Politics and the Internet

The Berkman Center is hosting a conference in December to consider, from a skeptical viewpoint, the impact of the Internet on politics. 

We’ve been down the road before of thinking that the Internet changes everything.  That plainly wasn’t true with respect to commerce, nor is it true here with respect to politics.  But internet has, in a few instances — such as South Korea in its most recent presidential election and in the Democratic primary election in 2004 here in the United States — made a notable difference in terms of how the campaign was conducted and how individuals engage in civic life at various levels (just as eBay, Google, Amazon, digital music, VoIP, and possibly blogging have substantially changed a variety of industries).  Here’s my working hypothesis about what’s happening so far, i.e., not what necessarily must/will follow (not a “technologically determinist” view).

I. The impact of internet on politics and civic life is greatest, so far, along two trajectories. 

* Classical and Jazz: First, the internet can help campaign organizers do better some of the core tasks of campaigning, such as fundraising, communicating with supporters, coordinating events in the field, organizing crowds in fast-breaking situations, and reacting quickly to breaking news.  The internet works best in a situation where it’s combined with, and used to leverage, the most important traditional, (often face-to-face), political activities, which is part of the beauty and power of the Meetup and MoveOn models.  This idea — that the best model is not a pure-play internet strategy but rather a combination of “classical” campaign tactics with “jazz”, an idea borrowed by Massachusetts political leader Bob Massie — helps explain the Kerry campaign’s victory in the Democratic primary in this cycle.  [Update, via Urs Gasser: and will the FEC step in to regulate these activities online?]

* Empowerment of the Individual: Second, the internet provides tools that empower an individual with net access to have a greater level of participation in the political process, if that person is already pre-disposed to be active in civic life.  That highly-empowered individual, along with her peers, might create a personal news operation that could put huge pressure on mainstream news providers, offer alternative viewpoints, gain access to far more information than ever before, and reach a global audience on a shoestring budget.  This phenomenon, coupled with the first, also results in the fact so far that third parties and ill-funded fringe operations — or new social movements — are often the greatest beneficiaries of internet-related technologies, in relative terms.

II.  There are three dimensions along which the internet might prove to have a positive impact.

* Attracting New Participants: The internet can, but does not necessarily, bring new people into the political process, especially young people.  The cool factor, often combining internet with other things (like music, as the Hip Hop Summit Action Network is demonstrating), might attract new participants into civic life.  The internet might also help to give rise to a new crowd of political organizers and pundits able to use the medium in powerful new ways.  There is conflicting evidence on this score, suggesting that this phenomenon is not happening in every instance.

* Fostering New Connections: Societies might well change in the event that we begin to learn from those in new communities, and in different cultures, in more meaningful ways.  Free email, ordinary web sites, and blogs create this possibility.  This factor presupposes that we have an interest in hearing diverse viewpoints and are willing to take an active role in expanding our horizons, which may well not prove to be true.

* From Consumers to Creators / Semiotic Democracy: As Lawrence Lessig, Yochai Benkler, Terry Fisher, and others argue, digital technologies make possible a more interactive relationship netween people and media.  Citizens adopt a more active relationship with information — not just passively accepting what is fed through the broadcast medium, but rather engaging with it and recreating it in intriguing, creative ways.  The result might be a more energized citizenry and “semiotic democracy” — the “recoding” and “reworking” of cultural meaning.  It sounds academic, but it might just be the most profound difference of all, especially if strong intellectual property protections don’t get in the way.

III.  There are good reasons to worry that the internet might have a *negative* impact. 

* The Daily Me: The primary theory is espoused by Cass Sunstein in his well-regarded book Republic.com.  Prof. Sunstein, who teaches at the University of Chicago Law School fears what he calls the “Daily Me” — that, rather than exposing ourselves to new ideas, we will simply tailor our environment to hear our own views reinforced over and over again.  In Sunstein’s own words:

“My principal claim here has been that a well-functioning democracy depends on far more than restraints on official censorship of controversial ideas and opinions. It also depends on some kind of public sphere, in which a wide range of speakers have access to a diverse public — and also to particular institutions, and practices, against which they seek to launch objections.

“Emerging technologies, including the Internet, are hardly an enemy here. They hold out far more promise than risk, especially because they allow people to widen their horizons. But to the extent that they weaken the power of general interest intermediaries and increase people’s ability to wall themselves off from topics and opinions that they would prefer to avoid, they create serious dangers. And if we believe that a system of free expression calls for unrestricted choices by individual consumers, we will not even understand the dangers as such. Whether such dangers will materialize will ultimately depend on the aspirations, for freedom and democracy alike, by whose light we evaluate our practices. What I have sought to establish here is that in a free republic, citizens aspire to a system that provides a wide range of experiences — with people, topics, and ideas — that would not have been selected in advance.”

* Disillusionment: Another is that the internet may attract people into the political process (based on a cool-factor, say), but then a lack of follow-up by candidates or elected officials or peers will result in disillusionment. 

* Censorship and Surveillance: Internet technologies are used by some countries and private parties, such as ISPs, as we’re seeking to demonstrate through the Open Net Initiative, to block access to the web and to drop packets.  Likewise, the internet might be used by governments to spy on citizens (or non-citizens) — for good and for ill — and to punish them for their political views or activities.

We’re very lucky that many of the people involved in proving and disproving these theories will be with us in December.  More to come when the conference web site is launched in the next week or two.

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