Digital Disempowerment

Kenneth L Hacker, Shana M Mason, Eric L Morgan. Information Technology and Social Justice. Editor: Emma Rooksby & John Weckert. Hershey, PA: Information Science Publishing, 2007.

The objective of this chapter is to argue that the ethics concerns regarding the digital divide entail fundamental issues about how democracy and democratization are related to computer-mediated communication (CMC) and its role in political communication. As the roles of information and communication technologies (ICT) and CMC systems expand in political communication, existing digital divide gaps are likely to contribute to structural inequalities in political participation. These inequalities work against democracy and political empowerment and produce social injustices at the same time as they produce expanded opportunities of political participation. Our guiding premise is that CMC/ICT policies that minimize inequalities of access, usage, and participation are more ethical than policies that neglect the democratization of the new communication technologies and networks.

There are three basic assumptions that guide the development of this chapter. First, we assume that the rapid and accelerating adoption of Internet, World Wide Web, and CMC/ICT technologies is changing how social and political structures are formed and changed. The societal formation we know today as network society is produced by patterns of social interaction that are increasingly tied to the emergence and expansion of communication networks. The era of single and unrelated communication technologies is over. Even TV and radio are integrating more into Internet-based systems of communication. Our second assumption is that the perpetuation of political inequalities that appears to accompany the embedding of CMC and Internet communication into everyday life raises moral (ethical) issues concerning participation in a democratic political system. This is because online technologies are becoming more common for political communication (Bimber & Davis, 2003). Our third assumption is that CMC and Internet communication, notwithstanding past hyperbole, are capable of enabling citizens to extend their scope of political influence.

We begin our analysis with a review of existing trends that produce the social formation known as network society and the expanding role of CMC in political communication. We then move into an examination of political theory and how it affects the development of American democracy, including digital democracy. From there we discuss the linkages between political theory and communication theory. Next, we argue that there are numerous and strong ethics issues related to indications that CMC may be facilitating structural inequalities in democratic systems such as the United States. We view the formation of these inequalities as digital disempowerment. Finally, we proffer some recommendations for research and policy considerations including an ethic of CMC-based deliberation.

The Dynamic Nature of CMC

Network Society

Human communication is changing with the accelerating adoption of CMC/ICT systems of communication. For instance, there are new forms of communication such as virtual communities and hybrid types of communication that function between both interpersonal and mass communication (van Dijk, 1999). Jan van Dijk (1999) defines network society in terms of communication networks that shape the most important forms of organization in a society. Mass society, with isolated members being informed and entertained by mass media, appears to be giving way to a newer form of society, called network society, in which social structures involve interconnected individuals using computer networks to seek out information, relationships, and networks of influence. In network society, power and politics are more about relationships among people than characteristics of individuals (van Dijk, 1999). Dimensions of geographical space are accompanied by a kind of technological space. A concept that is related to this is known as social geography, wherein social networks become the basis for closeness or distance instead of physical space, as in land geography. Even political systems, which traditionally have been modeled as top-down organizational charts, may be changing into polycentric systems of power in which political power is based more on network position than traditional roles (van Dijk, 1999).

Political movements have been employing the Internet to organize their struggles, and some of these users are developing a practice known as “self-directed networking” (Castells, 2000, p. 55). Self-directed networking involves people inventing personal ways of organizing and disseminating information. As more formal political structures such as civic organizations have less public membership today, Castells (2001) argues that political movements which employ CMC can effectively mobilize political action. Those who are involved with online politics have an advantage over those with less involvement since online politics are becoming more common and influential.

As we proceed with a discussion about the digital divide, it is important to remain aware of the fact that there are many areas of divide gaps that involve much more than the commonly referenced ones of physical access (computer and net access). Kotamraju (2004), for example, notes that women tend to be employed in Web site design more than in Web site programming, even if they have both sets of skills. While schools are more connected to the Net, studies show that few teachers know how to use the technology to augment their classroom instruction. The students attending Internet-wired schools may not be developing the skills they need to function well in an Internet-based economy. The gaps in ethnic and social class levels of learning may be worsened by this pattern of poor teaching proficiency. While there is expanding diversity, there are also gaps in usage and skills as well as in abilities to pay for what is becoming less free in new media and moving toward pay-per-view models of network access (van Dijk, 2004).

The Embedded Infrastructure

As Wellman and Haythornthwaite (2002) indicate, the Internet is increasingly becoming embedded in the everyday lives of its users. Rather than functioning as a special medium that exists separate from users’ lives, the Internet is incorporated into daily routines and provides a platform for numerous personal, social, economic, and political forms of communication and action. Its convenience facilitates all of the activities that were done offline prior to its implementation. Thus, those who use the Internet are afforded an additional avenue of communication to facilitate their daily activities, such as finishing work or doing research for school, contacting friends, and conducting commercial transactions, such as shopping or banking. Howard, Rainie and Jones (2002) show that levels of usage experience characterize the most significant differences between access and use of the Internet among groups. Those who have been using the Internet the longest are most likely to have access to it and to use it more heavily (Wellman & Haythornthwaite, 2002). Longer-term users tend to find ways to incorporate the Internet into all aspects of their lives, including personal and work environments.

The critical realization regarding CMC embeddedness is that a means of communication that was once necessary for a minority of citizens in a given population is now important for many, if not most, people in both developed and developing societies. The speculation that CMC usage is a luxury is becoming more false each day. This can be seen in the historical changes of new communication technologies.

Technology Changes

In addition to the emergence of more network societies, there are many technical changes complicating the divide issues. CMC, for example, is mainly constituted of text-based email messaging. More recent forms of CMC, such as instant text messaging, also entail typing and reading as the main modalities of interaction. Today, however, email is increasingly capable of becoming video mail with text messages added. Additionally, wireless networks are making personal communication networks, as well as links to larger social, economic, and political networks, increasingly possible.

In 1952, the most common communication technologies in the American home were land-line telephone and radio. Today, Americans have land-line telephones, radio, cell phones, TV, and Internet communication. The technologies tend to be additive and increasingly interoperable. Communication system engineers predict patterns of increasing mixes of wired and wireless networks, higher demands for services that require broadband connectivity, and uses of communication technologies that are important for being members of modern societies (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, 2002). There is a steady transformation of analog communication media to digital media and with digitalization comes convergence (Meadows, 2002). Technologies like TV, radio and telephone that were previously independent of the Internet are now part of it (Meadows, 2002). There is also increasing progress toward personal and home communication networks (Grant, 2002).

With the adoption of each new Internet-related communication technology, there are new ethics issues to consider. For example, some municipalities in the United States are considering the provision of low-cost or free Internet access to citizens via wireless networks (“muni Wi-Fi”). Those leaders who seek to do this consider Net access to be an essential city service (Levy, 2005). Some of these officials believe that cities can provide Internet access at a fraction of the cost charged by other Internet service providers. However, as Levy (2005) notes, telecommunications and cable TV companies are opposed to this. Companies like Verizon and Comcast are lobbying actively against such efforts and argue that taxpayer-sponsored competition makes the marketplace unfair. Part of their lobbying efforts consists in funding think tanks that churn out white papers that support their view of marketplace freedom. A bipartisan bill called the Community Broadband Act will stop states from banning muni Wi-Fi projects if passed (Levy, 2005).

