Since 1994, the media has promoted the internet as a medium of political change among other things. Predictions about the true democratization of information via the Web suggested that the general public would be able to have their voices heard and that ordinary folks would finally be able to make a real difference in a political landscape where normally, the people with the largest campaign funding tend to have the loudest voices.
To be fair, some progress in that direction has been made. The internet has offered more people a chance to sound off and to get involved. But can these small steps forward truly result in major changes to the political system? Or have they already?
The imagined future
Prior to new millennium, the internet’s potential was considered almost unlimited. It could transform a wasteland of apathetic, uninterested, ill-informed voters (and a large number of non-voters) into active participants in a dialogue about where the country should be heading. One comparison was made to the famous ‘’Freedom of Speech’’ painting created by Norman Rockwell which depicted the regular working man talking the soapbox while white-collar men with more money and influence in the political sphere (such as bankers and business owners) actually listened to his concerns. For many, the internet promised to make this painting a reality.
Three national election and nine years later, we can evaluate how close the internet (social media etc.) has brought us to realizing Rockwell’s dream which depicts the essence of democracy – the equality of each person in the political system.
Then there are those who analyze governmental trends and believe that the internet is destined to bring about change. Whether it is the type of change described above or not, the chances they predict can bring about a political reformation.
Scott Proudfoot, a Canadian commentator on his own country’s political system, suggested in an article in 1999 that the internet would change the face of politics in three key ways:
- Allow easier access to greater amounts of information.
- Allow any group to publicize their views cheaply.
- Allow interest groups to form more effortlessly.
While most would agree that the internet is capable of allowing all three of these things, they may disagree on how effective it has been in the last decade at making these things possible or on how effective it would be at changing the political system.
First, the internet clearly does allow people almost unlimited access to information. Not only can they freely access the latest in local, US, and world news headlines at sites such as Yahoo!, Google News and so on, but they read in-depth stories from major publications around the globe. They can also check out the viewpoints of other people through blogs, websites, and podcasts with just a quick search of a subject.
The idea is that with most information available for public access, more voters are going to be better informed on the issues and will make wiser choices when they enter the voting booth. Even without the internet, however, cable news programs have offered quite a bit of information in the last 20 to 25 years without making much change in the political system.
Second, groups should be able to share their viewpoints more easily. This would mean that even smaller groups would have a voice in the political scene. Technology is now closing the gaps between people from different societies.
Most political parties seem to care less about informing the public and hearing alternative voices than finding a cheap way to market their candidates to a wide audience. An article published in New York Times, for example, showed that Democrats and Republicans were using the internet to raise money and rally supporters because it was cheaper and more efficient than traditional methods. Despite the amount of information available on the internet, most people go online to seek out shared views, not opposing ones.
Currently, the internet has not moved much closer to changing the political system has hoped more than a decade ago. However, changes can sometimes be slow in coming. Despite its current shortcomings, the internet has the best potential to revolutionize politics in the United States and around the world. Whether it succeeds or not, depends largely on the activities of voters and non-voters.
- Voter calls, process top election watchdog’s priorities (ctv.ca)
- Geoffrey R. Stone: Fixing Citizens United (huffingtonpost.com)
- Revealed: Yahoo and Microsoft sell personal user data to political campaigns (EndtheLie.com)
- The politics of cynicism in the United States (intrepidreport.com)