Internet Politics 2004: The Good, The Bad and the Unknown

Internet Politics 2004: The Good, The Bad and the Unknown

BY Editors | Tuesday, December 7 2004

In advance of this weekend’s “Internet & Society Conference: Votes, Bits and Bytes,” sponsored by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, we are pleased to publish an advance copy of John Palfrey’s discussion paper on the role of the Internet in changing politics, looking forward from 2004. We invite readers and participants in the conference to add their comments below.
The Editors.

Most political campaigns today have an “Internet strategy” of one sort or another. The smashing of online fundraising records, bloggers who broke stories of international importance, citizen-journalism institutions that moved elections, new voters lured into the political fray through cool online campaigns-within-a-campaign – the election cycles in the last few years in the United States and elsewhere around the world have given rise to headlines and head-spinning about the power of the Internet to transform political action.

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 the Internet has, in a few instances – such as South Korea in its most recent presidential election and that here in the United States – made a notable difference in terms of how campaigns were conducted and how individuals engaged in civic life at various levels. The model provided by the Internet – with power at the edges and in the connections between them, as opposed to vested in one centralized hub – makes intuitive sense in the political arena, where the aim inevitably is to reach out – to voters, to local organizers, to donors. These effects are reminiscent of the ways that eBay, Google, Amazon, digital music, and VoIP have substantially changed a variety of industries in the commercial arena. The puzzle is to pull apart what’s real from what’s hype.

In preparation for the December 9 – 11 conference Votes, Bits and Bytes, here's a working hypothesis about what's happening so far, not what necessarily must or will follow. We intend to discuss and refine this hypothesis over the course of the conference and to emerge with a clearer, truer picture of the impact of the Internet on politics.

I. The impact of the 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. This attribute is part of the beauty and power of the Meetup and MoveOn models. The extraordinary impact of online fundraising, particularly in terms of attracting funds from smaller-dollar donors – from the McCain campaign in 2000 to the Howard Dean primary campaign and the Kerry-Edwards campaign in 2004 – makes this point clearly. Likewise, this idea – that the best model is not a pure-play Internet strategy but rather a combination of "classical" campaign tactics with the "jazz" of these new Internet-enabled activities – helps explain the Bush campaign's victory in this cycle.

In the recent U.S. election, the Bush campaign used the Internet to introduce jazz into its classical methods of outreach to targeted undecided voters. In the past, local and state headquarters for the Republican Party or a given candidate would generate a “walk-list” of targeted swing voters, and send volunteers on a door-knocking campaign either to persuade undecided voters or to help get out the vote. With the Internet, the Bush campaign website integrated mapping technology with the party’s databases so that an interested volunteer could enter his zip code on a webpage, and generate a list of voters in his neighborhood that the party wanted to target. Automatically, the site would create a map of those voters’ residences, provide an estimate of the time required for the volunteer to visit those neighbors, and distribute talking points so that the volunteer could promote the candidate’s targeted message in his region. With the Internet, the volunteer could make these arrangements at any hour, as opposed to during headquarters’ business hours pre-Internet; he could target relevant people in his immediate neighborhood, where he knows the area and potentially can build on personal relationships with his neighbors, instead of being sent across town to an area he may not know pre-Internet; and, he is given a clear sense of the time required for this task so he can build it into his busy schedule. In a variety of ways, this web solution amplified the classical door knocking campaign characteristic of the pre-Internet era.

* Empowerment of the Individual: Second, the Internet provides tools that empower an individual 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. The rise of a series of influential weblogs – from the Daily Kos to Andrew Sullivan to Scripting News to Instapundit – is testament to this empowerment. This phenomenon of empowering the individual, 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.

