Sara Bentivegna. Handbook of New Media: Social Shaping and Consequences of ICTs. Editor: Leah A Lievrouw & Sonia Livingstone. Sage Publications. 2002.
Recent developments in the 2000 United States presidential campaigns, including the first application of electronic voting in the Arizona Democratic primaries and the success of fundraising via the Internet, have relaunched the issue of new media’s role in the political decision-making process. The key question confronting political leaders, commentators and scholars is once again the democratic character widely attributed to the new communication technologies, in so far as these are believed capable of modifying long-established systems and balances. It has been said, with varying degrees of conviction, that the diffusion of the new media, especially the Internet, can transform the now devitalized relationship between political bodies and the citizenry they represent and govern. A transformation of this relationship would result from, first, the fact that communication processes have finally been freed from the arbitration of journalism exercised in traditional media circles and, second, innovative forms of direct interaction. In communication terms we are witnessing a shift from a broadcasting model typical of the old media and traditional political organizations to a netcasting model without a centre sustained by its dual role as sender and receiver at the disposal of its users. In political terms, the creation of an arena made possible by the Internet, where every one has a voice, together with the possibility of activating direct relations between politicians and citizens, leads to the development of an electronic marketplace. This would manifest itself as a modern version of the public sphere as formulated by Habermas, and would also lead to the eradication of the gap dividing political life from the daily life of citizens.
Such a momentous transformation in the relationship between the political realm and the citizenry has yet to occur. However, we do not concur with Margolis and Resnick’s pessimistic conclusion that ‘cyberspace has not become the locus of a new politics that spills out of the computer screen and revitalizes citizenship and democracy. If anything, ordinary politics in all its complexity and vitality has invaded and captured cyberspace’ (2000: 2). Instead, we feel that politics in cyberspace is attempting to redefine itself in light of the profound changes affecting the social system in the past decades by exploiting the Internet’s intrinsic potential. However, before welcoming a new model of democracy, a digital democracy, it would be necessary to promote a political culture that includes not only better information to citizens, electronic town halls and electronic plebiscites but also ‘the reform of state power and the restructuring of civil society’ (Held, 1996: 316). Otherwise, the Internet—and other new technologies—‘rather than acting as a revolutionary tool rearranging political power and instigating direct democracy [are] destined to become dominated by the same actors who currently utilize other mediums’ (Davis, 1999: 5).
The Internet between Democracy and Control
Among the various positions adopted following the introduction of computer-mediated communication (CMC) in the political field during the early 1990s, we can now single out two opposing currents. These currents have underscored both those political innovations considered capable of ‘challenging the monopoly of the political hierarchy’ (Rheingold, 1993: 14) and those risks associated with the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, namely the exercise of dominion and manipulation of the citizenry. The development and consolidation of cyberspace in the last few years have effectively negated both positions while leaving open many of the questions raised.
Those who lean toward a positive interpretation of the new media hold that new technologies can be used to promote citizen participation in debates regarding matters of concern to the public. This assumes special significance in light of the progressive disenchantment toward politics fermenting in all democratic systems in the past few decades. This disenchantment alarms the political citizens themselves because of a conceivable loss of legitimacy in the exercise of power. The possible theoretical turnaround created by the affirmation of an innovative model of communication that allows the citizenry to assume the dual role of receiver and sender has made a significant contribution to this positive interpretation of the desired revitalization of politics. In part, this optimistic interpretation is also an outgrowth of the incredible expansion of the information supply now accessible to citizens. ‘Surfing the web’ not only makes it possible to read all the periodicals one wishes but also permits access to the unabridged text of a statement made by a specific institution or individual on a specific occasion. One can view the images and hear the speaker live, consult the latest legislation passed and obtain information on virtually every public institution. This information expansion is of high democratic value in its own right because it permits the monitoring of a government’s exercise of power and its activities by those it governs. It also possesses an added value in the multiplication of opportunities to speak out by those wishing to communicate with others, giving substance to those technologies of freedom referred to by de Sola Pool (1983). This augments not only the information available but also the opportunities for citizens, who have lacked space in traditional media, to express themselves. This underscores the opportunity to invent new forms of community, albeit virtual, within a public sphere where citizens can debate politically significant subjects (see Jankowski in this volume).
