Working Hypothesis v2.0

The Internet’s Effect on Politics:
A Working Hypothesis, v2.0
[In advance of the “Internet & Society Conference 2004: Votes, Bits
and Bytes,” we took a crack at a working hypothesis about what’s
happening, and what’s not, with internet and politics.  Our mode is to be skeptical, though at once hopeful.  Over the
course of the conference, we’re seeking to update it as we go along –
to inform the document based on what we’re hearing from the wise crowds
here assembled.

Most political campaigns today have an “internet strategy” of one sort
or another.  From online fundraising that smashed previous
records, to bloggers who broke stories of international importance, to
citizen-journalism efforts that moved elections, to the luring of new
voters into the political fray, 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 politics.

There are a couple of problems to address, though probably not to
solve, at the outset of taking on this cluster of issues.  There
are many deep and complex assumptions embedded, admittedly, in this
hypothesis.  The first is: what’s a “positive” effect and what’s a
“negative” effect on politics?  Whose version of good and bad
governs here?  Tricky, we agree.  On a related theme, are we
talking about “politics” or about “democracy”?  The notion here,
right or wrong, is that we’re looking at the ways in which the internet
is having an impact on politics and, in turn, strengthening democracies
in states near and far.  In so defining things, we realize that this document will not end
up reflecting the “consensus” of any group.  This is one of the
key challenges associated with trying to pull together a conversation
that is “global” in any meaningful respect.  Last, there’s a
measurement problem.  How will we know if and when we’ve made
progress, or even know if things are going well or going badly? 
From a methodological perspective, we’ve taken the view that we have
enough data to know that something is going here, and we’re seeking to
understand it and use that knowledge to strengthen democratic
institutions with that knowledge.

We’ve already been down the road 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 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.  The internet provides a model of placing power at the edges and in the
connections between them, as opposed to vesting it in one centralized
hub.  This model makes intuitive sense in the political arena as
well, where the aim inevitably is to reach out to voters, local
organizers, donors, and more.  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.

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.  Before the days of the internet, 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
*      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.

*     Greater Transparency and Accountability:  In
large measure by empowering people in this fashion, the Internet is
creating a higher degree of transparency, and, much of the time,
accountability.  The recent paradigmatic example is the CBS memo
story, in which Dan Rather had to apologize for covering a story based
on forged document purportedly relevant to the topic of President
Bush’s military record.  It was a blogger, or a group of bloggers,
who uncovered the falsehood and brought it to the attention of the
public and to the mainstream media.  With more eyes looking more
intently at political content, the truth may come to light more
frequently.  Essential to this concept: people in power will be
increasingly more accountable to the public.  At the same time, of
course, people who are using this powerful medium must be accountable
to one another as well.

It’s important to bear in mind the flip side of this greater
transparency, when accountability does not follow, which is the
disinformation problem.  Likewise, there’s concern about whether
people should be able to be “anonymous” or “pseudonymous” online. 
The trick is to allow both anonymous speech in instances where it’s
necessary (say, in regimes where political speech online might lead to
imprisonment, or where domestic violence is of concern) without losing

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 Citizen For Change, 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.  

Data from Britain suggests that, using Internet technologies, you can
engage some incremental number of new people into the process. 
It’s not just a replacement effect, says researcher Stephen Ward of the
Oxford Internet Institute, where you’re just giving another means of
achieving something that the same people would have done anyway through
another (non-internet) mechanism.  Those who are brought into the
process, or those already involved, can have their activities

A few other anecdotes of this sort: new members to a leading Republican
club in New York City told the organization’s president that they
signed up for this club instead of others because it had the best web
site.  Consider also the British NGO called, Surfers against
Sewage, which attracts 70% of their members coming through the
web.  As it turns out, their total membership is much higher than
the total number of surfers in UK.  You can create the “24/7”
activists – those who campaign in the field during the day and hit the
keyboard at night – out of the previously less involved
activists.  You may, in the process, create a more informed
activist class.  NGOs, in particular, often see this as a major

Though it is difficult to tell how much of the increase in voters under
30 can be attributed directly 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, blogs, and a variety of other new web
applications 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.  

In a very immediate sense, fostered new connections by
matching supporters of third-party candidates, like Nader and Cobb, in
swing states with Kerry supporters from “safe” red states.  In
essence, a voter from a swing state agreed online to swap their vote
for the voter of someone in a state where the vote was unlikely to
affect the outcome of the election, so that third-party candidates
would receive the same number of votes nationally, but Kerry’s votes
would be concentrated in swing states to have maximum impact in the
electoral college.  Votepair, however, attracted only about 20,000
participants.  And whether or not these “new connections” have any
lasting impact is open to debate.  

One puzzle that emerges here: what sorts of connections can be
made?  Online tools are clearly very powerful for activists. 
The net helps those who wish to be engaged and in close touch with
politics.  But there’s a strong upper limit on the number of
people who are going to live their lives that way.  The most
important delta is between the not-engaged citizen and the marginally
involved citizen, which the internet isn’t necessarily that good at

*    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

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 Diebold’s 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 any internet user, to create cultural
meaning.  Certainly, efforts like 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.

The promise of semiotic democracy, in one sense, is a promise of true
interactivity through the net.  This interactivity, in turn, can
transform social and political relationships and alter power dynamics
radically – if, in fact, this is happening on a meaningful scale.

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

*     The Daily Me:  The primary theory of this
sort is espoused by Cass Sunstein in his well-regarded book  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 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, the 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 they prefer media sources that are
biased and challenge their views, rather than reinforce them.

However, Sunstein’s inquiry remains an important one.  Internet
users continue to devise ways to filter the overload of information and
focus their attention on particular bits – especially through powerful
aggregation and syndication tools based on a new standard called RSS
(“Really Simple Syndication”).  

*    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 examples of this phenomenon, from governments
imprisoning dissidents for political web-postings and requiring
monitoring of cybercaf

One thought on “Working Hypothesis v2.0

  1. Pingback: » Obama’s Classic and Jazz I&D Blog

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