Missing the grassroots? Factors shaping the political use of the Internet among UK activists

Dissertation for the MSc New Media Information and Society

Department of Media and Communications
London School of Economics


Deliberative democratic theory gives campaigning organizations an important role in the public sphere. The new communicative capabilities offered to such organizations by the Internet must be evaluated in the light of a persistent digital divide. This study measures and attempts to explain patterns of Internet usage among activists, and examines the possible implications of these patterns for the public sphere and political participation.

A postal survey of 109 London-based activists and open-ended interviews with four of those surveyed found respondents had predominantly high levels of education, higher than average incomes and high levels of access to the Internet. However, high levels of access did not translate into high levels of use in all contexts.

While email was extensively employed, other uses like participation in open online discussion or web-based publishing were much less prevalent than traditional campaigning activity, which suggests many of the Internet's alternative media capabilities identified by scholars may be under-utilised in practice. Some access and skill barriers were noted but the principal barriers to greater use of the web in campaigning appeared to be attitudinal - resistance to learning a new medium due to age and a perception that its use was not relevant or important to campaigning. The fact that much Internet use by activists is via email and therefore largely "invisible" except to recipients might contribute to that perception.

The study also suggests that the existing socio-economic divide between the "core" activists surveyed and the broader public could be worsened if, for reasons of efficiency, those activists move their attention away from traditional activities like meetings and newsletters towards email-mediated dialogue or if the Internet does make it easier for the relatively privileged who are already online to become more involved at the expense of those who continue to fall on the wrong side of the digital divide.

If you would like a copy of this dissertation please contact me telling me which paper you want (I have several on the site) and if possible how you came to hear about it. My papers are available for publication and are free to read and circulate for non-commercial use - I would like to know why they interest you and would welcome comments.