On the other hand, those inclined toward a negative interpretation identify a risk of creating a form of technological dominion over individuals, capable of controlling and manipulating opinions, decisions and behaviour to an extent never before possible. They also cite the risk of the progressive transformation of representative democracy, for such a democracy would be based on the constant consultation of citizens and open to virtually any topic on which the opinion of subjects was sought. In short, this transmuted democracy could call citizens, possibly on a daily basis, to express their opinion on questions at the heart of the political debate. With keen insight and pessimism Rodotà mused that ‘as innervated as technology is, will democracy be able to elude one of the possible outcomes of technological innovation: reinforcement of the current trends marking a shift toward populism and plebiscites? Or will it be possible to direct it along the path of a “strong democracy” whose “strength” resides in the strength of active citizens capable of effective participation in decision-making processes?’ (1997: 5).
Reflections on the democratic potential of the new media and on the risks connected to their diffusion bring to mind an image of a two-headed technology, like the ancient god Janus, with one face representing the technologies of freedom, the other the technologies of control. However, the uses of CMC have up to now disproved both interpretations, creating only an additional space for communication in which processes and mechanisms proper to the social context have been relaunched. Some assert that the Internet encloses ‘an organizational structure of political life present in the real world’ (Resnick, 1998: 49). They maintain that cyberspace has undergone a process of ‘normalization’ which reproduces structures previously identifiable in reality. The virtue of this interpretation is that it has helped clear the field of superficial optimism and catastrophic predictions, bringing analysis and interpretation back to the terrain of the tangible applications of the new media. In fact, to fully grasp the role of the new media within the broader communication process involving political citizens, we must put into context their use within a specific type of society to allow us to identify and analyse feasible applications and developments (Arterton, 1987). We must equally abandon illusions about the miraculous power of the Internet on behalf of the renaissance of a country’s political life in the absence of other profound transformations, as some have been inclined to do (Dertouzos, 1991; Ess, 1996). The social and political implications of the use of new technologies cannot be assessed without an account of the values, behaviour and expectations proper to the citizenry in a given historical and political moment. In short, realizing the democratic potential of new media’s increased supply of information and direct channels of communication depends on the social context. This context should circulate a real request for information not fully satisfied by the traditional media and in which the direct relationship between the governors and the governed is perceived as fundamental to the functioning of democratic institutions. The work of contextualizing is actually related to the need to study the ‘real’ application of the new technologies as discussed by Sclove (1995) several years ago. Only by starting from this approach will we be able to identify the true potential and true risks accompanying the adoption of the new media in contemporary societies.
The Public Sphere in Cyberspace
The electronic marketplace that provides citizens with an environment in which they can meet through surfing the web has been considered by many experts to be a modern translation of the concept of the public sphere conceived by Habermas (1962/1991). In other words, new media are seen to permit ‘the sphere of private people [to] come together as a public to engage them[selves] in a debate over general rules’ (1991: 27). Ever since this concept was formulated, discussion of the evolution of democratic processes has consistently adopted it as a key reference point. The ongoing interest in the public sphere is the result of its adoption as an indicator of a society’s democratic character. In short, its presence is a sign of the existence of occasions for exchange and debate among individuals on matters of public concern. This interest is the result of its assumption as an ‘analytical category, a conceptual device which, while pointing to a specific social phenomenon, can also aid us in analysing and researching the phenomenon’ (Dahlgren and Sparks, 1991: 2). By virtue of this double characterization—indicator of democracy or analytical category—the concept of the public sphere has been and continues to be assiduously employed to study phenomena ranging from the creation of a ‘television market-space’ (Phelan, 1991) to the diffusion of the new technologies.
The public sphere may be represented figuratively as the Greek agora, the ancient meeting place for private citizens in which public debates and discussions took place. Over time it has assumed the guise of the coffeehouse or pub, in which meetings and discussions among individuals took place and in which the ‘public voice’ was expressed. Analysing the evolution of the public sphere, Habermas identified in the process of the affirmation of the independence of the British press the birth of a forum for rational debate free from ideological pressures, spurred by the profit motive characteristic of modern enterprises (1991: 184). So the public sphere comes to be defined in relation to the mass media, because the mass media permit the circulation of opinions and offer the conditions in which the forum can function.
