Skeptics Take On Internet Hype: Will Politics Change, or Not?

This was written in late 1999.

For those who have too enthusiastically embraced the intoxicating notion that the Internet will soon re-make American politics, freeing citizens from the so-called bonds of geographically-based, representative government to create a far more empowering, direct cyber-democracy, Richard Davis’ book is a stiff, sober cup of coffee.

“Get real,” he seems to be saying in The Web of Politics: The Internet’s Impact on the American Political System. The Internet is not really going to change politics much at all, he argues.

“The Internet will not lead to the social and political revolution so widely predicted,” he writes. “The most likely Internet users will continue to be the affluent, the most common users of Internet political information will be the already politically interested, and those who will use the Internet for political activity will be primarily those who are already politically active.”

He makes some valid points, but the book is flawed. He sets up straw men, takes the most outrageous claims and utopian assertions of cyber-visionaries and easily shoots them down. To those of us who are closely observing the development of the Internet as a tool for civic activism and increased political involvement, his poo-pooing and outright dismissal of the Net as a significant political and social force is no more credible than the claims of the utopians he so easily dismisses.

In this book, he does not closely examine much of the current political phenomena on the Net or interview many people who find value in it. Instead, he mostly critiques the theories of other theorists. He punches holes in their theories, but does not offer a credible critique of the changes to come, except to say they won’t be all that significant.

Davis, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University, says the Internet will have no more impact on politics than did newspapers, radio and television.

Excuse me, but I believe newspapers, radio, and television have had an enormous impact on politics and civic life! Without them there would be no mass media, consumer society or democracy. Before the widespread acceptance of these communications tools, society was feudalistic or aristocratic. Because of newspapers, radio and television, we are a far less elitist society today. Power is shared far more broadly.

I’d argue that the Internet will decentralize power even further, distribute power across society, and give net-powered individuals greater say in the way government and their communities function.

Of course Prof. Davis is right when he says geographically-based elective democracy will continue unabated. The Internet is not going to suddenly uproot our Constitutional structure. Of course he’s right when he argues that passive citizens who don’t particularly like or follow politics will not suddenly start surfing political web sites.

And of course he’s right when he asserts that the Internet is a boon to politics only for those people who are already interested in politics. Face-to-face activities like visiting with friends and neighbors, meeting acquaintances, shaking hands, engaging in conversation, catching the energy and spirit and enthusiasm of a person–in short, developing a real relationship–not just reading e-mail or perusing a web site–are ALWAYS going to be far more important than anything the Internet can do. Who could seriously argue otherwise?

But think a minute. Are you more engaged in public issues because of the Internet? I certainly am. Nearly every week, I use the Internet to catch up with friends, passionately discuss and debate issues, and network with people around the world. I feel like a part of several online communities of people who support and challenge each other, care about specific issues, and follow them together on a routine basis. I know there are thousands if not millions of people like me in similar circumstances.

Prof. Davis doesn’t seem to grasp that the Internet is a major breakthrough in the ability of citizens to access information and feel like a part of civic and social movements — offering a sense of personal engagement far greater than newspapers, radio or television. He’s right that “the main impact [of the Internet] will affect the most active, data-rich elite consumers of information.” But he doesn’t note that the Internet greatly expands the definition of the “governing elites”–from a few dozen or a few hundred Capitol Hill staffers, lobbyists, reporters, and association executives, for example, who have easy access to congressional legislation, to the tens of thousands who can now instantly access it over the Internet. In short, more people are now involved in the process.

I share Prof. Davies’ concern about the digital divide–the wide gaps in Internet use among income groups and minorities. “A skew toward the well-to-do and highly educate, and probably toward the more ideologically driven, is inevitable,” he writes. The automobile and electricity, two greatly empowering technologies of the last century, were also greatly skewed toward the well-to-do when they first came upon the scene. But in time we built mass transportation and created rural electrification cooperatives. We must conscientiously do the same with the Internet–to make it accessible to everyone.

