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The role of sex and gender in search behavior for political information on the internet

  • Sabrina Heike Kessler EMAIL logo and Klara Langmann
From the journal Communications


Previous studies have emphasized a person’s biological sex as a factor which influences online search behavior. This study aims to investigate how people (N = 44 students) search online for political information (N = 220 search tasks) and if gendered online search exists. We examined online search behavior via eye tracking while the participants searched for information about political party positions on the Internet. A content analysis of the eye tracking data followed and was evaluated with a special focus on the role of biological sex and social gender, and the relationship of both factors with other variables, such as self-reported prior political knowledge, political interest, and Internet skills (via an online survey). The results accord with previous studies in that the sex influences the online search process. However, this relationship was partially mediated by self-reported political interest and prior knowledge. This outcome calls for a more critical use of the sex variable in reference to political online search behavior, and the inclusion of sex and gender related variables.


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Table 1:

Search tasks.




What is the position of the party Alternative for Germany (AfD) on the topic of statutory health insurance?


What is the position of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) on the topic of bottle deposits?

The Left

What is the position of the party The Left on the topic of consumer protection in credit institutions?


What is the position of the party the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) on the topic of a label for animal welfare in animal husbandry?

The Greens

What is the position of the party The Greens on the topic of the camera use on the uniforms of police officers?

Table 2:

Question categories/constructs in the questionnaires.

Question category



Cronbach’s α


Internet skills (prevalence)I

van Deursen et al., 2015 (17 items, 5-point scale)

M=3.4 (0.36); min=2.75, max=4.25



Internet skills (knowledge)I

Hargittai, 2009 (30 items; 3-point scale)

M=2.3 (0.36); min=1, max=3



Internet skills (self-efficacy)I

Helsper and Eynon, 2013 (15 items, 5-point scale)

M=3.46 (0.59); min=2.4, max=4.9



Prior knowledge concerning the questionI

closed-ended question (dichotomous)

No participant was aware of the position of the political party on the specific issue before.


Issue-specific involvementC

McQuarrie and Munson, 1992 (6 items, 5-point scale)

M=3.13 (0.82); min=1, max=5



Satisfaction with search resultC

closed-ended question (5-point scale)

M=3.28 (1.14); min=1 (totally satisfied), max=5


Similarity to ordinary search behaviorC

closed-ended question (5-point scale)

M=1.97 (0.88); min=1 (totally similar), max=5


Experience + motivation with new technologyI

Parasuraman and Colby, 2014 (16 items, 4 subscales, 5-point scale)

Optimism: M=3.47 (0.66); min=2.3, max=4.8

Innovation: M=2.95 (0.80); min=1.3, max=4.5

Discomfort: M=2.20 (0.64); min=1.0, max=3.5

Uncertainty: M=3.3 (0.61); min=1.75, max=4.5



Political interestI

Prior political knowledgeI

closed-ended question (5-point Likert scale)

closed-ended question (5-point Likert scale)

M=3.11 (0.97); min=1, max=5

M=2.80 (0.93); min=1, max=4



GenderI / BEM-Sex-Role InventoryI

Troche and Rammsayer, 2011 (30 items, 2 subscales, 7-point scale)

Masculinism: M=4.47 (0.7); min=2.8, max=5.6

Femininism: M=5.14 (0.8); min=3.3, max=6.7






open-ended question

n(female)=22; n(male)=22

M=23.1 (4.2); min=19, max=45



Note:I=independent variable; C=control variable

F=before questionnaire for each person (n=44); B=between questionnaires per search task (n=220); A=after questionnaire for each person (n=44)

Table 3:

Overview of the variable measures, descriptives, and intercoder reliability coefficients of content analysis of the eye tracking data.



Descriptive values for the entire search that represents the five search tasks for each person (M (SD))

Reliability coefficient (Krippendorff’s α); n=25

Search task

5 values

The Greens, SPD, CDU, AfD, The Left


Length of online search behavior


M=1841 (637); min=508, max=1841


Number of search queries on SERPs

0 to x

M=12.6 (5.9); min=5, max=30


Time on SERPs


M=425 (162); min=164, max=873

α=.81 (10 % tolerance)

Scanpath on SERPs

4 values

n(strictly linear)=224; n(linear)=114; n(linear with step back)=54; n(non-linear)=36


Length of search queries

3 values

n(one word)=31; n(2–4 words)=478; n(5 or more words)=54


Number of clicked-on search results

0 to x

M=19.9 (7.0); min=8, max=39


Number of viewed and unselected search results

0 to x

M=32.5 (16.5); min=9, max=79

α=.67 (10 % tolerance)

Number of selected search results position 1

0 to x

M=5.3 (2.6); min=1, max=14


Number of selected search results positions 2–3

0 to x

M=6.4 (2.7); min=1, max=12


Number of perceived websites

0 to x

M=15.8 (6.1); min=4, max=31


Type of website accessed

19 values

e. g., journalistic websites (n=345), homepage of the party (n=339), online encyclopedia (n=3)


Website scanpaths

4 values

n(strictly linear)=323; n(linear)=267; n(linear with step back)=69; n(non-linear)=119


Reception scope on website

3 values

n(one paragraph)=97; n(>3 paragraphs)=188; n(complete)=228


Time on websites


M=991 (409); min=245, max=2353

α=.81 (10 % tolerance)

Table 4:

Differences in the personal variables of the participants regarding their sex.


M (SD) for female (n=22)

M (SD) for male



Political interest

2.59 (0.65)

3.64 (0.94)


Prior political knowledge

2.32 (0.70)

3.27 (0.87)


Internet skills (self-efficacy)

3.28 (0.44)

3.64 (0.66)


Internet skills (knowledge)

2.20 (0.35)

2.42 (0.33)


Note: *p<.05, **p<.01, ***p<.001

Table 5:

Differences for variables of the online search behavior according the participants’ sex.


M (SD) for female;


M (SD) for male




Estimates of fixed effects (SD)


Number of search queries

2.27 (1.55)

2.80 (1.99)


–0.51 (0.34)

Number of websites from whose articles only one paragraph was read

0.62 (0.80)

0.27 (0.61)


 0.35 (0.10)***

Number of websites whose articles were read completely

0.84 (1.00)

1.26 (1.16)


–0.41 (0,21)*

Number of websites with strictly linear scanpaths

1.71 (1.32)

1.30 (1.19)


 0.41 (0.21)*

Number of websites with non-linear scanpaths

0.35 (0.72)

0.76 (1.43)


–0.40 (0.25)

Note: *p<.05; **p<.01; ***p<.001


Figure 1: Standardized regression coefficients for the relationship between sex and number of websites whose articles were read completely, as mediated by prior political knowledge
Figure 1:

Standardized regression coefficients for the relationship between sex and number of websites whose articles were read completely, as mediated by prior political knowledge

Figure 2: Standardized regression coefficients for the relationship between sex and number of websites from whose articles only on paragraph was read, as mediated by political interest
Figure 2:

Standardized regression coefficients for the relationship between sex and number of websites from whose articles only on paragraph was read, as mediated by political interest

Published Online: 2021-11-05
Published in Print: 2021-11-03

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