Habermas considered that the progressive interweaving of state and society that was consolidated at the end of the nineteenth century would bring about the end of the bourgeois public sphere. He also believed that this would bring about the transformation of the media for,
‘in comparison with the press of the liberal era, the mass media have on the one hand attained an incomparably greater range and effectiveness—the sphere of the public realm itself has expanded correspondingly. On the other hand they have been moved ever further out of this sphere and re-entered the once private sphere of commodity exchange. The more their effectiveness in terms of publicity increased, the more they became accessible to the pressure of certain private interests’ (1991: 188).
In short, rather than representing a forum for rational debate, the public sphere has become a venue in which contrasting interests compete, completely excluding the citizens. Thus, the public sphere has progressively ceased to be a space ‘open’ to the members of a society and has acquired, instead, the features of a place in which different organizations represent interests and attempt to achieve a consensus among themselves and the representatives of government. In this context, it is no longer possible for citizens to participate in a rational debate on questions of public concern.
Habermas’ portrayal of the crisis and transformation of the public sphere, indeed his very concept of public sphere, has been bombarded by criticism. Fraser affirmed that equality among individuals as avowed in Habermas’ reconstruction is groundless and that ‘we can no longer assume that the bourgeois conception of the public sphere was simply an unrealized utopian ideal; it was also a masculine ideological notion that functioned to legitimate an emergent form of class rule’ (1993: 8). Students of the media system have criticized the inadequacy of an approach that ignores the audience’s active role (Curran, 1991; Golding, 1997) and the changes introduced by an increasingly broad and diversified supply (Dahlgren, 1995). More specifically, Dahlgren and Spaks argue that ‘the media’s centrality here has not just to do with its journalism and current affairs output, but with their overall logic and strategy. Journalism is embedded in and largely contextualized by the other media output with which it appears’ (1991: 16-17).
Given the renewed attention to the components of ‘choice’ and ‘formation’ of consumption by citizens, and given awareness of the transformations affecting the social system and the media system, scholars have revised the concept of public sphere, now asking the question ‘of how and to what extent can the mass media, especially in their journalistic role, help citizens learn about the world, debate their responses to it and reach informed decisions about what courses of action to adopt’ (1991: 1). This approach argues that the mass media continue to perform a key role, by making available the tools necessary to read and interpret the world around us. The new communication technologies offer additional opportunities in so far as they allow the range of supply to expand, on the one hand, and activate occasions for discussion among citizens, on the other. The expansion of supply and of the opportunities for citizens to speak out is the key to the enthusiasm with which the new, modern version of the public sphere launched by the Internet has been greeted. Dertouzos (1991) believes that citizens ‘are capable of expressing their ideas, of communicating their apprehensions and requests openly’, while Rheingold sees in the opportunities offered by the Internet ‘a road to revitalize an open and thorough debate among citizens who wish to nourish the roots of a democratic society’ (1993: 279). It is certainly true that, in many respects, the virtual marketplace being created on the Internet may be considered Habermas’ Athenian agora when he affirmed that ‘in the discussion among citizens issues were made topical and took on shape’ and that ‘citizens indeed interacted as equals with equals’ (1991: 4). Thus in newsgroups, bulletin boards and the other computer networks created through the Internet, citizens interact ‘as equals among equals’ and create discussions of public concern, starting with their personal experience (Knapp, 1997) and with the frames of reference offered by the media as a whole. Of course, this no longer takes place through a form of face-to-face communication but, as Poster observed, ‘the age of the public sphere as face-to-face talk is clearly over: the question of democracy must henceforth take into account new forms of electronically mediated discourse’ (1997: 209).
In the new version of the public sphere being delineated on the Internet, the most interesting aspects are the introduction of equality among the members engaged in a discussion, the reference to personal experience in interpreting the topics debated and, last, the use of the information offered by the entire media system to construct the frames of reference within which topics are introduced. The element of equality characterizing the discussions among citizens has its first discernible indicator in the absence of preconceived positions of ‘power’ in the management of the communication exchange. Except for discussion groups, which require the regulatory presence of a host, in none of the others is there an institutional figure who leads the debate, nor is it possible to single out the figure of the ‘expert’, the possessor of knowledge extraneous to the other members. As in radio and television talk shows, we are witnessing the affirmation of knowledge deriving from common-sense experience. This affirmation also seems to exclude references to data and information not shared by all the participants: ‘it is in the nature of the show to discourage the use of data or theories that are not immediately explicable and plausible. The talk show rejects the arrogance of a discourse that defines itself on the basis of its difference from common sense’ (Carpignano et al., 1993: 117).
