The Internet: A Democratising Force or Information Overload?

April 3, 2009 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Increasing apathy concerning citizens’ attitudes towards and engagement with politics is a well-established and substantially expressed opinion in the western world. There are numerous statistics which illustrate growing cynicism and frustration among voters, lack of interest in political issues and parties, and a trend of decreasing turnout in elections.

In his book Democracy: Crisis and Renewal, Paul Ginsborg argues that the current situation surrounding democracy is a crisis of quality not quantity. Democracy as an ideal, and as an actual form of government, has spread globally to a point whereby it is the most predominant form of government – 62 per cent of nations are now electoral democracies according to Freedom House. During this time of global democratisation, however, disaffection has grown among citizens in nations with relatively longstanding democratic traditions. For Ginsborg this disaffection has shown itself in several ways including ‘declining voter turnout, declining membership of parties, loss of faith in democratic institutions and in the political class in general.’

Ginsborg identifies four structural changes that have helped bring about this discontent. Firstly, ‘the assignation of politics to a separate sphere, inhabited by professionals, organised party elites, protected by the technical language and bureaucratic practice of administrators, and to a very great extent impermeable to the general public.’ Thus, creating a situation or at least an impression of the public as a separate entity who do not possess the knowledge or means to participate in the political process. Secondly, cultural and socio-economic changes have created societies ‘rich in comforts but poor in time’ where dominance of consumer capitalism has resulted in the spread of ‘individual and family self-celebration and self-interest, of increased television viewing and dependence.’ Thirdly, the plutocratic nature of politics means that although everybody is equal at the ballot box, those with the greatest financial resources wield much greater political influence. This can lead to corruption, positions of power for party fundraisers and an alienation of those who lack such privileges. Lastly, Ginsborg singles out what was the ‘most vibrant democracy in the world’, the United States, whose foreign policy he believes has damaged democracy around the globe.

The internet has the potential to alter the ways in which citizens participate in a democracy and possibly reverse some of these trends. American academic Bruce Bimber writes in ‘Information and American Democracy’ that the Internet: ‘has precipitated much speculation about political change and transformation, from visions of direct democracy and erosion of processes of representation and institutional deliberation because of new technology to enhancement or degradation of the “public sphere” and the state of citizens’ civic engagement.’ The following will look at who these competing ideas relate to political engagement.

Passive or active engagement?

American President Woodrow Wilson said that a citizen “cannot be said to be participating in public opinion at all until he has laid his mind alongside the minds of his neighbours and discussed with them the incidents of the day and the tendencies of the time.” Reading the newspaper is simply not enough. It is this distinction between passively consuming and actively participating in democracy which is one of the fundamental differences between how new and old forms of information communication technologies foster an interest and involvement in politics.

In a pre-web age there was a movement from the participatory to the professional and representative form of voluntary organisation. During this period the one-way flow of political information, produced and communicated by a small number of gatekeepers, meant that very few citizens actively participated in generating or questioning political information. The Internet provides the potential for a partial reversal of this process by allowing a greater number of people to participate directly in politics by starting their own organisations or producing their own information. In this vein Bimber puts forward the argument that new technologies have led to post-bureaucratic political organisations that possess three distinct characteristics with regards to fostering active engagement.

Firstly, the start up costs required to organise collective action are significantly lower than in the past and thus resources are less of a barrier to political action. Secondly, ‘as the flow of information inside political organisations grows increasingly independent of people’s official functions or roles, one of the foundations of Weberian bureaucracy is weakened: the formal segregation of information and communication as a function of those roles.’ One of the consequences of this change has seen the increased participation of those from outside the standard roles of political organisations in the generation and communication of information. Examples of this can be seen on the numerous citizen journalism websites, forums on the websites of political organisations, or the comments left on articles on newspaper websites. Lastly, the much greater fluidity of membership of post-bureaucratic organisations means that citizens can join more groups at less financial cost, which Bimber sees as leading to a move away from issue-based affiliation towards an events-based one.

These new forms of online organisations and communication platforms have led to information abundance and a more chaotic globalised and networked information environment. Changes that have resulted in the partial weakening of national boundaries and the corporate and political control of information, therefore making the information environment more democratic.

All of the above changes in how information is produced, communicated and used for collective action point towards the possibility of a more active citizen. Now, instead of simply reading about politics in the newspaper the public can set-up a blog or website to express their views; start organisations to campaign on specific issues; network with others with similar interests on social networking sites; post comments and add sources on newspaper websites such as Comment is Free. These optimistic interpretations of how the internet is affecting political engagement need to be tempered, however, as there are other more dystopian implications of the increased use of the Internet by citizens.

