Week 5: Information Technology and Democracy


The internet was cancelled in Egypt at 5.20 am on January 28th 2011. Statistics of internet traffic to and from Egypt looked like this:

CNN reported on the impact that social media was making on the protesters who had taken to the streets in Egypt. The Egyptian crisis followed the recent toppling of the government in Tunisia which social media had widely been credited with assisting:

Concern for stability in many middle eastern countries followed the Tunisian “regime change” and impacted oil prices around the world. There was heightened insecurity about what might happen in countries with authoritarian governments. Increased access to the internet was leading to questioning of current ways of life:

In Saudi Arabia there has been an explosion in social media usage and commentators are questioning the impact that this is having and the government reaction that there might be. New regulations have been put in place but it is questionable whether these will be effective. The following podcast from NPR discusses this issue.

In China similar issues exist. The following video was created by a Chinese student:

Many have argued in recent weeks that the internet has become a force for democracy in the world and there is substantial evidence above to suggest that this so – but not everyone agrees. Evgeny Morozov argues that it can also be used as a tool for repression.

The following animation summarises Morozov’s ideas:

How has the internet impacted political participation by the public?

The internet offers new channels for political participation that did not exist before and modifies existing political participation channels. It is generally thought that political participation is dependent on the ease with with people can do this and so would be influenced by financial cost, time, opportunity cost etc. The internet is argued to alter the cost structure of political participation and therefore change the political participation from the past.

Anduza, Cantijoch and Gallego (2009) review existing research on political participation and the internet. This research shows that the internet has increased the spectrum of political activities that people engage in; that it has extended opportunities for mobilising within traditional political institutions. It has also facilitated new modes of participation through direct action and the creation of new social movements. Political action on an international scale is now more easily and effectively coordinated.

The internet provides people with resources that make political participation easier. It provides easier access to political information and may change peoples attitudes and values in ways that will influence their political behaviour. The internet has become a new arena for political mobilisation and organisation that did not exist before. The following video discusses the possible resolution of issues in the middle east:

Has the internet increased political participation?

Some have argued that the internet would reduce political participation – they argued that the internet would increase people’s isolation and reduce their sense of being part of a community and hence make them less likely to become politically involved. They also argued that the internet would consume people’s free time in leisure activities and so also reduce their likelihood of being politically involved.

Others have argued that the internet would have little impact on political participation – this is called the “normalisation hypothesis” and is based on a belief that people’s behaviour will usually remain within a “normal” state and that technology or other factors will have little influence on that.

Finally, others have argued that the internet would contribute to a significant increase in political activity and a more participative society, having very optimistic beliefs about it’s impact. These positions were articulated in a debate on PBS. They are also discussed in the following video that questions the role that the internet will play in a democratic society:

Political participation can take many forms and in understanding the impact that the internet has these will be considered in three categories: activities that are only possible online, those that can be done online or offline and those that are only possible offline.

New forms of participation that are only possible online include email and commenting on political websites. It is argued that this is likely to increase participation but we do not know the extent to which this has happened – studies have not yet been conducted – and therefore we do not know the extent of the impact that this has had. Some people argue that participation using email and online political comment is not “real” participation and is not as significant to the extent that it demonstrates strength of political feeling.

Forms of online political participation that have an offline equivalent include petition signing and making of political donations. Contact with government or politicians can be done by email, phone etc. The question here is whether people who participate in these activities in their online form would have otherwise participated if the internet did not exist. If they would not have then political participation has been increased by the internet. If the people who now use online participation are the same people who would have used offline participation then the internet has not affected political participation.

Finally, how might the internet have impacted offline political participation? Theoretically it could have been unaffected, increased or reduced. In looking at this it is important to understand whether people express their views more or less due to the internet – is it affecting people’s behaviour? Do internet users vote more or participate in political parties more and if so, why is this – how does the internet have this impact?

Some argue that the people who participate politically online are the same people who would have participated politically offline but that now they can participate more. This is important because it would mean that there would be a bigger gap between those who do participate and those who don’t and so greater inequality in political participation. Participation may also be influenced by how much time people spend online and the activities they spend that time on. For example, is an online gamer who spends 3 hours per day online more or less likely to be politically active than someone who spends 3 hours per day reading the news?

Very little data exists on these issues. It might be useful to look at what has happened politically since the internet appeared and consider how it may have impacted this.

What has happened politically since the internet appeared?

Since the internet appeared there have been a number of significant trends that have occurred in modern politics in industrialised countries. We do not know the extent to which these trends have or have not been influenced by the internet itself.

Electoral and conventional participation have declined in recent years in most industrialised countries. People are less likely to vote or become members of political parties. There has also been a significant increase in non-traditional political activities:

Political consumerism (where people make purchases based on political views) and anti globalisation demonstrations have increased.

There appears to be growing discontent with traditional representative democracy – the Tea Party in the United States may be an example of this.