Adopting common sense as the foundation of Internet discourse makes an implicit reference to the personal experiences of those involved. This is the second element characterizing the conversation within newsgroups created on the Internet. Participants draw on everyday experience as their constant reference universe in identifying the topics of discussion and in using the information their experience offers. Everyday experience shapes the character of a discussion when, for example, the difficulties of finding a job are illustrated in relation to one’s personal experience, and also when it permits the identification of subjects worthy of discussion. In other words, everyday experience has become the privileged element of mediation in political discussion. Lastly, the media system itself has a great impact on the construction of the frames of reference adopted to initiate or participate in discussions. The media system determines the public agenda (Bentivegna, 1994) since it proposes the arguments around which discussion grows according to the classic scheme formulated by McCombs and Shaw (1972). At the same time it furnishes the material needed to develop confrontation among citizens. Thus, the media system takes the form of both a ‘source’ and a ‘tool’ that allows interactive communication.
Equality among members, the reference to personal experience and the relationship with the media are, therefore, three distinctive elements of the technological version of the public sphere offered by the Internet. The success of Internet discussion groups testifies to the effective capacity of these groups to represent an occasion of exchange among citizens, based solely on sharing an interest in the arguments proposed (Bentivegna, 1998). In other words the birth of a discussion group represents nothing else than the interest of a certain number of people in a topic, taken up and developed among individuals interacting as ‘equals among equals’ in the virtual marketplace they have created.
We must partially amend this view of free participation among equals when we consider the characteristics of the pool of users who have gained access to the Internet. The still limited diffusion of Internet connections requires a basic distinction between those countries in which it may be possible to create an electronic public sphere and those in which it is impossible both now and in the near future. The periodic international surveys conducted by research groups still register significant gaps not only between the United States and other countries but also among the various countries of Europe. With regard to the characteristics of the pool of users we should point out that in all countries in which empirical surveys have been performed the profile of the surfer is usually male, with a high educational level and an equally high income level. Without exploring other significant variables in the definition of the Internet user profile, we may affirm that the electronic public sphere constructed through the use of the new technologies is only ‘apparently’ open to all citizens interested in discussing questions of public interest. By virtue of this structural limitation, as well as the accusation levelled at cyberspace of being dominated by the profit logic, McChesney (1996) has termed it a ‘partial public sphere’.
The work of Golding (1997) shows a similar scepticism. After analysing the current state of mass communication practice and policy in Great Britain in relation to the threat to public service broadcasting, the decline of a diverse national press, the continuing advance of a centripetal state, and the growth of unequal access to communications, Golding affirms that ‘the public sphere is a domain inhabited by those comfortably ensconced within J.K. Galbraith’s culture of contentment, while excluding significant and populous sections of the community’ (1997: 10). Even more drastic is the view of Wilhelm, who asserts that ‘new information and communication technologies, as currently designed and used, pose formidable obstacles to achieving a more just and human social order in the digital age’ (2000: 6).
Given the rapid diffusion of connections across diverse countries, as well as the awareness of the opportunity to spread Internet culture among citizens, it is probable that in the future the social, economic and cultural gaps between those who do and do not have access to the Internet will be reduced. But until this occurs the Internet is still a new and complementary resource for citizens who are already engaged in public affairs. Bimber (1998) calls this phenomenon the ‘democratization of elites’ and emphasizes the risk connected with a process that may enlarge the gap between the politically active and inactive in society.
The Democratic Potentials of the Internet
While the new communication technologies offer a range of applications, the Internet is seen to possess what may be broadly termed ‘democratic’ potentials untraceable in the traditional media. So we can say that these potentials constitute a watershed between the old and the new media. In effect, this watershed is a rather peculiar one since, as McLuhan observed, ‘the advent of a new medium often reveals the traits and premises, if there were any, of an old medium’ (1960: 567). In this case, too, numerous potentials attributed to the Internet can be found in other media, particularly in television. Nonetheless, taken together, all these potentials make the Internet unlike any previous communication medium. In a nutshell, the potentials attributed to the Internet are:
- co-presence of vertical and horizontal communication;
- disintermediation in the communication process;
- convenient costs;
- speed of communication;
- the absence of boundaries.