Municipal Wi-Fi projects represent a new battleground for the types of ethics issues we address in this chapter. Is it ethical for these corporate giants to get laws passed to constrain muni Wi-Fi projects? While the major communications corporations were granted virtual monopolies by the federal government with older forms of telecommunications technologies, the question now becomes whether it is ethical for these giants to argue about unfair government intervention in the marketplace. Furthermore, how will political action (or inaction) be facilitated following an ethical assessment of such battles?

Another ethical issue accompanying technological evolution is the issue of emerging broadband gaps. While general computer and Internet access have improved for most ethnic groups over recent years, new gaps have appeared for broadband usage. Discussions about ethics issues can be stifled by governments that do not accurately report CMC usage and adoption statistics. In the United States, for example, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports broadband access in areas that have a slow-speed rate of connectivity measured at 200 Kbps (Turner, 2005). This speed is four times faster than typical dial-up rates of transmission but far below what is generally considered broadband and high-speed transmission (Turner, 2005). It is too low to enable good-quality streaming video which requires a transmission rate of 1 Mbps or greater (Turner, 2005).

There are dangers in the acceleration of a broadband divide that follows the existing digital divide gaps among people with the same forms of Internet access. Broadband is projected to become more important as Web sites will increasingly be designed for broadband, and services like Internet telephony may become more commonly used (Vanston, Hodges, & Savage, 2004). Along with increasing bandwidth capability and speed (referred to as broadband), CMC users need to have personal computers with increased amounts of processing speed and memory (Vanston, Hodges, & Savage, 2004). As computing and CMC become more ubiquitous, devices will continue to become more sophisticated, interconnected, and operable as nodes in personal communication networks. There are certainly ethics concerns about access differentials to computers and the Internet. Stronger ethics issues, however, concern network communication usage and skills.

In summary, we see that society is shifting toward a network society as new communication technologies are increasingly embedded within infrastructures. As these technologies emerge and become important to the functioning of society, there are a number of ethics issues that become relevant. Paramount among these issues are the new and different manifestations of the digital divide. In the following two sections, the digital divide is explained as it is manifested in the United States and on a global scale.

The Digital Divide in the United States

The digital divide generally consists of demographic gaps in computer and Internet access and usage that have been observed by scholars and analysts over approximately the last ten years. There is a well-documented history of the gaps and their progression in the United States. Since 1995, the National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA) and U.S. Department of Commerce have collected data and issued reports documenting the digital divide in the United States.


The latest National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) data indicate the presence of digital divide gaps for ethnic groups in the United States. This NTIA report represents data gathered in 2003. Sixty-five percent of European Americans (EA) are Internet users, in contrast to 45% of African Americans (AA), 63% of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans (APIA) and 37% of Hispanic Americans (HA) (NTIA, 2004). These percentages reflect net usage from any location. Broadband gaps among ethnic groups also appear in this latest report. Households with broadband Internet access are found in 26% of EA, 14% of AA, 35% of APIA, and 13% of HA homes (NTIA, 2004).

There are about two million tribal Americans (Native Americans) and many of them have poor Internet access in addition to poor supplies of water and telephone service (Wilhelm, 2003). In the last year of the Clinton administration and in the NTIA reports of the Bush administration this ethnic category was dropped.4 Native American leaders have argued that this exclusion removes Native Americans from public discourse about the digital divide, which further disadvantages them in our changing society (Twist, 2002).

It is important to note that the ethnic gaps in the digital divide persist even when controlling for income and education (Hacker & Steiner, 2001; van Dijk, 2004). This means that while income and education differences are areas of gaps in their own right, ethnicity retains a unique contribution to the digital divide gaps.


There is a slight reversal of the early gender bias in the United States. In the 1990s, males had more Internet access from any location than females. Today, 59% of females have access and 58% of males have access (NTIA, 2004). For broadband access, however, males have a 24% to 22% advantage. A study conducted by Ono and Zavodny (2003) shows that while women were significantly less likely to use the Internet in the mid-1990s. This difference had completely disappeared by the year 2000. Indeed, their data indicate that women may be more likely than men to use the Internet outside the home. However, Ono and Zavodny (2003) report that women still have fewer uses for the Internet, although they argue that this difference may be decreasing.


The highest categories of Internet access from any location for disabled Americans is for those under 60 years of age and in the workforce who have multiple disabilities (59%), blindness or severe visual impairment (64%), deafness or severe hearing impairment (72%), walking difficulties (64%), typing difficulties (64%), and trouble leaving home (68%) (NTIA, 2004). The categories of Internet access from any location with the lower percentages are for those 60 years of age or older with multiple disabilities (8%), blindness or severe visual impairment (23%), deafness or severe hearing impairment (24%), walking difficulties (21%), typing difficulties (26%), and trouble leaving home (11%). In 2002, 65% of disabled Americans stated that they did not intend to go online in the future (van Dijk, 2004). Additionally, the number of disabled Americans going online did not change substantially between 1999 and 2002 (van Dijk, 2004).

Social Class

Current NTIA data indicate that 31% of the lowest income earners use the Internet from any location while 86% of the highest income earners do (NTIA, 2004). While 16% of those with the lowest level of education use the Internet from any location, 88% of those with the highest levels of education do. For home broadband access, those with the highest incomes lead those with the lowest by 58% to 8%. For home broadband access, those with the highest education lead those with the lowest by 38% to 6%. Of those with broadband access in the workplace, 54% have college degrees (Horrigan, 2004).


An alternative way of considering the digital divide is to look at the designers of new computer and communication system technologies. There, some of the data are even worse than the data for CMC users. A contemporary study by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) shows that women and most ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the high technology industries of the United States (ITAA, 2005). The percentage of women in the IT workforce diminished by 21% from 1996 to 2004. Hispanic Americans are underrepresented by 50% and African Americans by 22%, while Asian Americans are overrepresented by nearly 200%. Representation of African Americans is diminishing while representation of Hispanic Americans is increasing.

While there is increasing gender equity in the United States for basic Internet access, there are still inequalities among designers. West (2001) notes, for example, that there are large gender gaps in technical positions in companies like Microsoft and Intel, that women make less money in communication technology careers than men, and that small percentages of university computer science professors are women.

It is clear that the digital divide in the United States can be defined in a number of different ways by using different demographic categories. One interesting category concerns which users produce content, such as Web sites, with their Internet usage. A Pew Internet and American Life Project survey found that content is produced by 77% of whites in contrast to 9% of blacks and 9% of Hispanics, and by 51% of men and 49% of women (Lenhart, Horrigan, & Fallows, 2004). While such differences are interesting and appear to confirm the argument that gaps persist with various aspects of CMC, they must be explained in terms of what effects they have on social, work and political life. Also, the manner in which the digital divide gaps are framed becomes important for interpreting the differences.