Politics carried out on the Internet can often take the form of simply putting a name to something without thinking too much about it. Examples include joining a group on a social networking site, sending a pre-written letter to a politician or signing an online petition. While these are forms of engagement many see them as an extension of what Benjamin Barber called ‘weak democracy’. Moreover, according to Bimber, ‘the problem with centrally orchestrated, “cheap” communication is not that none of the citizens participating are serious about the issue at hand, but that such efforts conceal the extent to which various citizens are interested and serious.

Elected officials have little incentive to ignore serious and interested constituents and much greater incentive to ignore the background noise of the nonserious’.’ Therefore, while the Internet may allow great numbers of people to support a campaign, the actual effect of such support maybe significantly diminished. In his book The End of Politics Carl Boggs concludes that ‘the system now in place is, of course, a marvelously efficient instrument for gathering data and sending messages. But it is another matter for ordinary people, especially in marginalized sectors of the economy, to be able to register genuine choices, feelings, and critical opinions.’ Furthermore, the often isolated nature of politics online does not breed the active formation of social relationships which Boggs sees as vital for social movements to succeed.

Using the internet for political purposes, as the above shows, can involve active or passive participation. The more active forms that can be developed the stronger democracy will become, however, the internet is not destined to foster one type over the other. Pessimists, such as Boggs would argue that ‘global information technology is already thoroughly permeated with such capitalist values as: a tough, aggressive individualism, an intensely competitive ethos, commodified images, and an instrumental rationality’ which will result in control by corporations and elite actors who have no interest in developing active participation among the majority of citizens. Optimists argue, contradictorily, that the chaotic and uncontrollable nature of the internet and the post-bureaucratic organisations it allows to grow will cause more active forms of participation to develop.

Direct and deliberative democracy online

The considerations above have centred on how citizens engage with politics in a representative democracy. However, the Internet offers not only the possibility of different forms and levels of engagement within the existing democratic system itself but, by fostering the direct involvement of citizens in political decision making, the opportunity of changing that system. Reawakening the old debate surrounding the ‘liberty of the ancients’ and the ‘liberty of the moderns’, the Internet has caused many to seriously consider the idea of the increased use, both in scope and regularity, of direct and deliberative democracy.

Benjamin Constant, speaking in 1819, argued that in small communities direct democracy based on the Athenian model was achievable but that in larger, more complex societies only representative forms of government were possible, thus making a distinction between what he saw as liberty in the ancient and liberty in the modern world. Since Constant’s distinction was made representative democracy has spread with few exceptions at the expense of any form of direct or deliberative democracy, even at a local level.

The Internet affects direct and deliberative democracy in three key ways: by allowing people to vote online, by providing information to voters to help them make a decision and by giving citizens a platform to express their opinions. The second and third of these factors are, perhaps, the most crucial as many of the critics of direct and deliberative democracy see it as passive (direct) and selective (deliberative), a critic which is, somewhat, circumvented by the adequate supply of information in order to make an informed choice and by allowing more people to take part.

There are many instances when policy decisions are best derived from the knowledge and opinions of a small group of specialist. However, John Matsusaka, who has studied various forms of direct democracy, argues that ‘there are cases where good policymaking may require information that is not know or knowable by experts ‘ such as whether to use capital punishment or allow physician-assisted suicide.’ In these cases the relevant information along with competing arguments can be made available to all online at no cost to the citizen. People can discuss the various issues either online or in other mediums before voting, again either online or in-person.

Forms of direct and deliberative democracy do not have to solely concern the actions of governments in order to increase political engagement. They could be used to help create a political party’s manifesto commitments or to decide the specific areas where a non-governmental organisation will focus their campaigning. If people feel that they can express their opinion and discuss options with others and that the process will have tangible results then there is an increased chance that they will take part.

On their own direct and deliberative models of political engagement offer little hope for the reduction of apathy and the strengthening of democracy. Direct voting in referenda without the required information and debate may result in passive, ‘couch potato’ engagement, with too much power given to the mass media. Deliberation without a vote would do little to motivate an apathetic voter who would fail to see the point in deliberation if there is no end result. It is, therefore, the possibility of combining both forms which represents the internet’s greatest potential in altering how citizens interact with the decision making process.

A commune of ideas of an information cocoon?