People with higher levels of education are turning less to traditional approaches for political engagement and are turning more to tactics like product boycotts, demonstrations and petitions. Of course. also during this time the internet has become an alternative medium for political activities which appears to have made these activities more possible.

How might the internet have impacted these trends?

The growth of participation in campaigns around single issues, as opposed to participation in political parties may have been influenced by a number of factors. The internet has made it easier to access information on individual topics. Contact with and between people who are interested in particular topics is easier. This “horizontal exchange” gives people greater ability and autonomy to organise and mobilise themselves and so there is less need to belong to an organisation – and many of them don’t.

This growth of focus on single issues has also supported the growth of social movements (like anti globalisation) because it has been easier to work outside of traditional channels and people who have been disaffected by these channels have been able to more easily engage in political activity with others. The big question here is whether this has meant that new people – who would not otherwise have been politically active – are now getting involved? So far, the data on this is sparse.

It is usually thought that, as stated above, political participation is influenced by its cost (in the widest sense) and that lowering participation cost may increase political involvement – has the internet done this?

The internet may have influenced who is able to be involved – has the reduction in cost been more focused on some people than others? People with information technology skills may find it easier to participate politically. Also, people with specific internet skills (searching, summarising etc.) may be more effective politically in an online context. The characteristics of the internet itself may also influence participation – for example, the ability to act anonymously on the internet may influence people’s political behaviour online.

When people do participate, the internet reduces the cost of access to political information – internet access to information is mostly free for those with internet access. This may have influenced the amount of information that has been made available to people too by political organisations and others. Some people argue that this increases political participation, while others question whether most people can understand the information available and its quality, causing them to believe that there has not been an increase in participation as a result of increased information access.

Some argue that the internet itself makes it less likely that people will participate politically due to the wide range of leisure pursuits that it makes available and, they argue, this means that people will be playing while they might other wise be politically active.

Others argue that people’s opinions are more likely to become extreme as a result of the internet. This is because they are able to concentrate on information that strengthens their opinion and to avoid data that challenges them, resulting in polarisation of opinion and division inside society.

Against this some say that people using the internet are more likely to have their opinion challenged in discussion forums and in searches related to their chosen topic. Views are divided in this area. Certainly more bizarre views appear on the internet:

Does use of the internet change political values?

Some think that people’s human nature is influenced by their activity on the internet and that they gain an “electronic identity”.  It is thought that they “interiorise” new skills ways of relating to each other that influence their behaviour and views more generally. On the internet interaction usually takes place without regard for hierarchy – for example in chat rooms and forums. Some suggest that increased concentration on topics and with people who are also attracted to these topics will cause people to be more isolated in general society as they will have less in common with each other. Overall – will this influence people’s political activity and views. Does their anonymity mean that they will express views that they would not have before or will they be more confident in expressing themselves?

Political mobilisation and the internet?

The internet allows political mobilisation to be undertaken at very low cost – the Barack Obama election campaign illustrated this. Does it also mean that people will be exposed to more political appeals than they were before the internet emerged or are these likely to vary in their nature, perhaps becoming more specialised in their focus. This is likely to be offset by concerns for political campaigns not wanting to be perceived as spammers and hence reduced in their effectiveness. The question arises here as to whether internet based campaigns are as effective as campaigns that have a physical form. The evidence seems to suggest that both social movements and traditional political organisations have done more mobilisation with the internet. It also appears to have allowed individuals to become prominent political figures without going through traditional political channels.

How does the internet affect inequality in political participation?

Political participation does not occur equally in populations – usually it is thought that this will be influenced by the resources that people need to participate. As the internet’s impact is considered it is important to ask if the digital divide has meant that those without internet access are being excluded from politics. Young people have traditionally participated less in politics but are also very active on the internet – does this mean that they will now be more likely to be politically involved. Data is weak in this area too – some argue that internet participation will reinforce existing patterns of participation inequality, while others argue that the internet will allow these patterns to be overcome.

In summary…

The internet provides more opportunities for political participation because it reduces the cost of involvement through making it much easier for people to express their views and combine with others in political action. Internet skills are necessary to exploit this and it therefore raises the question of whether the digital divide will become a political divide too. Some have argued that the internet would result in less political participation – thus far this appears to be unfounded.

Today the debate about the impact of the internet on political activity is in four main areas:

1. Is internet based political activity real political participation?

2. How does internet use affect offline political participation?

3. Does the internet provide better information for participation purposes?

4. What impact will the internet have on participative inequalities?

The future impact of the internet on democracy is uncertain, as this posting has argued. The following video considers one recent development – the impact of Google and Facebook’s selection of content for individual internet users:

Case Study: Barack Obama’s Election Campaign

Barack Obama’s election campaign is widely recognised as having exploited social media technology more than ever before:

Obama’s website organised over 150,000 events, 35,000 campaign groups were created and he raised over $600 million from 3 million donors. The campaign for the 2012 presidential election has started and it will be intresting to observe the use of the internet in it:

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