Alternative Frames

The digital divide can be framed in numerous ways. Two opposite frames are one that says there is not a problem and one that says there is a problem. In 1997, the Department of Commerce NTIA division released reports on the Divide with titles such as Falling through the Net. By 2001, the title changed to names referring to “digital inclusion” and “a nation online” (Klotz, 2004). Benjamin Compaine (2001) argues that the digital divide gaps are comparable to those that occurred with the introduction of other technological innovations, such as the radio, VCR, and television set, and notes that near universal adoption quickly occurred without government intervention. Compaine (2000) argues that the gaps are “less a crisis than a temporary and normal process” (p. 19) that will eventually close as early (wealthier) adopters subsidize the computer and Internet markets for later (usually less economically advantaged) adopters. In a 2002 interview, Compaine maintained that “the digital divide is a non-issue at this point” (Talerico, 2002, para. 4), citing research indicating that the rate of adoption among ethnic minorities was on the rise. Grant (2002) argues that “the most recent research indicates a disappearance of the ‘digital divide'” (p. 242). He says that this is true because low-income households are catching up with computer and Internet access as well as gaining benefits from CMC. In opposition to the argument that the divide is not a significant problem is the argument by van Dijk (2004), who maintains that the divide is not only getting worse, but that the consequences are becoming more severe.

According to van Dijk (2004), the arguments about a closed divide are based on a trickle-down assumption of communication technologies. This assumption says that CMC technologies are always becoming more affordable and, therefore, all groups will eventually have them. van Dijk (2004) challenges this assumption by arguing that CMC technologies quickly become obsolete and need replacement and that they still cost more than old media like TV and radio sets. He also argues that services that accompany CMC such as computer software and Web site access have conditional access, meaning that usage is dependent on the user’s ability to pay for online content (van Dijk, 2004). He also notes that broadband access clearly provides users with more control and better content, yet remains expensive for most people.

Van Dijk (2004, p. 20) argues a “Matthew Effect” for CMC adoption. This effect (based on the Bible passage “unto every one who hath shall be given”) indicates that those who already have good Internet and CMC access and usage patterns are gaining more and more network power while those who do not are losing their ability to catch up (van Dijk, 2004). As information becomes more important in jobs and everyday routines, the Matthew Effect becomes more deleterious for those with less CMC usage experience. Digital skills and usage are becoming more important for increasing numbers of professions and jobs. Thus, those with access and enhanced usage tend to become more valuable to their employers in the workplace (van Dijk, 2004). As distance education and online learning become more common and accepted, those with online usage and skills have easier access to educational courses and degrees (van Dijk, 2004). Research shows that those who combine online communication with offline social interaction expand their social networks and increase their social capital (van Dijk, 2004; Wellman & Haythornthwaite, 2002).

CMC users are able to extend their communication networks in terms of both strong and weak ties in ways that non-users cannot (van Dijk, 2004). People with more material resources have always had the ability to build more social capital and larger communication networks with weak and strong ties, as well as geographically disperse ties, than people with fewer resources. That difference is heightened with current patterns of CMC usage and skills gaps (van Dijk, 2004). This is the kind of divide that we refer to as structural inequality. There is little indication that CMC is drawing new people into democratic political processes, but there is substantial evidence that people who already participate are becoming enabled in participating more (Bimber & Davis, 2003; van Dijk & Hacker, 2000). It is easier to find issue positions for political candidates online than in traditional media like television (Bimber & Davis, 2003). It is also easier for CMC users to contact government officials, obtain government documents, and join political discussions with people they do not know (van Dijk, 2004). Bimber and Davis (2003) argue that CMC is providing effective tools for political activities and mobilization, but that “the divide between those who are political activists interested in electoral campaigns and those who are not will expand” (168).

McSorley (2003) argues that debates about the digital divide turn around competing definitions, and, over time, there has been less reliance on static views which tend to focus on dichotomies such as those who are “falling through the net” (NTIA, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2000) and those who are safe. Rather than depending so much on demographic differences in access, newer research shows more about differences among groups in what kinds of political and cultural capital they build through their Internet usage (McSorley, 2003). Some scholars argue that the divide should be reframed in terms of what kinds of participation users are able to create and sustain (McSorley, 2003). Van Dijk (2004) also takes part of this position. He argues that too much extant digital divide research focuses on individual differences and treats categorical variables (nominal) as causes of differential access and usage.

Van Dijk (2004) proposes a relational view as an alternative. This view is presented in opposition to the view that tends to assume that the digital divide is a technical problem. It also opposes the view that the technologies at issue in the divide are likely solutions to the social, cultural, and political problems of social inequalities, oppression, and lack of political participation (van Dijk, 2004). Of course, while van Dijk is correct in arguing that giving someone a computer and Internet does not fix sociopolitical problems, we need to remember that what they do and create with CMC may contribute to some remedies for those problems. The relational view rejects the individualist approach that is most common in digital divide analysis. The latter assumes that attributes of individuals explain gaps in Internet access and usage (van Dijk, 2004). According to van Dijk (2004), structural inequalities in network society are instantiated in gaps between high and low users (including no usage) in the areas of education, employment, social life, family communication, cultural participation, and political communication. Computer networks are increasingly important to the accomplishment of organizational tasks (van Dijk, 2004). For education, those with digital skills and opportunities are able to obtain distance education and vast supplies of educational resources (van Dijk, 2004). While CMC does not diminish face-to-face contacts, it does expand distance communication and contacts. This means that CMC usage can increase the scope of one’s social network (van Dijk, 2004). CMC usage for politics can mean easier and faster access and distribution of political documents, more access to political discussion groups, and more channels with which to reach political leaders (van Dijk, 2004).

The digital divide in the United States is a prominent issue made more understandable by examining the phenomenon through different frames. The digital divide, however, is certainly not limited to the U.S. Indeed, within the context of an increasingly globalized economy, the digital divide on a global scale is, in many ways, more pronounced.

The Global Digital Divide

Norris (2001) argues that access to the information and communication opportunities offered by the Internet may be most influential in the poorest nations. The lack of distance barriers and relatively cheap implementation of the Internet (once access is possible) allow business owners in countries such as Mexico the opportunity to participate in the global marketplace. Health information and education are available via the Internet in areas like Calcutta as they are to doctors in New York. Physicians in developing nations would be able to network and share information and resources with those in more developed nations through the Internet. Distance education would allow increased access to sophisticated educational tools, enabling universities in disenfranchised nations to offer educational tools and training comparable to those in industrialized nations (Norris, 2001). According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the harmful results of natural disasters, such as the earthquake and accompanying tsunami that struck nations around the Indian Ocean in 2004, are also lessened by new communication technologies. These are thought to provide important tools to warn of the impending catastrophe, mitigate its impact by speeding information and relief efforts, and provide a place for victims and family members to post messages and pictures regarding the missing (OECD, 2004).

Additionally, Norris maintains that the Internet may increase the mobilization of grassroots campaigns and their visibility, enabling groups to network and share resources in order to impact policy makers at a higher level. “Foreign policymakers … can no longer assume that the usual diplomatic and political elites can govern political affairs with a passive ‘permissive consensus’ without taking account of the new ability for public information, mobilization, and engagement engendered by the new technology” (Norris, 2001, p. 2). In the Soviet Union, for example, the Internet network Relcom is credited with playing a significant role in the dissemination of information during the coup attempt of 1991 (Press, 1993).