Due to the nature of its development the Internet has certain unique characteristics that contrast to other forms of communication technology and have resulted in the Internet possessing a distinct culture. Part of this culture is the open sharing of information which allows for greater levels of collaboration. Introducing his concept of ‘we-think’ Charles Leadbeater asks us to ‘imagine for a moment that a computer nerd, an academic, a hippie and a peasant get together for a joint project.’

By working together through collaborative online platforms such as Wikis, Leadbeater argues that such diverse groups can, by sharing their knowledge and expertise, achieve great things. Potentially this holds great promise for politically engaging citizens by creating a more democratic way of supplying information and decision-making. A problem is posed – say, should the post-office be partly privatised? – an online platform for debate is created and a diverse group of people put forward relevant information, suggestions and arguments. This is a greatly simplified situation but, by involving more people in the decision making process and by drawing on diverse facts and opinions, the potential for greater democratic engagement is clear. Furthermore, not only does this form of organisation help to increase the number of citizens involved in politics it will, in certain circumstances, lead to better outcomes, with studies showing that groups with diverse skills and broad and wide ranging outlooks often develop better solutions than more intelligent groups who have similar skills and outlooks.

‘We-think’ or more broadly the networking of a diverse group to discuss an issue or solve a problem is not the only way in which people can use the Internet to find out or generate information. Instead users can seek out information from likeminded people who simply echo what they already know and believe. Politically this would lead to people only reading/listening to the opinions of those with the same ideological backgrounds. In his study of the internet, ‘ 2.0’, Cass Sunstein calls this form of filtering an information cocoon which decreases the ‘unplanned, unanticipated encounters [which] are central to democracy’ while also removing the shared experiences which help people to understand one another and tackle social problems together. This solipsistic formation of online communities is detrimental to democracy as it creates the possibility of warring factions who, instead of regarding what others have to say before making decisions, become isolated and fail to progress. Furthermore, the fact that the majority of Internet use is for the purposes of entertainment exacerbates the problems that such Internet use possess for political engagement because not only can people use the Internet to cocoon themselves from political information which counters their preconceptions, they may also be using it to cocoon themselves from politics entirely.

The Internet – enhancing or degrading political engagement?

The ways that internet is affecting citizen engagement with politics provides an intriguing picture. Bimber’s theory of post-bureaucratic political organisations, Brian McNair’s paradigm of information chaos, platforms for communal thinking and debate in ways outlined by Leadbeater and the increased opportunities for more direct and deliberative democracy all point towards new forms of increased political engagement and wider access to information. At the same time there is ample evidence that political use of the Internet is at the periphery of online activity, that much of the political activity taking place online is passive, and that the Internet is cocooning people in to fragmented groups all of which counter democratic possibilities. Furthermore, there is little evidence to suggest that the Internet has increased membership levels of political parties, trust in politicians or turnout at elections.

In all likelihood the Internet is in its infancy and even in advanced post-industrial societies it is far from a universal technology with significant differences in levels of access related to race, gender age and education. Moreover, in the developing world – where it could have its greatest democratising effects – it is used mainly by elite members of society and may even be causing greater divisions in political engagement. Furthermore, there are dangers of too much democracy that may lead to mob rule, segregation of minority groups and issues and safeguards against these possibilities must be built into any framework for improving democratic participation. Allowing more citizens to participate in politics is also counter-productive for many powerful groups within society and it would be naïve to think that the Internet will be used to increase citizen engagement without attempts to control or reject it. Bearing this in mind any conclusions as to the democratising potential of the internet need to be tempered.

The confusing nature and abundance of information present in today’s globalised world means that the ideal of the informed citizen is impossible. People do not have the time or the knowledge to understand all the complexities of the modern world. Thus, citizens are choosing to engage in greater detail with smaller numbers of issues and events, a process which is partly facilitated by the internet. At the same time citizens are cynical and fed-up with the ‘playing of politics’ which abounds within the party system. When combined together these factors are leading to declining political party membership and voter turnout as well as an overall disinterest in party politics. However, this does not mean that the public is less interested in politics but that the indicators that are used to measure engagement are not sufficient. Instead new forms of engagement, many as a result in changes in ICTs are emerging, such as blogging, citizen journalism and increased events-based campaigning.

Organisations that develop new ways of engaging with the public which are: postbureaucratic, communal, issue and event driven, incorporate forms of direct and deliberative democracy and active engagement are the most likely to succeed in motivating citizens. By allowing citizens to meaningfully participate in the political sphere, and by replacing the plutocratic nature of political influence with a more meritocratic one, organisations with these characteristics will help to reverse several of the structural changes which Ginsborg identified as responsible for political apathy.

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This post was written by Matt Genner

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