January 12, 2011 — Facebook wasn't part of presidential politics until the 2008 election. YouTube didn't exist during the 2004 race. Before the 1996 campaign, candidates didn't even have websites.
Today it's hard to imagine a city council campaign without these things, and political scientists are taking note of the rapid changes wrought by online communication tools. At the University of Virginia, nine students in a new January Term course are on the ground floor of the emerging scholarly study of the Internet and politics.
"War and Peace on the World Wide Web: Politics on the Internet," is a two-week course taught by doctoral student Catherine S. Sanger in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics in the College of Arts & Sciences. Topics range from the Arab Spring to international cyber warfare, and the course not only introduces students to new themes in the study of Internet politics but also acts as a primer for the study of political science, Sanger said.
"It occurred to me that most undergraduate students here at U.Va. have never known an Internet-less world, and I thought it might be exciting to build a course on contemporary history," she said. "What is the moment that we're living in today, and how is it special? How is it not that special? These are the big questions we're looking at."
The class meets for several hours each day and requires daily reading. In the morning, students discuss broad political science theories in areas such as international relations, comparative politics, American politics or political theory. In the afternoons, they tackle the ways in which the Internet affects those areas.
Because the study of the Internet's relationship with political science is relatively new, the students have a chance to theorize rather than solely rely on existing scholarship, Sanger said.
"That's been the best facet of this course for me so far," she said. "Instead of feeding them pre-existing theory, I'm having them participate in theory building."
The nine students have a variety of experience in political science. As a result, some are already well-versed in political science theory, while others have more exposure in areas related to the Internet.
Tripp Grant, a first-year student, said he signed up for the course because he wanted to see what role the Internet plays in contemporary politics, including the current presidential election.
"This is the first time I'm going to be voting, so I wanted to know everything there was to know about how the Internet is used in this context," he said.
Eric Bolden, a fourth-year foreign affairs student, said he was attracted to the technical aspect of the class and wanted to expand his knowledge of the role that technology plays in international relations, including cyber warfare.
"A lot of the things we're covering here are both IT-oriented and also really contemporary. They include threats you see every day on the news, but that we may not know much about on the technical side," Bolden said.
Sanger said the condensed J-term format allows her to cover a smorgasbord of the political science field, using the Internet as a sort of lens. The nature of the course also requires students to polish their reading skills and get better at processing large amounts of information in a short time, she said.
Third-year student David Morales, who hopes to study foreign affairs, said the intensive course helps students quickly delve deeply into complicated issues.
"The short term is very beneficial because it's very concentrated," he said.
At the end of the class, each student will produce an op-ed on a topic related to the Internet and politics. Sanger said she hopes this process will help students focus and succinctly express thoughts on a complicated subject.
Tobe Okocha, a second-year student applying to the McIntire School of Commerce, said the reading and writing requirements, especially the op-eds, introduced him to a new, more concise format for expressing ideas.
"It taught me a whole new way to write about foreign affairs, how to be more direct in stating what your paper is about," he said.
Sanger said this first course is a pilot of sorts, and if it goes well she hopes to continue it, possibly expanded into a semester-long format.