Marginalized societies can become increasingly marginalized as societies become more globalized and information is increasingly the most valuable commodity (Norris, 2001). The differences in economic growth between those nations that have reliable, high-speed access to the Internet and those who do not may be exacerbated as the affluent nations are able to profit from increased visibility and productivity. Low literacy levels, language barriers, and income are key obstacles to Internet adoption for those in developing countries (OECD, 2004). Citizens in non-OECD member countries account for more than 80% of the world’s population, but are only 1/3 of the world’s Internet subscribers and 17% of those with broadband access (OECD, 2004). Floridi (2001) argues that members of these cultures are not only marginalized by the digital divide, but that they “live in the shadow of a new digital reality, which allows them no interaction or access, but which profoundly affects their lives” (p. 3).

United Nations research indicates that the OECD nations, such as the United States and Norway, and Asian nations, such as China, are gaining ground with CMC adoption, while the Latin American, African, and South Asian nations, such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, appear to be losing ground (United Nations, 2003). This research also indicates that CMC/ICT technologies are more unevenly distributed than older communication technologies such as land-line telephone service. While the newer communication technologies will not fix non-technological problems, they can increase information sharing, knowledge accumulation, and work collaboration through networking. Indeed, the United Nations report states that “developing countries risk being left further behind in terms of income, equality, development, voice and presence on an increasingly digitized world stage” (United Nations, 2003, p. 4).

The Significance of the Divides

Network society involves new forms of social interaction and social organization, including political ones (Castells, 2000). The consequences of network society connection are becoming more significant as information, communication, and networking are increasingly linked to tangible benefits. Channels provide more than nodes or connections to communication networks; they also provide social contexts. Each channel has its own characteristics and capabilities. CMC/ICT systems are not replacing face-to-face interaction but are adding new social structures to it.

As the Internet and CMC become more embedded with economic, social, and political activities, citizens are likely to develop stronger needs to use the networks to maximize their abilities to participate in online opportunities, resources, or social formations. Those who become most skilled and active with ICT/CMC networking will gain more power than those without these skills and activities. This means there may be accelerating gaps in network sophistication. As van Dijk (2002) notes, digital skills are cumulative. Thus, the inequalities resulting from their increasingly embedded nature are cumulative as well. This is also why arguments that imply the gaps will close on their own, such as those of Compaine (2001), are problematic as new gaps emerge in the place of old ones. Holderness (1999) argues that the divides we have been discussing may become self-reinforcing. Those individuals and those nations who accelerate their use of CMC systems build their communication capital at rates that perpetuate how far they stay ahead of others in networking.

It is generally accepted that the increasing organization of societies with the use of CMC/ICT technologies facilitates the importance of information and knowledge for economic growth and a shift of importance from densely-knit bounded groups to computer-supported social networks (United Nations Development Programme, 2004). The emergence of network societies entails social and organizational formations that are constructed in relation to flows of symbolic interaction more than in relation to traditional institutional, governmental, and organizational boundaries (Contractor & Monge, 2003).

Networks are comprised of nodes connected by communication that join together to become influential networks (Castells, 2000). When a node does not connect to other nodes, it may be dropped from the network. Such nodes are then excluded from exercising influence on social organization. Because society is comprised of multiple, interdependent layers, a change in one produces a change in the others. Those who are part of the networks that exert influence on society can work to increase the impact of their influence by stimulating changes in, or reinforcing, existing patterns in the social structures that are beneficial to them.

Those with the most power and resources are the early adopters of new technologies, and their influence shapes the evolution of the technology’s place in society (van Dijk, 1999). Thus, social inequalities may be perpetuated as those who use the technologies are increasingly organizing social networks around them. The inability to access or make effective use of the Internet and computers becomes increasingly significant as those with power make their use increasingly prominent in all areas of society. Those who do not have access to new forms of communication technology are increasingly excluded from the organization of society on many levels. Political organization is one such level, and understanding the implications of exclusion from one avenue of access to the political structure is important for understanding some of the social implications of the Divide.

As the digital divide is increasingly manifest through different types of usage, it becomes necessary to understand how this may affect the use of communication technologies in the political arena. Because CMC/ICT systems are used more and more within this arena, an examination of their potential effects on the fundamental principles underlying the political arena is in order. Particularly important is how CMC/ICT systems may affect important aspects of democracy, such as the general will in a population. This requires a discussion of the historical development of the idea of a general will.

Democracy and Communication

Democracy began in ancient Greece at approximately 508 BC with the political designs of the leader Kleisthenes and the earlier reforms of Solon (Dunn, 1992; Hornblower, 1992). Governing by the people (democracy) did not happen by accident, serendipity, or by just chatting about political matters. For Kleisthenes, it appears that democracy offered a way of using popular will against those nobles who opposed him (Meier, 1990).

When Kleisthenes devised Athenian democracy, there were numerous contextual factors that made his efforts possible. These are noted here because they have significance for how systems become more democratic or how democracies arise—both concerns for those who study CMC and political participation. In the emergence of isonomy, or equality under law, the Athenians began to view citizenship and participation in politics as something that unified them against their differences (Meier, 1990). Although those who gained voice in the democracy were still considered inferior to nobles and not every Greek was allowed to vote (e.g., women, slaves, non-Greeks), citizens begin to gain a sense of general will (Meier, 1990). Kleisthenes and his citizens had no formal concept or theory of democracy when they created it. What appears deliberate in their actions, however, is an intention to increase popular participation in politics (Meier, 1990). In other words, interest in politics and participation led to democracy rather than the other way around.

Despite the creation of democracy, and due to their social and political positions, nobles were considered superior in intellect and economics and continued to lead the people in ancient Athens (Meier, 1990). The main political equality that emerged was one in which all citizens were capable of influencing the general will, a concept closely related to community (Meier, 1990). For citizens to mobilize the input into governance they were obtaining, they needed political knowledge, political interest, and political will in relation to important issues (Meier, 1990). They also needed to see that their influence had desired effects. Ancient Greek democracy worked for as it long as it did because the citizens of Athens developed a political identity (Meier, 1990). Meier (1990) observes that “the very fact that they were citizens brought them into a special sphere that they themselves created by their mutual interaction” (p. 72).

The ancient Greek democracies were more participatory than our modern democratic systems (Lloyd, 1992). The kind of direct experience in decision-making debates that the ancient Greek citizens had simply does not exist today in modern democratic systems. Because this fact mistakenly gets transposed into a claim that we could have such democracies today with teledemocracy voting and referenda, it is important to realize that the degree of democracy in a society is not a function of size but rather of philosophy and political will. Embedded in the original formulations of democracy was the assumption that all citizens are equal. This assumption does not fit well with today’s presumption that elites should have the task of doing the business of government while citizens need only the task of selecting leaders from time to time. It also flies in the face of arguments which assert that digital divide gaps are socially insignificant.

