During the final decades of the 20th century, a range of books trumpeted the great potential of the Internet to reshape democracy. “To the extent that democracy needs saving,” Tracy Westen argued in National Civic Renewal, “the new generation of interactive digital communications technologies has arrived—just in time to help.”
Howard Rheingold, an early and influential advocate of the democratic potential of the Internet, used the pages of the Whole Earth Review to suggest it would become “the great equalizer” due to the manner in which it would shift “the balance of power between citizens and power barons”; while in The Electronic Republic (1996) Lawrence Grossman similarly created transformative expectations by suggesting it would “extend government decision-making from the few in the center of power to the many on the outside who may wish to participate.”
The Internet would for these campaigners not just supplement conventional politics but lead to a paradigm shift in the nature and process of governing as technological developments would allow citizens to reclaim control over public affairs.
Political participation would become more convenient, information more readily available and accessible, public deliberation involving large numbers of people would become easier. This would, in turn, cultivate greater social understanding of competing viewpoints and on-line voting would facilitate a deeper and more direct form of democracy. Digital democracy would, therefore, offer a way of closing the expectations gap and help in forging a more mature and realistic debate about both the failures and successes of democratic politics.
A decade or so later I am left wondering what happened, what went so wrong.
Although there is a clear link between access to the Internet and the drive towards democratization, as clearly seen in the Arab Spring, in those long-standing Western democracies the Internet’s influence is, on the whole, destructive. Far from fostering democratic values or active citizenship, cyberspace has emerged not as a public arena dedicated to the common good but as a fragmented landscape of shrill and sectional demands, united by the simple belief that politicians are venal, stupid, and mendacious.
The history of digital democracy is littered with great hopes, dashed expectations, and broken promises. We remain information rich, yet knowledge poor, which is a great shame because digital democracy promised so much (but has delivered so little).
This sober and pessimistic argument is reinforced in a more recent body of writing that has charted the Internet’s role as a mediator between the governors and the governed. Books including Vincent Mosco’s The Digital Sublime (2004), Matthew Hindman’s The Myth of Digital Democracy (2008), and Stephen Coleman and Jay Blumler’s The Internet and Democratic Citizenship (2009) all point to a legacy of dashed expectations and the evolution of an impoverished relationship between the public and politicians.
In terms of who uses the Internet for harvesting political information or engaging in political activity, the evidence is clear: It is generally only that small section of the public who have always been politically engaged and active.
Online activity therefore tends to mirror offline activity and there is little evidence that the Internet has allowed the previously disengaged to reconnect. What is more, research suggests that contrary to closing the knowledge gap, the Internet has actually widened this gap, creating what could be called a “fatter” model of democratic elitism rather than a broader, flatter model of vibrant mass politics. Put slightly differently, the Internet may have delivered a political world that is denser, wider, and possibly more inclusive and pluralistic but only to a minority of people who were already engaged.
Where exactly is the virtual public sphere? Where is the web site that stands-up for the public interest rather than the demands of sectional interests? Where is the site that forces citizens to encounter different perspectives about the distribution of increasingly scarce resources? Where is the mechanism for building social bridges?
In reality, the nature and structure of the Internet has done the opposite. As Cass Sunstein argues in his Republic.Com 2.0 (2009), it has allowed people to pick and choose sites in a way that reduces engagement with alternative viewpoints and reinforces partisanship.
The result is a shift towards well-organized “smart mobs,” “information cocoons” and “echo chambers”, wherein users avoid the news and opinions that they simply do not want to hear.
Balkanized groups tend to move towards the views of their most radical members. Members of such groups do not understand other perspectives or learn how to relate to people who are different. Beliefs (even completely false ones) are therefore reinforced rather than challenged. Not realizing that most thoughtful citizens do not agree with them, online group members generally assume that the government is either failing or corrupt when it takes contrary positions.
The result is a form of political activity, practiced by a comparatively small section of the public, which is increasingly shrill and aggressive in its approach to politics and politicians while also being increasingly unrealistic about what politics can and should deliver. The Internet has therefore provided a voice and a platform for an increasing range of sectional demands but not one attuned to cultivating or promoting any conception of the common general good.
As a result, just at the historical moment when we need a richer relationship between politics and politicians in order to confront the shared challenges we face, the Internet has delivered an arguably more impoverished relationship than we have ever had because of its failure to build social bonds across and between competing groups.
This insular form of attitude reinforcement breeds a dangerous form of detachment, in which those who use the Internet as a political forum are rarely challenged to consider alternative viewpoints or how the common good might make compromise necessary.
“Digital natives” tend to fall into a naive view that the general public shares their own view of the world and as a result politics is failing. As a further consequence, crude libertarian, anti-political, and anti-establishment values flourish and manifest themselves in a worldview that appears dedicated to maintaining the population in a perpetual state of self-righteous rage.
And yet in some strange way I am quite glad that the predictions of a digital democracy have proved mythical.
To me the promise of digital democracy and online engagement appeared not simply to be an excuse for laziness but, more importantly, it completely overlooked the central and defining essence of democratic politics. Politics revolves around building relationships, forging trust and emotional connections that can never be built through tapping a keyboard or adopting a disembodied telepresence.
Politics is a face-to-face human activity and the danger of on-line engagement is that it could supplant off-line participation in those social groups that so often make a real difference to people’s lives. If Robert Putnam hates the television for its impact on social capital, I similarly loathe the Internet for its impact on the lives and attitudes of the younger generation. Virtual communities are dead communities and I don’t want to be bowling alone in a network society.
Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield. His latest book, Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the 21st Century, has just been published by Oxford University Press.