Return to list of papers


Adamic, L. A. and B. A. Huberman (2000) "The Nature of Markets in the World Wide Web", Quarterly Journal of Electronic Commerce, (1), pp. 5-12. http://ginger.hpl.hp.com/shl/papers/webmarkets/
Agre, P. E. (1997) "Building Community Networks" in Reinventing Technology, Rediscovering Community: Critical Studies in Computing as a Social Practice, (Agre, P. E. and D. Schuler eds) Ablex, Norwood, New Jersey, pp. 241-148.
Atton, C. (2001) "The Mundane and Its Reproduction in Alternative Media", Journal of Mundane Behavior, 2 (1). http://www.mundanebehavior.org/issues/v2n1/atton.htm
Barber, B. R. (1984) Strong Democracy : Participatory Politics for a New Age, University of California Press, Berkeley.
Barber, B. R. (1998) A Place for Us : How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong, (1st) Hill and Wang, New York.
Barlow, J. P. (1996) Interview with John Perry Barlow interviewed by J. D. Lasica Last accessed: Jan 12 2003 Last updated: May 24, 1996 Address: http://www.jdlasica.com/interviews/barlow.html.
Braungart, R. G. (1971) "Family Status, Socialization, and Student Politics: A Multivariate Analysis", American Journal of Sociology, 77 (1), pp. 108-130. http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0002-9602%28197107%2977%3A1%3C108%3AFSSASP%3E2.0.CO%3B2-1
Castells, M. (2001) The Internet Galaxy : Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society, Oxford University Press, Oxford ; New York.
Cheval, J. J. (1992) "Local Radio and Regional Languages in South-Western France" in Ethnic Minority Media : An International Perspective, (Riggins, S. H. ed.) Sage Publications, Newbury Park, Calif, p. 298 p.
Children's Partnership (2000) "Online Content for Low-Income and Underserved Americans: The Digital Divide's New Frontier" Children's Partnership, http://www.childrenspartnership.org/pub/low_income/index.html
Clark, W. (2000) "Investigating Political Participation in Britain" in Activism in the Public Sphere, (Clark, W. ed.) Ashgate, Burlington, VT, pp. 16-42.
Coleman, S. and J. G. Blumler (2001) "Realising Democracy Online: A Civic Commons in Cyberspace" Institute for Public Policy Research London. http://www.ippr.org.uk/publications/covers/Realising%20Democracy%20Online%20-%20in%20.pdf
Compaine, B. M. (2001) The Digital Divide : Facing a Crisis or Creating a Myth?, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
Consumers Association (2002) "Which? Online Annual Internet Survey 2002" Consumers Association London. http://www.which.net/surveys/key.html
Couldry, N. (2003) "The Digital Divide" in Web.Studies, (Gauntlett, D. ed.) Arnold, London. http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/media@lse/pdf/DigitalDivide.pdf
Creative Research (2002) "E-Democracy: Report of Research Findings" Office of the e-Envoy, London. http://www.edemocracy.gov.uk/downloads/report.php
Curran, J. (2000) "Rethinking Media and Democracy" in Mass Media and Society, (Gurevitch, M. ed.) (3rd) Arnold, London, pp. 120-154.
Dahl, R. A. (1989) Democracy and Its Critics, Yale University Press, New Haven.
Dahlgren, P. (2001) "The Public Sphere and the Net: Structure, Space and Communication" in Mediated Politics : Communication in the Future of Democracy, (Bennett, W. L. and R. M. Entman eds) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 33-55.
Dalton, R. J. (1988) Citizen Politics in Western Democracies : Public Opinion and Political Parties in the United States, Great Britain, West Germany, and France, Chatham House Publishers, Chatham, N.J.
DiMaggio, P. and E. Hargittai (2001) "From the 'Digital Divide' to `Digital Inequality': Studying Internet Use as Penetration Increases" Princeton Princeton, NJ. http://www.princeton.edu/~artspol/workpap/WP15%20-%20DiMaggio%2BHargittai.pdf
Doheny-Farina, S. (1996) The Wired Neighborhood, Yale University Press, New Haven ; London.
Döring, N. (2002) "Personal Home Pages on the Web: A Review of Research", Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 7 (3). http://www.ascusc.org/jcmc/vol7/issue3/doering.html
Drudge, M. (2003) Drudge Report Drudge, Matt Last accessed: 13 Aug 2003 Last updated: Address: http://www.drudgereport.com/.
Duncombe, S. (1997) Notes from Underground : Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture, Verso, London; New York.
Etzioni, A. (1972) "Minerva: An Electronic Town Hall", Policy Sciences, 3 (4), pp. 457-475.
Fishkin, J. S. (1991) Democracy and Deliberation : New Directions for Democratic Reform, Yale University Press, New Haven.