After the fall of democracy in Greece, the term “democracy” was not used in a widespread positive sense until the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Aristotle’s notion of checking democracy with aristocracy and monarchy (polity) continued to overrule notions of democracy as first conceived. Athenian versions of democracy became restricted by constitutional checks against hasty, popular decisions that later proved to be against the best interests of some members of society.

After an extended era of monarchy in much of Europe, some political works emerged that began a sort of reinvigoration of the use of democratic systems to rule. In his Second Treatise of Government, John Locke (1996/1762) argued that people are equal and their government is vested with power by those who comprise it. Locke asserted that people can work together for the common good, and that conflicts of interest can be moderated. Locke, importantly, also maintained that government should be impartial, and the constitution should represent the will of the majority.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, influenced by Locke, also embraced the concepts of citizen equality and a government representative of their will (Noelle-Neumann, 1979). However, Rousseau (1996/1762) conceptualized decision-making by the general will instead of the majority will. In this type of system, citizens would be educated in their obligations and duties as citizens, would engage in debate with other citizens, and would arrive at decisions that best suited all members of society.

Key to Rousseau’s (1996/1762) concept of general will is participation in the political institution. Rousseau indicated that those who entered into a social contract should enter into “a part of a larger whole from which this individual receives, in a sense, his life and his being” (p. 482). To do this, members of society must be trained in their “voice of duty” (p. 472) to others, acting upon what is good for the society as a whole rather than what feeds immediate impulses. Social institutions instill in citizens the concept of their existence as a single body with a single will, dedicated to their general well-being, and instruct them in their duties as citizens. So long as they consider themselves as part of one body, Rousseau argued, their decisions will reflect what is good for the society, regardless of their political sophistication. As soon as they no longer see themselves as a unified body, however, private interests begin to take precedence. They cease expressing their opinions to a state they feel does not consider them, and support only what is advantageous to themselves.

Rousseau argued that true equality can be achieved only in societies in which knowledgeable citizens take a sustained interest in the government and are offered adequate opportunities to develop their opinions, which should then be weighed equally by decision-makers. Many political theorists today agree with Rousseau. “Real governments cannot survive without the sustenance and support … of nongovernmental people” (Higgs, 1989, p. 6). For democracies to be successful, lasting inequalities created by special interest groups must be prevented, equal opportunities for interaction among groups must be present, and their influence on decision-making should be equal (Shapiro, 1994).

The Role of Computer-Mediated Communication

In order to arrive at Rousseau’s general will, deliberation between citizens and among their representatives is crucial. Jankowski and van Selm (2000) argue that, in democratic societies, citizens must have complete access to all information regarding any political issue in order to engage in rational public debate, which is necessary before any political action is taken. Barber (1984) argues that the goal of a democracy is to achieve a common consensus through debate and deliberation. To solicit votes from an electorate that has not deliberated or debated an issue would be “the death of democracy” (Barber, 1984, p. 290). Only in this way, proponents argue, can what is good for society as a whole emerge.

Additionally, systems of representative democracy, such as that found in the United States, depend on a varied group of ambitious citizens to moderate conflicts of interest through a government that checks their influences. When the influence of one interest group becomes too heavily weighed in such a society, the government’s responsibility is to open new avenues of influence to its citizens. Deliberation is the key to successful democratic societies so that the citizens may express their opinions to each other and shape the policy of their representatives. This type of large-scale political discourse may have been impractical in large nations such as the United States just a few years ago, but the accelerating adoption of computers and the Internet may provide a practical means of fostering increased levels of political participation in a large democratic system.

Political communication research indicates that CMC has the potential to alter power structures (de Sola Poole, 1983; Tambini, 1999). The Internet appears to provide “more and better information access and exchange” (Hacker & van Dijk, 2000, p. 215). Several researchers (van Dijk, 1996; Bennett & Entman, 2001; Hacker & Steiner, 2001; Stromer-Galley et al., 2001; Anderson, 2003) have established that users of the Internet have increased their political knowledge. Despite these findings, we need more knowledge about the ways in which CMC can be used to generate political will, represent the general will, and increase effective political and democratic deliberation. We also need to know more about how structural inequalities block progress in these areas.

Without the knowledge and ability to evaluate policies and potential leaders, citizens cannot engage in the democratic process in its true sense (Barber, 1984; Yankelovich, 1991). However, as Yankelovich (1991) maintains, information given to citizens in a downward flow means that they possess only that information passed onto them by elites. Receiving information in this type of downward flow pattern does not necessarily empower citizens; rather, it can serve to reinforce existing power structures as citizens maintain the passive role of consumers of information generated by the elite, who maintain control over all information (van Dijk, 1996; Bordewijk & van Kaam, 1986). If high CMC users have more multilateral political communication than low CMC users, the latter are less likely to develop empowering roles for themselves in the polycentric power structures which appear to be part of network societies.

CMC and the Internet offer democratic potential unlike traditional media, yet obstacles to their access continue to be a key obstacle to their implementation for political purposes. Previously marginalized groups (those who do not comprise the influential majority offline) become marginalized online, unable to take advantage of the new information and communication opportunities offered via CMC.

Structural Inequalities

The reality of structural inequalities which produce what we are calling disempowerment is seen in the evidence that (a) CMC and Internet skills are cumulative, and (b) digital divide gaps persist and regenerate with each new communication technology innovation (van Dijk & Hacker, 2000; van Dijk, 2004). Those who use the technologies first can do more with them than those who are only now beginning to use them. A recent OECD (2004) report on the digital divide notes that “those previously characterized as ‘haves’ as dial-up users would be considered ‘have nots’ for the emerging broadband divide” (p. 6). Those citizens who could reap the most benefits from the democratic potential of the Internet, those who are already marginalized, are generally those who need them the most, and are those who have the least amount of access and skills (Hacker & Mason, 2003).

In Europe, citizens with few or no skills, as well as the unemployed, comprise the majority of those who use government services, yet are a minority of Internet users (O’Donnell, 2002). Thus, the increased information, communication, and access to these programs afforded by electronic government enterprises in Europe go unused by the majority of those whose need is greatest. We see a similar pattern in the United States, as evident in the statistics cited earlier in this chapter concerning disabled people. The common picture is that those with the greatest needs for CMC are those with the least usage.

There is some support for the mobilization hypothesis (Norris, 2001), which asserts that some traditionally less active groups may be mobilized to engage in political activity by the low communication costs of the Internet. For example, Muhlberger (2002) found that online discussion is employed at a slightly higher rate by those with less education, women, those who do not own a home, and those who are young, all of whom are generally less involved in political activities. Thus, there is evidence that previously uninvolved citizens might take a more active political role if access and usage obstacles did not exist. If left without access, however, those members of uninvolved and marginalized groups will continue to lag behind those of other groups, creating new forms of inequality as the opinion of those who participate in online discussion influences policymakers.