Prof. Davis is “uneasy about the dangers represented by a combustible combination of cynical distrust of institutions, populistic glorification of ‘pure’ democracy, and the accelerating advance of information technology.” In the age of the Web, he writes, “protecting against the passion of the moment won’t be easy…” Perhaps so. But I think a far greater danger is citizen apathy and disengagement from politics and civic life. At least the Internet gives them a greater chance to be more involved, to expand the tiny elite who are “in the know” to a much broader group who feel “in the loop”

He writes that “the information that the public will obtain electronically will come primarily from the same sources on which they currently rely and will not feature interaction by more people than currently exists via other means.” Huh? I think of all the divergent voices I now read on the Internet, that aren’t represented in mainstream media. There’s something for everyone here.

He doesn’t recognize the new power to bypass the mainstream media and go directly to the people using Internet e-mail and web sites. He should examine what Jesse Ventura did in Minnesota.

He says there’s “no evidence” citizens will take advantage of these extraordinary new tools to engage in meaningful political discourse, become better informed voters, and get more involved in civic life.” But there is. In Blacksburg, VA, an international model of a wired community where more than 80% of the population have been on the Internet for years, 68 percent said they found the Internet to be somewhat or very helpful in increasing their awareness and involvement in civic affairs; 46% said they communicated with national interest groups over the Net, 41% said they communicated with local interest groups, 31% communicated with support groups, and 29% communicated with neighbors. Nearly a third (28%) of Blacksburg residents in 1997 reported that they were more involved in the local community since getting on the Internet.

Though the book was published in 1999, some of the material seems already quite dated. He speculates that the “chaos of the Internet…could relegate it to the fate of eight-track tapes or the Edsel.” I don’t think anyone in 1999 believes that the powerful economic engine that the Internet has become will suddenly disappear. He says organizations will not have any incentive to solicit the opinions of members over the Internet. Based on the rate that organizations are setting up web sites and discussion boards, surely most of them recognize that listening to one’s members or customers is the only way to stay attuned and on top of the fast-moving market in which most organizations must now operate. He also misses the point of using the Internet as a form of collaborative learning and collaborative leadership.

Prof. Davis claims that even on the Internet, “resource rich groups have the advantage.” Maybe, but not always. Look at the examples of activism online I compiled. Small organizations can make a big different just by using e-mail.

He speculates that people will not gravitate to web sites of candidates they disagree with. He’d be surprised. Nearly half the visitors to two political web sites I manage oppose the candidate or the platform. The Net attracts contrarians who are eager to tell you when they disagree with you.

He dismisses the idea that online communication will ever be necessary on the local level, where “people can physically lobby for their interests.” That’s like saying the telephone is unnecessary at the local level. The Internet is a tool, a powerful new tool, that can be used on any level. I don’t understand the resistence, and even the hostility to using it on any level.

He takes some of the uncivil, chaotic, unmoderated discussions on Usenet newsgroups that are full of anonymous insults, obscenities, and flaming and asserts that they are representative of Internet “dialogue.” Usenet IS a vast wasteland of inferior communication. He quotes a critic of the Net as describing “a cacophony rather than wisdom, a form of expression that follows not parliamentary principles but the Hobbesian law of the boring dinner party: it belongs, that is, to the person who talks the loudest, logs on most often.” In Usenet political discussions, he writes, “people talk past one another, when they are not verbally attacking each other. The emphasis is not on problem-solving, but discussion dominance. Such behavior does not resemble deliberation and it does not encourage participation, particularly by the less politically interested.”

All true, but Usenet is hardly representative of the high quality, thoughtful interaction that does exist on the Internet. True, compelling, engaging examples of “deliberative democracy” are not yet easy to find or easy to create on the Net, and they aren’t yet commonplace. But for a medium that is only a few years old, the strides that have taken place have been truly remarkable. If the next five years in Internet history are as spectacular as the last five, Prof. Davis’ critique will seem dated indeed.

If I were teaching a class on the rise of the Internet, I might include Prof. Davis’ book as a foil to all of the hype about how the Net is revolutionizing society almost overnight. But instead of dampening enthusiasm, his book might just make the informed reader realize that the Net really is becoming something big and powerful. The emerging electronic democracy can easily withstand the skepticism and meager counter-arguments presented here.

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