Fiske, J. (1992) "Popularity and the Politics of Information" in Journalism and Popular Culture, (Dahlgren, P. and C. Sparks eds) Sage Publications, London, pp. 45-63.
Flick, U. (2002) An Introduction to Qualitative Research, (2nd ed) Sage, London.
Ford, T. V. and G. Gil (2001) "Radical Internet Use" in Radical Media : Rebellious Communication and Social Movements, (Downing, J. ed.) Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, Calif., pp. 201-234.
Frank, G. (1935) "Radio as an Educational Force", Annals of the American Academy, pp. 119-22. http://home.earthlink.net/~srduncombe/radio.htm
Froomkin, A. M. (2003) "Habermas@Discourse.Net: Toward a Critical Theory of Cyberspace", Harvard Law Review, 116 (3), p. 125. http://www.law.miami.edu/~froomkin/
Gandy, O. H. (2002) "The Real Digital Divide: Citizens Vs Consumers" in Handbook of New Media : Social Shaping and Consequences of Icts, (Livingstone, S. M. and L. A. Lievrouw eds) Sage, London, pp. 448- 460.
Gilder, G. F. (1992) Life after Television, W.W. Norton, New York.
Glasser, T. L. (1999) The Idea of Public Journalism, Guilford Press, New York, London.
Gore, A. (1995) "Forging a New Athenian Age of Democracy", Intermedia, 22 (2), p. 4.
Green, R. (2003) Activism Links Open Directory Project, Last accessed: Feb 12, 2003 Last updated: 7 Jan, 2003 Address: http://dmoz.org/Society/Activism/.
Greenspan, R. (2003) Blogging by the Numbers Cyberatlas Last accessed: 7 August 2003 Last updated: July 23, 2003 Address: http://cyberatlas.internet.com/big_picture/applications/article/0,,1301_2238831,00.html.
Habermas, J. (1992) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere : An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, (trans. Burger, T. and F. Lawrence) Polity, Cambridge.
Habermas, J. (1996) [between Facts and Norms] : Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, Polity, Oxford.
Hall Aitken Associates (2001) "E-Enabling the Voluntary and Community Sectors" Office of the e-Envoy London. http://www.e-envoy.gov.uk/assetRoot/04/00/08/28/04000828.pdf
Hamilton, J. (2000) The Inter-Not? M/C Reviews Last accessed: 4 Mar 2003 Last updated: 12 Apr 2000 Address: http://web.archive.org/web/20020729080550/http://www.media-culture.org.au/reviews/features/politics/internot-c.html.
Hargittai, E. (2002) "Second Level Digital Divide: Differences in People's Online Skills", First Monday, 7 (4). http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue7_4/hargittai/
Harvey, P., S. Green and J. Agar (2000) "The Imperative to Connect and the Importance of Place: The Social Contexts of Virtual Manchester" in Virtual Society? Profile 2000, (Woolgar, S. ed.) ESRC Virtual Society? Programme, Said Business. School, University of Oxford, Oxford, pp. 11-13. http://virtualsociety.sbs.ox.ac.uk/P2K.htm
Hauben, M. and R. Hauben (1997) Netizens : On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet, IEEE Computer Society Press, Los Alamitos, Calif.
Hayne, S. C. and R. E. Rice (1997) "Attribution Accuracy When Using Anonymity in Group Support Systems", International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 47 (3), pp. 429-452. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/B6WGR-45M91KT-G/2/ae34458e305ebb81380d0220e8a9432f
Herman, E. S. and N. Chomsky (1994) Manufacturing Consent : The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Vintage, London.
Horrigan, J. B. (2001) "Online Communities: Networks That Nurture Long-Distance Relationships and Local
Ties" Pew Internet & American Life Project, http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/toc.asp?Report=47
Ito, J. (2003) Emergent Democracy Last accessed: March 18, 2003 Last updated: March 12, 2003 Address: http://joi.ito.com/static/emergentdemocracy.html.
Jensen, M. (2002) The African Internet - a Status Report Last accessed: 10 Jan 2003 Last updated: July 2002 Address: http://www3.sn.apc.org/africa/afstat.htm.
Jordan, T. (1999) "New Space, New Politics: The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Definition of Cyberpolitics" in Storming the Millennium: The New Politics of Change, (Jordan, T. and A. Lent eds) Lawrence and Wishart, London.
Kahn, R. M. and W. J. Bowers (1970) "The Social Context of the Rank-and-File Student Activist: A Test of Four Hypotheses", Sociology of Education, 43 (1), pp. 38-55. http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0038-0407%28197024%2943%3A1%3C38%3ATSCOTR%3E2.0.CO%3B2-1
Kahney, L. (2003) Web Antidote for Political Apathy Wired News Last accessed: 10 August 2003 Last updated: 5th May 2003 Address: http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,58715,00.html.
