that the newly assimilated information can be discussed vertically as well as horizontally (e.g., with the owner of the site), linking citizens directly to one another? Are there forums for different (partisan) citizens/groups to find a public voice? For how many topics does the website offer discussion groups? Are these groups moderated and are political actors also joining them?

2.5. Self-presentation Possibilities (value 5)

Self-presentation possibilities center on whether a website helps citizens to organize common activities by themselves. The websites of political parties, politicians, or civic organizations can, for example, offer citizens to make their own page. In this way, people can present and discuss actual information that is, in their opinion, interesting for their fellow citizens (e.g., local issues, building plans, activities). Especially people who are not so familiar with buying a domain and building own website would feel supported and encouraged by these possibilities.

User-friendliness

This criterion concerns how easy it is to use a political website.

3.1. Actuality (value 1)

Does the website provide citizens with the latest (election) news, press-releases, forthcoming events, hot topics, major political news, news from the region, etc.? How often is the information updated and how many dead sites/pages exist?

3.2. Compactness (value 2)

Is the information well-structured and is it linked so that one can click further without surfing through the entire website? Is the site quickly readable and understandable? Is there superfluous information or is the most important political information is brought to the forefront?

3.3. Search/Navigation Assistance (value 3)

The navigation system and the menu points are crucial for the user to get the required information easily and quickly. Furthermore, there should be a sitemap which provides a general overview and contains pictures to snap/click on. How understandable is the chosen name for the presented menu point? Are all pages included in the navigation?

3.4. Investigation and Documentation Assistance (value 4)

Especially beginners may need additional help to find the required information, documentation, and comments. Therefore, it is important to offer appropriate possibilities for investigation like databases, searching machines, archives, and possibilities to bookmark the site, print, or download the documents. Are there ← 117 | 118 → search engines? Do the results correspond to the typed keywords? Are there other language versions? Are innovative technologies used to download videos, speeches, or slide shows quickly (also inexpensively)?

3.5. Links (value 5)

Links contain information or recommendations beyond the context of the current text. They should be organized to help a user, but not to distract or disorientate. Therefore, the text/name of the link and its placement is very important. A special links section should be arranged by topic and be commented. Strategically connected links can facilitate citizens’ interest in political participation.

Aesthetics

Aesthetics appeals to our senses and to our intellect. It is about how creative, innovative, and appropriate the sites/messages are designed to attract citizens’ attention.

4.1. Humor/Parody (value 1)

Even politically active citizens like to be entertained. It is about the style and language of the presentation. Does the site use tools of political humor (e.g., parodies, political cartoons and caricatures, funny pictures, ironic or polemic ways of writing, funny/sarcastic comments about the life and love of political actors, anecdotes)? Are there additional offerings, for example, the possibility to send funny e-cards about politicians, or animations, etc.?

4.2. Symbols/ Political Propaganda (value 2)

Symbols can help make abstract topics more concrete. In this context, it is about whether there is appropriate political propaganda (not an overload at the cost of useful political information). Do websites use typical and well-known (national) symbols, like the colors of the American flag, to strengthen the feeling of unity and identity? How attractive is the language? Are the used metaphors and symbols understandable and constant?

4.3. Pictures (value 3)

Photos, illustrations, or graphics can help visualizing the topic/problem, simplify complex connections, and facilitate reading. Moreover, pictures can communicate their own message. Through their appropriate design, they should help form the right impression. ← 118 | 119 →

4.4. Visual Appeal/Attractiveness (value 4)

This criterion deals with the general style of the website. The pages should be appropriate in length, clearly laid out, and readable. The appeal and friendliness of the website depends on the colors, typography, unity of single sites, appropriate use of multimedia elements, etc.

4.5. Design/Technology (value 5)

This focuses on interface design and the technology that was used. Concerning the used technology, crucial issues are: compatibility for older browsers, loading speed, offer of alternatives for missing plug-ins (e.g., a flash and html version), the absence of frames in order to find the site via search engines, using of the site without changing the settings (e.g., screen resolution, enabling cookies).

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