The analysis of interactivity (see McMillan, in this volume) in the present context should be distinguished from developments in television, video on demand and so on. The type of interactivity discussed here concerns the relationship of the user with the communication supply and the relationships among the users themselves. The user exploits the Internet’s interactivity when, starting from one site, she/he constructs, for example, an individual itinerary when gathering information on a specific issue. The user continues to be interactive when she/he participates in a forum, communicating opinions and viewpoints, or when participating in a discussion group on a topic in which she/he is interested. Thus, the citizen assumes the double role of sender and receiver in the communication flow. In short, by providing opportunities for both information and participation, the Internet may be seen as putting the user in a position to exercise a form of control over public life and government decisions. It also puts users in a position to exert a form of pressure when they have the opportunity to communicate dissent on decisions and measures by activating organized forms of protest either on the Internet or through traditional means. In this way, the Internet could prove highly significant for a country’s democratic life. Thus, interactivity enables citizens to assume an ‘active’ position by participating in the conduct of institutions and citizens through the gathering and processing of information, organizing forms of pressure or protesting against decisions deemed unjust or harmful to society as a whole. This creates virtual communities constructed through the sharing of particular visions of the world and specific political projects (Bentivegna, 1999). These democratic processes of formation and expression of political consensus are situated in cyberspace, creating a sort of superposition of the real and the virtual world. This does not automatically bring about an improvement in the relationship between citizens and the political realm, as numerous empirical research projects on this aspect have shown (Markle Foundation, 1997). All the same, the opportunity to exercise these forms of control and intervention is crucial to the functioning of a country’s democratic processes. As Hacker (1996) notes, the significant advantages presented by the new technologies are that they grant to the public the opportunity to interact directly with the government, reflecting a theory of democracy based upon the premise that government works best when there is an active and continual interaction between those who govern and those who are governed.
The co-presence of horizontal and vertical communication has an effect similar to that of the new relationship linking the receivers and senders of communication. Vertical communication is in many respects similar to that identifiable in the traditional media and exists when the sender (here, typically a government agency) constructs a communication flow to the receiver (the citizen or subject) in order to communicate initiatives, statements and viewpoints or even to solicit forms of support and mobilization. Another form of vertical communication absent in the traditional media, except in the guise of audience interventions in talk shows, involves the citizen, originally in the role of receiver, now in the role of sender, constructing a communication flow directed at the political leader, now in the role of receiver. Communication becomes horizontal when all citizens are in a relationship of equality. This can be identified in discussion groups and in the various occasions of organizing initiatives and mobilization. In this case, the element of interactivity joins with horizontal communication to create a relationship exclusive to the Internet.
Disintermediation in the communication flow, as activated by the Internet, refers to the emergence of a new communication model based on the disappearance of, or at least a significant reduction in, the role of the storyteller (Bonchek, 1997). Hitherto, the storyteller has been responsible for providing the narrative thread used to follow a text. Suppression of the storytelling function may be seen as an intrinsic effect in the very model of the Internet, since it places the user in a position to conduct research and formulate an underlying interpretive current necessary to navigate the web. Surfing, which certain experts consider a distinctive trait of the Internet culture (Porter, 1997), translates, in the relationship between the political realm and citizens, into a diminished role for the journalists, in particular, whose ‘storytelling’ role has in many ways become ‘superfluous’ because of the possibility of accessing documents, declarations, reports, laws, etc. once inaccessible to the vast audience of television viewers and newspaper readers. The online availability of this material becomes even more precious and ‘welcome’ to citizens given the trend, consolidated in recent years, of a style of journalistic coverage of politics based less and less on the words of political leaders and more and more on the journalist’s commentary (Patterson, 1996). In fact, the political universe filtered down to citizens through the traditional media is increasingly mediated by circumscribing politics to the flash fragment of the television soundbite. The process of disintermediation activated by the Internet has a clear impact on redesigning the complex of relations between the media system, the political system and citizens, to the clear advantage of the last, who are in a position to access information once available only to the small circle of journalists.
The cost-effectiveness of a presence on the Internet has had a major influence on the expansion of the range of supply available to citizens. The low costs permit even small groups and movements to acquire a visible Internet presence that in the traditional media would be unaffordable, thus interrupting the dominion of the big parties (Bonchek, 1997; Mann, 1995; McGookin, 1995; Phillips, 1995; Rheingold, 1993). Despite this reduced dominion of the major political parties, unequal economic means still result in inequalities (Mann, 1995; Margolis, 1996). Greater economic resources inevitably allow construction and management of a site more interesting to users. Furthermore, advertising costs penalize economically weaker subjects. All the same, the limited investment required to open and manage a site allows a presence that would be impossible to acquire in the traditional media.