Katz, J. E. and R. E. Rice (2002) Social Consequences of Internet Use, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
Kellner, D. (1998) Techno-Politics, New Technologies, and the New Public Spheres Last accessed: 18 May 2003 Last updated: 7 November 1998 Address: http://www.uta.edu/huma/illuminations/kell32.htm.
Khan, U. (1990) Neighbourhood Forums and the 'New Left' in Local Government.
Kling, R. (1999) "Can the "Net-Generation Internet" Effectively Support "Ordinary Citizens"?" The Information Society, 15 (1), pp. 57-63.
Lasica, J. D. (2002) Blogging as a Form of Journalism Last accessed: Feb 9 Last updated: 29 April 2002 Address: http://www.ojr.org/ojr/workplace/1017958873.php.
Lewis, P. M. (1978) Community Television and Cable in Britain, British Film Institute, London.
London21 Sustainability Network (2003) Directory of Community Groups London21 Sustainability Network, Last accessed: 20 Jul 2003 Last updated: 20 Jul 2003 Address: http://www.london21.org/directory.asp.
Mayer, C. S. and R. W. Pratt, Jr. (1966) "A Note on Nonresponse in a Mail Survey", Public Opinion Quarterly, 30 (4), pp. 637-646. http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0033-362X%28196624%2F196724%2930%3A4%3C637%3AANONIA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-9
McChesney, R. W. (1999) Rich Media, Poor Democracy : Communication Politics in Dubious Times, University of Illinois Press, Urbana.
McChesney, R. W. (2001) "Producer Power", Boston Review, Summer (2). http://bostonreview.mit.edu/BR26.3/mcchesney.html
McClure, K. (1992) "On the Subject of Rights: Pluralism, Plurality and Political Identity" in Dimensions of Radical Democracy, (Mouffe, C. ed.) Verso, London, pp. 108-125.
Mouffe, C. (1992) Dimensions of Radical Democracy, Verso, London.
Murdock, G., P. Hartmann and P. Gray (1992) "Contextualizing Home Computing, Resources and Practices" in Consuming Technologies : Media and Information in Domestic Spaces, (Silverstone, R. and E. Hirsch eds) Routledge, London ; New York, NY, pp. 146-160.
Negroponte, N. (1995) Being Digital, Vintage Books, New York.
NetValue (2001) "Distribution of Internet Activities for February 2001" NetValue http://www.netvalue.com/blink/blink_int0401/blink_section_c.htm
Nigg, H. and G. Wade (1980) Community Media : Community Communication in the Uk : Video, Local Tv, Film and Photography, Regenbogen-Verlag, Zurich.
Norris, P. (2001) Digital Divide : Civic Engagement, Information Poverty, and the Internet Worldwide, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. http://ksghome.harvard.edu/~.pnorris.shorenstein.ksg/book1.htm
Norris, P., J. Lovenduski and Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government (1996) Women in Politics, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Office for National Statistics (2002a) "Economic Trends 582" Office for National Statistics, London. http://www.statistics.gov.uk/about/platforms/et/default.asp
Office for National Statistics (2002b) "Focus on London 2003" Office for National Statistics, London. http://www.statistics.gov.uk/STATBASE/Product.asp?vlnk=10527
Office for National Statistics (2002c) "National Statistics Omnibus Survey July 2002" Office for National Statistics, London.
Office for National Statistics (2003a) "Households with Home Access to the Internet by Gross Income Decile Group: Household Internet Access" Office for National Statistics, London, UK. http://www.statistics.gov.uk/STATBASE/ssdataset.asp?vlnk=6937
Office for National Statistics (2003b) "Internet Access First Release - Households and Individuals" Office for National Statistics, London, UK. http://www.statistics.gov.uk/statbase/Product.asp?vlnk=5672&More=N
Office for National Statistics (2003c) "Population Trends 112" Office for National Statistics, London, UK. http://www.statistics.gov.uk/downloads/theme_population/PT112.pdf
Office of the e-Envoy (2002) "In the Service of Democracy: A Consultation Paper on a Policy for Electronic Democracy" Office of the e-Envoy, London. http://www.edemocracy.gov.uk/downloads/
O'Sullivan-Ryan, J., M. Kaplun and Unesco. (1979) Communication Methods to Promote Grass-Roots Participation : A Summary of Research Findings from Latin America, and an Annotated Bibliography, Unesco, [Paris].
Paulsen, R. (1991) "Education, Social Class, and Participation in Collective Action", Sociology of Education, 64 (2), pp. 96-110. http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0038-0407%28199104%2964%3A2%3C96%3AESCAPI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-R