When a new avenue of access becomes available that would facilitate citizens’ ability to make informed decisions about policy, to communicate with representatives, and allow for more equal opportunities to influence decision making, it would seem to follow that governments should take measures to enable access to this important platform of social and political communication, serving as a check to ensure equality. This appears to be the reasoning behind the U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996, which requires the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the states “to ensure that affordable, quality, telecommunications services are available to all Americans … and will help to connect eligible schools, libraries, and rural health care providers to the global telecommunications network” (FCC News, 1997, para. 1). The Clinton administration took steps toward this type of plan for CMC, indicating that computer use and access should be extended through universal service as telephones were. The digital divide was even suggested to be a civil rights issue since ethnic minorities trailed majorities in usage and access (Hacker & Mason, 2003; Wilhelm, 2003). The Bush administration, however, indicated that the divide was not really an issue and asserted that the gaps would close on their own (Hacker & Mason, 2003). FCC chairman Michael Powell characterized it as a “Mercedes Benz Divide,” implying that access is a luxury rather than a necessity. However, Muhlberger argues that if the Internet enables citizens to exert political influence and obtain political information, then its representativeness is at issue. “Those concerned with the development of a democratic public sphere need to be aware of the representativeness of Internet political activity,… [because] an Internet that overrepresents some political views advantages those views relative to others” (Muhlberger, 2002, p. 2). If we accept that the possibility of increased political influence exists via the Internet, then we must consider that the potential for power imbalances to be created (or exacerbated) also exists when some members of a society may exercise this influence, while others are excluded due to economic, educational, and other social factors. It takes strong political will among leaders to guide both democratization and policies for CMC that facilitate it.

It is important to note that closing digital divide gaps might do more for e-commerce than for democracy in situations where there is no strong political will for democratization. We should also recognize that political will exists at various levels of a political system, including those who govern and those who are governed. When both of these agree, and perhaps only when both agree, that increasing political participation is necessary for democratization, CMC can be useful for democracy. Democratic systems without strong political will of the people or citizens are not likely to benefit from political CMC. If CMC is not politically useful, the gaps in various divides do not raise the ethical issues that they might otherwise. In other words, the more important CMC is for the democratic nature of a system, the more unethical it is to have social exclusion for CMC access, usage, and content.

From Political Theory to Ethics

Hacker and Mason (2003) argue a strong nexus which links issues of political power and issues of morality (ethics). Political policy is often formulated on the basis of factual information and observation, but values serve as the filters through which those facts are used to implement policy. Research is done and facts are generated about social problems, but values inform what is done about them (the policy that is or is not implemented to correct a problem). Ethics considerations are a necessary component of policy making because ethics establish whether or not something is a problem and, if it is, what the best course of action is to remedy it. Political theory sets up the philosophical parameters of what is problematic in political communication.

Those who argue that digital exclusion is not a problem because some groups do not actually need access take an ethical position that says it is morally acceptable to allow some groups to be excluded from the social networking that the Internet enables. Social inequities are legitimized by arguments that some groups do not need access or are not being aversely affected by digital exclusion in the face of documented and potential benefits of connectivity. Additionally, policies implemented to facilitate access are not free of ethical considerations. It may be unethical, for example, to argue that some groups are unable to become digitally connected on their own, without government assistance. This may also further negative stereotypes about some groups among the groups themselves and society in general. The issues of ethnic prejudice in research and commentary concerning gaps in CMC usage need to be taken very seriously since very well-intentioned scholars may contribute to the discursive reserves of others who are not so well-intentioned about matters of ethnicity and technology. When considering facilitation of access, it might also be necessary to consider whether or not such access changes social structure in progressive directions. The important consideration here is that policy formulation should include a consideration of the ethical implications of disregarding the problem or generating solutions.

Globalization increases as economic, political and cultural activities of nations become more interdependent or interconnected. Within one globalization structure, a nation’s position can be determined by its pattern of interactions with other nations (Barnett, 2001). This formulates a three-tiered structure of nations and societies such that those with increased interconnectivity and interconnectivity potential represent a core group with other nations representing semi-peripheral and peripheral groupings accordingly (Chase-Dunn & Grimes, 1995). Those nations that are most central in the global network are also those with the highest GDP. Barnett’s network analysis of international telecommunications from 1978 to 1996 indicates that the global network has become more centralized and more integrated. Moreover, the study showed that more information is flowing through the core nations (U.S., Canada, Western Europe) rather than being exchanged with nations at more peripheral network positions (Barnett, 2001).

The inability of subpopulations to have access to the global network infrastructures are diminishing their abilities to be as competitive and influential as those populations which do have input and position in the expanding networks of capital, influence, and power. Each developing economy becomes more dependent on CMC/ICT networks for commerce, government, education, and various social services (Montagnier et al., 2002). The most educated citizens may also leave these countries for the economic opportunities offered by more central nations, causing a “brain drain” that further inhibits progress (, 2003/2004). Floridi (2001) notes that globalization means that problems are interrelated, none existing in isolation.

The research on the digital divide makes it clear that connectivity remains an unsolved problem for realizing digital democracy. Within the United States, there are pockets of Americans who are living more and more on the periphery of the network society. Hoping that digital democracy can repair the problems of offline democracy is a strong issue for intellectual debate. However, the longer significant groups of people lack meaningful participation in their political system, the more likely that the system will not change for the better and that structural inequalities will take hold.

Hacker (2002a, 2002b, 2004) argues that the issues of digital divide gaps, whether national or global, will not be resolved without political will that is deliberately aimed at increasing citizen participation in digital democracy. Political will stems from political culture and the abilities and willingness of leaders and citizens to make practices match values. Naïve notions about digital democracy can emerge when one does not address political culture and the differences in democratic systems. For example, the political system in the United States contains a form of elitism by which most Americans remain mildly involved in politics and trust their leaders to do most of the actual policy making. Thus, to understand why most American leaders are not encouraging digital democracy past the point of e-government and freedom for citizen discussions, one has to examine American political culture and its history. American political culture began with a strong mistrust of democracy, moved into a 19th century movement toward embracing it, and then into a 20th century gradual containment of how much rights, liberties, and participation would be expanded. Still, the United States has indirect democracy, in which citizens choose leaders to make decisions for them, as do most democratic systems in the world; in contrast, direct democracy involves all citizens in voting for proposals. Today, we usually think of a political system as being democratic if political decisions ultimately must be accounted for to the people of the nation in question (Scruton, 1982).

A global economic infrastructure, as envisioned by Bill Gates and others, is not the same thing as the public spheres for democratic communication envisioned by scholars of political communication. Couldry argues that most developed national governments have focused more on global digital economies than on digital democracies. This focus holds more concern for expanding markets than concern for making sure that citizens are not socially excluded from important spaces of political deliberation (Couldry, 2003). This focus also neglects the need for content that helps disadvantaged people find sources and spaces to improve their social and political positions by helping them with job training, job searches, and other information that is truly useful to them (Couldry, 2003). As Menou (2002) maintains, the focus of many efforts by the private sector to close the divide is to make consumers out of the poor. “What should really be at stake is social change and not the marketing of ICTs” (para. 3).