Concomitant with the Internet’s cost-effectiveness is the immense speed of communication processes. Both synchronous and asynchronous communications permit the diffusion of texts and messages at a speed never before possible in the traditional media. The Internet appears to offer the best available opportunity for the consultation of texts and the gathering of consensus for initiatives—in other words, for the mobilization of subjects sharing the same concerns. The speed of the Internet has no parallel in some of the traditional media (the press, for example), and the same holds true for the diversification of the messages addressed to different segments of users.
The absence of boundaries of the Internet not only contributes to the diffusion of arguments of potential interest to everyone but, contemporaneously, also permits the circulation of the experiences, opinions and proposals by all interested parties.
On the whole, the potentials attributed to the Internet can certainly be considered fundamental to a country’s democratic development. Undeniably, the possibility of establishing direct relationships among governments and citizens, to activate communication flows among individuals, to have direct access to information, to disseminate opinions and ideas at a low cost, to circulate information ‘packages’ in real time or to activate conversations anywhere on the planet, all expedite the functioning of participation and control mechanisms in a democracy. It is worth noting that the attribution of these capabilities to the Internet does not automatically bring about an overall improvement in political life. All we have done here is identify the potential for political communication opened up on the Internet. On the other hand, a parallel set of elements contributes to annulling these positive influences, significantly reducing the Internet’s contribution to democratic development and delaying the emergence of an electronic democracy.
The Limits of the Internet
Despite the potentials and opportunities we have described, the arrival of politics on the Internet has not brought about the sweeping transformations expected by some. The gap between the political realm and citizens has apparently not been reduced, participation in political life has remained substantially stable, and exchanges and confrontations among citizens are as intense now as in the past. How can we explain this ‘failure’ to transform and improve democratic processes? Beyond an analysis of the contexts in which electronic politics are situated, we must also discuss how the very aspects of the Internet that generate its democratic potential are also those capable of simultaneous transformation into their exact opposite. Apparently paradoxical, an account of how potentially positive elements of CMC could become negative may explain the failure to improve political communication in its broadest sense.
The increased information supply, for example, hailed by all as a positive ‘mark’ of the impact of the new communication technologies on a country’s democratic life, can be transformed into its antithesis, an information glut that increases the distance and disinterest of citizens. Numerous scholars have pointed to the problem of an ‘information glut’ as a problem for societies of the future, characterized by increasingly sophisticated technological applications. Specifically, the notion of an information glut refers to two closely connected sets of problems: the existence of an underlying interpretive thread that permits navigation, and the availability of tools to verify the truthfulness of the information acquired.
The presence of an underlying thread is indispensable in organizing and making sense of the numerous items of information gathered through consultation of the sites of political parties, institutions, movements, groups and traditional media (television and press), with their continuous supply of information. Starting with the site of a daily paper, one could initiate navigation to acquire other information on an argument of particular interest. Reading an article on the enactment of a tax initiative could be the starting point for navigation to the sites of the institutional bodies responsible for introducing and overseeing the initiative, by the average citizen, the parties opposing it or the consumer groups assessing it This excursion, of variable duration, is undertaken by the citizen without the aid of an external guide (for example, the journalist playing the role of storyteller) to reconstruct the dynamics underlying the new law and its consequences. Although, the fulfilment of the storytelling function is to some degree implicit in the very structure of the Internet site in the organization of its pages and the activation of links (Jacques and Ratzan, 1997), a profound difference remains between the terms and costs of acquiring information through the traditional media and through the Internet: simple and reduced in the first case, complex and elevated in the second. In other words, obtaining information through the Internet is an elaborate and costly operation in terms of time and engagement for the citizen, who must be highly motivated and capable of constructing a research itinerary. Furthermore, we must bear in mind that ‘the capacity of the human brain to reprocess information is limited, as is the time possible to devote to this operation and the individual inclination to perform it. Average individuals are unable to absorb all the information at their disposal, even if they concern areas of knowledge of special interest to them’ (Graber, 1996b: 38).