Peters, J. D. (1999) "Public Journalism and Democratic Theory" in The Idea of Public Journalism, (Glasser, T. L. ed.) Guilford Press, New York, London, pp. xxxiii,229.
Pew Internet & American Life Project (2002a) The Broadband Difference: How Online Americans' Behavior Changes with High-Speed Internet Connections at Home Pew Internet & American Life Project, Last accessed: 28 July 2003 Last updated: June 23, 2002 Address: http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/toc.asp?Report=63.
Pew Internet & American Life Project (2002b) Internet Activities Pew Internet & American Life Project, Last accessed: 16 July 2003 Last updated: October 2002 Address: http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/chart.asp?img=Internet_Activities.htm.
Pickerill, J. (Forthcoming-a) "Ch 3: Inclusivity and Changing Organisational Forms" in Cyberprotest: Environmental Activism Online, (Pickerill, J. ed.) Manchester Press, Manchester.
Pickerill, J. (Forthcoming-b) "Ch 4: Mobilisation, Solidarity and Network Cohesion" in Cyberprotest: Environmental Activism Online, (Pickerill, J. ed.) Manchester Press, Manchester.
Pinard, M. and R. Hamilton (1989) "Intellectuals and the Leadership of Social Movements", Research in Social Movements, Conflict and Change, 11 pp. 73-107.
Pisello, T. (2003) "Why Pc Tco Remains High" Alinean Orlando, Florida. http://www.alinean.com/Downloads/Collateral/ROI/HP_AoD_White%20Paper.pdf
Rheingold, H. (2000) The Virtual Community : Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, (Rev.) MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.
Rheingold, H. (2002) "Smart Mobs and the Power of the Mobile Many" in Smart Mobs: The Next Social RevolutionPerseus Publishing, Cambridge, MA. http://www.smartmobs.com/book/toc_7.html
Rodríguez, C. (2001) Fissures in the Mediascape : An International Study of Citizens' Media, Hampton Press, Cresskill, N.J.
Rosen, J. (1999) What Are Journalists For?, Yale University Press, New Haven [Conn.].
Rucht, D. (1988) "Themes, Logics and Arenas of Social Movements", International social movement research, 1 pp. 305-328.
Rüdig, W., L. G. Bennie and M. N. Franklin (1991) Green Party Members : A Profile, Delta, Glasgow.
Schement, J. R. (1999) "Of Gaps by Which Democracy We Measure", Information Impacts, (Dec 1999). http://web.archive.org/web/20020612065445/http://www.cisp.org/imp/december_99/12_99schement.htm
Slevin, J. (2000) The Internet and Society, Polity Press, Malden, MA.
Sproull, L. and S. Kiesler (1986) "Reducing Social Context Cues: Electronic Mail in Organizational Communications", Management Science, 32 (11), pp. 1492-1512. http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0025-1909%28198611%2932%3A11%3C1492%3ARSCCEM%3E2.0.CO%3B2-B
Sullivan, A. (2002) A Blogger Manifesto Last accessed: Feb 9 Last updated: February 24, 2002 Address: http://www.andrewsullivan.com/main_article.php?artnum=20020224.
Tambini, D. (1999) "New Media and Democracy: The Civic Networking Movement", New Media & Society, 1 (3), pp. 305-329.
The UCLA Center for Communication Policy (2003) "The Ucla Internet Report: Surveying the Digital Future" UCLA Center for Communication Policy LA. http://www.ccp.ucla.edu/pdf/UCLA-Internet-Report-Year-Three.pdf
Verba, S. and N. H. Nie (1972) Participation in America, Political Democracy and Social Equality, Harper & Row, New York.
Verba, S., K. L. Schlozman, H. Brady and N. H. Nie (1993) "Citizen Activity: Who Participates? What Do They Say?" American Political Science Review, 87 (2), pp. 303-318. http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0003-0554%28199306%2987%3A2%3C303%3ACAWPWD%3E2.0.CO%3B2-6
Vittet-Philippe, P., European Institute for the Media. and European Centre for Political Studies. (1985) Local Radio and Regional Development in Europe, European Institute for the Media in association with the European Centre for Political Studies, Manchester.
Wellman, B., A. Quan-Hasse, J. Witte and K. Hampton (2001) "Does the Internet Increase, Decrease, or Supplement Social Capital? Social Networks, Participation, and Community Commitment", American Behavioral Scientist, 45 (3), pp. 436-455(20).
Wilhelm, A. G. (2000) Democracy in the Digital Age : Challenges to Political Life in Cyberspace, Routledge, New York ; London.
Woolgar, S. (2000) "Virtual Society? Profile 2000" ESRC Virtual Society? Programme, Said Business. School, University of Oxford http://virtualsociety.sbs.ox.ac.uk/P2K.htm