Light CMC users do different things than heavy users. Heavy users, for example, are less passive in their use of the Internet and are more likely to disseminate information and create content (Couldry, 2003). Like van Dijk, Couldry observes a scale-extension/scale-reduction effect to CMC. He notes that the coffee houses of the 17th and 18th centuries were places where people who were literate would talk about various books and journals (Couldry, 2003). This expanded communication, but also created a gap between the literate and nonliterate. He argues that the same may occur with CMC. As the nonliterate people would stay in the market squares while the literate deliberated in the coffee houses, experienced CMC users may develop exclusive spaces for deliberation that, by their nature, simply are not inviting to inexperienced CMC users. The specific ethics issues that Couldry sheds light on concern presence versus absence, connection versus non-connection, and participation versus hierarchy.

A deliberative design model of political CMC could build upon theories of deliberative democracy from which ethics concerns emerge which say that is wrong to have people non-connected, absent, or socially excluded by hierarchies in political CMC. Deliberative democracy theory says that citizens should have the opportunity to actively participate in decisions made about policies that affect them (Couldry, 2003; Dryzek, 1990). Dryzek’s deliberative design principle says that citizens should have spaces for recurrent social interaction about politics where they can communicate only as citizens and not as representatives of any governmental, corporate or hierarchical organization. This concept differs from the Habermasian concept of the ideal speech situation in that it recognizes that much of deliberation about politics will involve emotional interaction and not always appear rational (Couldry, 2003).

CMC can help deliberative democracy in many ways if the ethics issues we have discussed are seriously debated and lead to innovative changes in policies. Nina Eliasoph (1999) interviewed Americans about politics and found that, in general, the interest or lack of interest in politics so often cited in journalistic and academic accounts is oversimplified. She found that Americans do not like to talk about politics in public, but they do in private. For many, the public spaces make political discussion too contentious (Eliasoph, 1999). Ways in which private concerns can be articulated into public spaces can change political communication, especially if it is also learned how various levels of public-space communication can create force and momentum toward societal changes.

Now that we have looked at many issues in regard to history and the development of CMC for political communication, we can postulate several areas of ethics concerns and debate.


Recognize the Dynamic Nature of Online Communication

Jan van Dijk (1999) employs a principle he calls “Scale extension and Scale reduction” (p. 23), a concept which describes oppositional effects from one cause occurring at the same time. In Singapore, for example, one finds a society that extends the communication of its citizens in the economic spheres of Internet usage but contracts their freedoms of political communication on the Net.

Market-based arguments assume that digital inequities go away with continued adoption and diffusion of communication technologies. This ignores the fact that computer-based communication technologies are more interdependent and more cumulative in usages, networking, and required skills than old media which were functionally independent (van Dijk, 2004). Universal-access arguments assume that governments must provide access to everyone because they cannot function in modern society without such access, and the markets are insufficient to provide affordable access. These arguments ignore the fact that some people can prosper without CMC and that market independence does, in fact, help high-technology companies innovate new communication products and services.

While academic debate and controversy over important issues are healthy and necessary, there should not be a tendency to compete with others over who has the best or ultimate definition of the digital divide. It is absurd to say that the divide is only material and simply involves points of access. It is also absurd to say that the divide is only discursive. Language is important and social construction processes are important. However, the divide appears to be both material and discursive. It is multidimensional, and attempts to reduce it to one’s favorite paradigm are always subject to refutation. In place of competition for the best paradigm, it is more important to identify why the gaps and their dynamics exist and what can be done to maximize the uses of CMC to facilitate democratization in all nations and for all groups within nations. Research shows that digital divide gaps change with time and do not all move in the same way. Some may move toward closing while others get worse. With successive S-curves, new gaps replace old ones (van Dijk & Hacker, 2003).

Give Voice to Zones of Silence

Where particular groups of people appear to be marginalized in CMC networks and creation of content, there should be efforts to give them voice from a perspective developed here that brings together political theory and communication theory. The United Nations 2004 Human Development Report argues that “unless people who are poor and marginalized—who more often than not are members of religious or ethnic minorities or migrants—can influence political action at local and national levels, they are unlikely to get equitable access to jobs, schools, hospitals, justice, security, and other basic services” (United Nations, 2004).

Researchers have argued that the Internet offers new opportunities to engage in this type of political influence because it offers opportunities to engage in direct, point-to-point argument (Kolb, 1996; Kim, 2003; Fishkin, 1995; Fox & Miller, 1995), opens up new avenues of communication between citizens and their representatives (de Sola Poole, 1983; van Dijk, 1996), increases a citizen’s political knowledge (van Dijk, 1996), and provides a vehicle for the type of democratic deliberation (van Dijk, 1996) that can lead to the ability to better evaluate policies and potential leaders (Barber, 1984; Yankelovich, 1991). It is argued here that the Internet is an important platform that can be used for politics, with its role being constrained by the context in which it is implemented.

According to Bennett and Entman (2001) “access to communication is one of the key measures of power and equality in modern democracies” (p. 2). As a form of communication that offers democratic potential unique from previous types of media (Bentivegna, 2002), such as the telephone, access to CMC and the Internet is arguably such a measure. CMC and the Internet offer citizens the opportunity to exercise control over content, offer opinions, exert pressure on the government, and actively participate in its business. Additionally, they offer both citizen to citizen and citizen to official communication opportunities, reduce the role of the media as gatekeepers of information and allow citizens access to previously unavailable (or very difficult to obtain) information. Also unique from previous forms of media, they allow small groups and movements to acquire visibility that would have been unavailable to them in media such as television due to its high cost. Finally, the speed and absence of boundaries offered by the Internet allow for quick mobilization of citizens with similar concerns and unlimited contact and communication between and among them. However, if groups most in need of these access opportunities continue to be excluded, their marginalization may be increased, leading to digital disempowerment.

Note How Inequalities are Related to Political Structuration

An alternative to viewing communication as a revolutionary process is to view it as an incremental process that creates social structures and does so through sustained feedback loops. Structuration processes involving CMC/ICT technology can be closely related to political power to the extent that agents are using CMC to gain more voice, input, and impact (Poole & DeSanctis, 1990; Hacker, 2004). If CMC continues to become more important to such processes, those with low access and usage will be likely to have relatively little influence on hosts of changes in social structures. Political structuration can be facilitated by CMC as users build new forms of political interaction that produce new rules and resources that are used for political interaction. As the changes in rules and resources occur at micro levels of social interaction, their cumulative effects initiate larger changes in the social systems that affect and are affected by the lower levels of social interaction. Through this process of political structuration, citizens are more likely to increase their political efficacy and their roles in democratic systems.

High CMC exclusion does not mean that people have no voice in governance, but rather that they have less than they would if they were able to employ CMC as a key resource in creating or changing social structures related to political issues and causes. The provision of universal access, similarly, does not guarantee radical social restructuring. Menou (2002) argues that the focus of digital divide debate should not be how to bring the technology to the marginalized, but to discover the best ways for those who need the technology to put it to use and improve their social positions. It is important to keep in mind that online inequalities often mirror offline ones, and existing social problems will not be undone by technology. Rather, it is necessary to understand the role of CMC in political structuration and how it may magnify or mitigate inequalities.

