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Study: Web Forging New Political Connections

New research suggests many people are using the Web to bypass traditional media outlets to learn about the presidential campaign and gain what they believe is "unfiltered" access to candidates.

In a report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, researchers said they found that 39 percent of U.S. adults are using the Web to access original source material from the campaign, such as videos of the debates, speeches or candidates' position papers.

"Many voters are now using the Internet to move past traditional media gatekeepers to gain their own view of the candidates and the campaign," said Aaron Smith, an author of the Pew report. "This shows the appetite of engaged citizens to move beyond the sound-bite culture and make their own assessments of the meaning of political developments."

The new ways that people are using the Web to access and share political information match the broader Web 2.0 developments that have remade the digital landscape as a more open and participatory environment.

Nevertheless, Pew found that the portion of adults who have tapped into some form of digital medium to get political news or share their views with others is still a minority, at 46 percent.

That figure includes adults who get political news from the Web, those who either receive e-mails from candidates asking for support or send out their own, or those who share political views via text message.

In some of the report's subcategories, the uptake in online political usage was striking. The portion of adults who said they go online on a typical day to learn about the campaign has more than doubled from 2004 to 17 percent.

Forty percent those surveyed said that had gotten political information online this year at least once, up from 31 percent four years ago.

Those figures grew among younger respondents, with the highest online engagement from supporters of Sen. Barack Obama.

Pew's report found that 35 percent of U.S. adults had watched a political video online, three times the number reported in the same study in 2004. This campaign saw the first CNN/YouTube debates, where candidates answered questions submitted by individuals through the popular online video site. YouTube was also the springboard for distribution of viral hits such as the pro-Obama "Yes I Can" music video featuring Wil.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, and Obama's speech on race, which has been viewed more than 4.5 million times.

Pew found that nearly one-fifth of adults surveyed said they had watched a video that did not come from a news outlet or the candidates' campaigns, indicating an increasing influence of user-generated content in the political discourse.

Steve Grove, who heads YouTube's news and politics division, has cited 2006 as the birth of YouTube politics, also known as gotcha politics. That year, a video shot with a cell-phone camera helped torpedo Virginia Sen. George Allen's reelection bid when he mocked an opponent's staffer at a campaign rally, invoking the racially charged epithet "Macaca."

The video slingshotted around YouTube, Allen's comfortable lead in the polls disappeared and he ultimately lost the election. Grove believes that the "Macaca moment" was when politicians at large took notice that the participatory Web was too powerful to ignore.

The Pew study found that the social networks are still a relative sideshow in the political arena. All of the major candidates in the primaries had profile pages on MySpace and Facebook, but just 10 percent of those surveyed said that they use those type of sites to learn about the campaign or take any political action. The researchers noted that that segment heavily skews young.

The candidates are increasingly looking to the Web as a vehicle for raising funds, a strategy at which Obama proved especially adept. Though the number of people who said they had contributed to a campaign online tripled since 2004, that portion stands at just 6 percent of adults, Pew found.

Pew also found that lowered entry barriers to the political conversation has had some negative consequences. Sixty percent of the respondents said they agreed with the statement, "The Internet is full of misinformation and propaganda that too many voters believe is accurate."

Responding to some of the more sensational mistruths that have been floating around on the Web, Obama last week launched the site Fight the Smears in an attempt to debunk misconceptions about him.

As a result, the site aims to display "smears" alongside "truths," taking aim at slow-to-die rumors about his identity and loyalties. Directly beneath the charge that Obama refuses to take the pledge of allegiance, for instance, is a link to view a video of him leading the pledge in the U.S. Senate.