OhmyNews, a South Korean Internet-based news operation, is one such example. With its motto "Every citizen is a reporter", this enterprise was founded by Oh Yeon-ho, a reporter frustrated by the right-wing-dominated, government-controlled news industry in South Korea. Credited with helping Roh Moo-hyun, the underdog candidate in last year’s presidential elections, achieve victory, OhmyNews is staffed with only 40 reporters, fact-checkers, and subeditors. It receives 80 per cent of its content from "citizen reporters" – ordinary Koreans who write about news and opinions. In October, OhmyNews started a tipping service which enabled its readers to reward writers for good reporting. In just two days, Kim Young-ok, a philosophy lecturer, earned about $22,000, roughly the average annual wage in South Korea, when more than 4,500 people tipped him for his report on the Constitutional Court’s decision to block plans to move the capital from Seoul. OhmyNews is profitable and, by all accounts, extremely influential in South Korean politics.

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 the Internet with other things like music - as the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network founded by Russell Simons and CitizenChange founded by P-Diddy are 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.

Though it is difficult to tell how much of the increase in voters under 30 can be attributed to Internet efforts, latest analysis of the exit polls suggest that more than 50 percent of 18-29 year olds came out to the polls this year, while only 42 percent of them voted in 2000. Indeed, the youth vote did go up, but with the record numbers of voters turning out in other segments, it still only accounted for about 16 percent of the general populace, roughly the same as in the 2000 cycle. Many analysts have named Internet-based registration drives, combined with on-the-ground efforts to register voters, as partially responsible for bringing these new participants into the political fray in 2004 – but the extent to which the Internet can be credited is still unclear.

* 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 e-mail, ordinary web sites, and blogs create this possibility. The social fabric of an online conversation among like-minded bloggers may or may not translate into permanent offline relationships, though blogging has certainly helped create new friendships – and even weddings. The Meetup model, similarly, uses the Internet to help bring people with similar viewpoints together in real space.

* From Consumers to Creators / Semiotic Democracy: As law professors Lawrence Lessig, Yochai Benkler, Terry Fisher, and others argue, digital technologies make possible a more interactive relationship between 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.

Consider, for example, the video made in anticipation of the U.S. general election by Boom Chicago, a comedy group in Amsterdam, poking fun at the Diebold electronic voting machines. This is just one small example of the use of digital media to easily create and distribute social commentary; ultimately, maybe this is just the sort of potential, placed in the hands of any Internet user, to create cultural meaning. Certainly, efforts like the Creative Commons to enrich the public domain by, as they say, “build[ing] a layer of reasonable, flexible copyright in the face of increasingly restrictive default rules” are critical to the success of this vision of semiotic democracy. 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 the growth of 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 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."

But Sunstein’s fears may not be realized. This year, the Pew Internet & American Life Project undertook a study with the University of Michigan School of Information to examine the ways in which people use the Internet to get political information. Released on October 27, 2004, their report found that the Internet contributed to a wider awareness of political views during this year’s campaign season; indeed, they found that wired Americans are more aware than non-Internet users of all kinds of arguments, even those that challenge their preferred candidates and issue positions. One-fifth of Americans (18%) said their prefer media sources that are biased and challenge their views, rather than reinforce them.

* Disillusionment: Another potentially negative effect 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. Because of the inexpensiveness of the initial contact, there may be some tendency to overextend the “jazz” beyond the candidate’s ability to substantiate that Internet contact with “classical” attention. Newly recruited participants in politics might be turned off by this experience, and be less likely to engage in political action, whether through the Internet or otherwise.

* Censorship and Surveillance: Internet technologies are used by some countries and private parties, such as ISPs, as the Open Net Initiative is seeking to demonstrate, 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 or for ill – and to punish them for their political views or activities. There are many of examples of this phenomenon, from governments imprisoning dissidents for political web-postings and requiring monitoring of cybercafé users to instant messaging software blocking keywords, in regions all across the world. As more and more of our political life moves online, the stakes may be raised if surveillance and censorship of online activity become the norm.

Many of the people involved in proving and disproving these theories will be with us at Internet and Society 2004: Votes, Bits & Bytes. We look forward to discussing these hypotheses with you from December 9 – 11, 2004.

John Palfrey is Executive Director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard Law School.

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