Make the Power Gaps Explicit

The impact of the digital divide on different groups within countries may be related to that country’s power distance index measure. The power distance index is a measure of acceptance of power discrepancies between and among members of a society. A high score indicates that power discrepancies among groups in society are evident, recognized, and accepted. A low score indicates that power discrepancies are minimized between societal groups. A low power distance score indicates that there is greater equality across societal levels (Hofstede, 2001). Hofstede (2001) argues that a low power distance orientation has the potential to create more stable cultural environments because it reinforces cooperation across power levels (Hofstede, 2001). Within the United States, the relatively low power distance score would suggest that the digital divide is fairly insignificant compared to the global divide, and indeed fairly insignificant all together. However, this is not the case.

This suggests that investigating other discourses aside from the dominant one can lead to a possible explanation of the digital divide as it is manifest in the U.S. While some research points to the U.S. as having low power distance and an egalitarian orientation, other research indicates that ethnic groups, other than the European American majority in the U.S., do not orient to the society as egalitarian. Rather, many members of these ethnic groups indicate that there are societal structures within the U.S. that systematically circumscribe them from full participation in society.

One implication of this hierarchy and higher power distance is a potential increase in the digital divide. One other implication, and one which needs to be avoided if alleviating the digital divide is to ever happen, concerns related actions within society that are linked to ethnic identity assertions. If members of particular ethnic groups are systematically circumscribed from participation in a cultural sphere of communication technology, then lack of participation could become a part of the ethnic identity itself. Thus, when one avows an identity that is not dominant, then that person actively suggests that she or he cannot, and culturally should not, be able to engage in computer mediated communication.

One way to explain how ethnic identity assertion can encompass a lack of CMC participation may be found in the work of Phinney (1993), who has developed a model of minority identity development based on a number of empirical studies (Phinney & Alipuria, 1990; Phinney, 1989). This model describes three stages through which members of minority groups may progress as they come to avow a particular ethnic identity. The first stage is labeled unexamined ethnic identity. This stage is characterized by a lack of acknowledgement of the ethnic identity in relation to a majority identity that is different. Indeed, during this stage, ethnic group members will sometimes identify more with the dominant ethnic group than with the minority group of which they are a member, although this is not always the case. What is particularly noteworthy about this stage and comparable to stages from other researchers (e.g., Atkinson, Morten & Sue, 1983; Kim, 1981; Marcia, 1966; Phinney, 1989) is that members will at times recognize their lack of access to a dominant cultural system and yet prefer it. At this stage, members of ethnic groups that are traditionally marginalized within the context of CMC may recognize that they are circumscribed from participation in CMC and its attendant benefits, yet also adopt an attitude that suggests that they must, somehow, deny their ethnic identity in order to fully participate. Thus, CMC as a cultural sphere of activity becomes disassociated from the minority ethnic identity.

The second stage of the model is labeled ethnic identity search/moratorium. In this stage there is recognition on the part of some ethnic group members that the values and traditions of the dominant group are not necessarily beneficial to themselves or to their ethnic group. Phinney (1993) notes that there is often a crisis or event that leads members of minority ethnic groups to seek awareness and exploration of their own ethnic group. This stage can often be marked by a sense of anger and frustration with the dominant group. Within the context of CMC, it is necessary, therefore, to disassociate the practice of CMC from a dominant ethnic group. The inherent risk would be that members of the minority group would distance themselves from participation precisely because CMC is associated with a sphere of activity with which they are dissatisfied.

The third and final stage is labeled ethnic identity achievement. This stage is characterized by an internalization of one’s ethnic identity. Ethnic group members in this stage often report that they are confident in who they are and have a sense of flexibility regarding the practice of ethnic identity. It should be noted that Phinney reports significant movement among the stages between the ages of 16 and 19. For CMC this seems to be vitally important as it corresponds to the same age that American citizens are allowed to engage in the political process through voting behavior. However, Phinney (1993) warns that “For the minority students, ethnicity was rated as equal in importance to religion and considerably more important than political orientation as identity issues” (p. 64). Following from this, the next suggestions become vitally important.

Keep the Ethics Dialogues Open

We have noted that CMC gaps might negatively affect how members of disadvantaged groups self-identify as technology users. A different but related argument is one that says that continuing discussions about ethnic gaps in digital divides could perpetuate a stereotype of ethnic minorities as being technophobic (Young, 2001). Such ethnic gaps have been widely verified since the publication of the first NTIA report on access differentials in the late 1990s. While scholars making the argument about stereotyping do not deny the realities of the gaps themselves, they caution about the research findings being used to further diminish investments in minority communities (Young, 2001). The consequence is the increasing “naturalization” of structural inequality.

It is unethical to think that structural (self-reinforcing) inequalities among various social groups are simply inevitable and normal. The digital divides within nations and across nations both raise strong issues of ethics that individual national and transnational government agencies need to address with more urgency. The result of not doing so is to increase the likelihood that the gaps between high and lower connected citizens of nations and the world will become worse rather than better. Less connection in a networked world quite directly implies disempowerment.

Develop a Deliberation Ethic

Our guiding premise in this chapter has been that policies that minimize the inequalities of access, usage, and participation in digital political communication are more ethical than policies which neglect the democratization of the new communication technologies and networks. We now argue an ethic based on the history of democracy, the democratic potential of CMC, and what we know about structural inequalities.

Democracy began in ancient Greece with a commitment to politics, political equality, and political will that would help people communicate in ways that fostered expression of the general will. Rousseau built on the political theory of the Greeks and other political theorists who expanded the notion of the general will as a central concept to democratic systems. In this line of political theory development, we see that democracy is produced by political will, equality in politics, and a strong commitment to deliberation as a tool of generating and following the general will. Political systems that simultaneously tout democracy yet do not apply these principles create structural inequalities among constituent groups. These inequalities can be compounded if political leaders insist that democratization is facilitated solely by a free market economy. Such an orientation merely justifies the fact that certain groups are continuously marginalized from the best means of political participation.

If CMC/ICT enables democratic deliberation that leads to the development of the general will, the principle of equality in politics is disregarded if some citizens have access and some do not. In light of this background, the digital divide cannot be dismissed as a matter of luxury or insignificance without also accepting the position that it is ethical for some people to have access to democratic systems and for some to be left out or limited in their participation. Rousseau argued that such a situation could very well lead to tyranny. Therefore, the existence of the divide is a strong barrier to democracy, and its continuation and expansion will move in the direction of disempowering the citizens who need more power.


In this chapter, we have attempted to present an argument for an ethic of political communication which says that CMC/ICT systems have democratic potential and can be useful for extending political deliberation that is necessary for democracy. However, the same ethic argues that it is morally wrong to have these systems develop and expand in ways that give more political power to those who are already ahead in how much political influence they have, while not providing more political access to those who tend to lag behind in political power. The key, we argue, is to have political will among leaders, among citizens, and within various social groups such as ethnic groups, to provide CMC access, training, content creation, usage opportunities, and encouragement in order to make digital democracy more open to newly participating citizens and more effective in giving citizens meaningful political deliberation that has actual and viewable effects on political governance.