Internet users must also be in a position to recognize the so-called ‘fake information’ disseminated on the Internet. The likelihood of acquiring inaccurate or false information is extremely high, given that the possibility of hiding behind fictitious names and codes is known by all and used by some. In the light of the complexity of acquiring information encountered by citizens using the Internet, the authors of the Markle Foundation (1997) review maintain that, ‘at worst, the Internet produces a web of deceptive information, at best it offers a flow of decontextualized information that is hard to decipher and utilize’. In short, making use of the overwhelming supply of information that the Internet makes possible can become a challenging activity that not all individuals are able or willing to undertake. In today’s society the cost of acquiring political information has been restricted, by a significant share of citizens, to a very low level that shows no signs of rising following the increase in supply. A greater availability of information does not translate automatically into improved control and participation mechanisms. In effect, those best positioned to exploit the information potential offered by the Internet are those users characterized by an already strong interest in political life and its functioning. As is true of other new media, the Internet does not stimulate new interests in uninterested citizens but reinforces the interest of those already engaged (Graber, 1996a).
A further limitation of the Internet is its potential to create virtual communities so successful as to take the place of offline ones. Although it is a benefit of the Internet that it permits communicative exchanges among individuals, this raises the risk that these can become a substitute for real life (see Baym, and Slater, in this volume). Faced with the difficulty of reconstituting real communities based on shared experiences and needs, the virtual communities may be seen as occasions that facilitate relationships with others in light of the protection of anonymity and the negation of physical distance. The main flaw in this type of community, according to some scholars, is its characterization in terms of ‘lifestyle enclaves flourishing where individual needs depend on others only in the search for companionship in the space of leisure time’ (Doheney-Farina, 1996: 50). In short it is argued that these virtual communities cannot replace the ‘civic community’ that Putnam (1993) has portrayed. On the contrary, they diminish even further the need for individuals to come together and provide only a pale substitute. While accounts of the experiences of virtual communities themselves partially refute the pessimistic conclusions of some scholars (Cozic, 1996; Doheney-Farina, 1996; McLaughlin et al., 1995), the scant impact of virtual communities on strengthening and developing political life gives rise to the legitimate view that ‘virtual’ is progressively being transformed into ‘vicarious’.
The opportunity to speak out available to all citizens who feel they have something to say may represent the peak of the application of the ‘freedom technologies’. It can also become a serious obstacle to the development of democracy when it creates an incomprehensible jumble of voices that cannot come to the aid of the citizen. The mechanism of inclusivity activated and guaranteed by the Internet may produce a confusing situation that annihilates any progress in achieving greater consensus in political life. The result of a continuous self-expression can be transformed ‘into a cacophony of voices impeding any serious discussion. The online debates on important issues are frequently polarized by messages assuming extreme positions. [The Internet] is a great medium for hobbies, but it is not the place for reasonable and pondered judgments’ (Stoll, 1995: 32). In sum, for a multitude of reasons, both external and internal, we have not witnessed thus far any significant improvement in certain aspects of political life following the arrival of the Internet. The external reasons are tied to the broader sociopolitical context. The internal reasons have to do with the Internet itself. This chapter has analysed the latter, emphasizing how what may be considered an obstacle to the transformation of the relationship between politics and citizens is actually the flipside of what has been hailed a momentous positive innovation. The oscillation between the two poles has produced simultaneous clashing and divergent interpretations on the nature of the Internet, postponing the advent of an electronic democracy.
The Internet and Democracy: A Developing Relationship
The ways in which the Internet’s democratic potential may be transformed into obstacles to democracy represent the key feature of this new communication medium. Its most important innovation resides precisely in its multiplicity of uses, and this is what invites further analysis. The absence of a centre and of well-established pathways (albeit such as to require still rarely available cultural competencies) permits the formulation of personalized navigation strategies tailored to specific needs. This diversity of use inevitably leads to profound differences among users, possessors of competencies sometimes impossible to compare. Nonetheless, these differences cannot be imputed to a negative effect arising out of the diffusion of CMC. Diversified uses of the television medium have been widely accepted and even cultivated by segments of the public. Similarly, diversified uses of the new communication technologies must also be accepted.
Accusations of progressive commercialization and emphasis on the entertainment aspects cannot be used to explain the presumed failure of the Internet to improve democratic processes. In fact, the growing commercialization of the Internet and its accent on entertainment testify, first, to the consolidated presence of organized subjects that transfer into the virtual world activities and products from the real world and, second, to the consumption trends conceived in these terms. From this standpoint Resnick (1998) is right on the money when he affirms that the Internet has been normalized, as is McChesney (1996), who sees in cyberspace the progressive affirmation of the business world. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that the citizens who ‘consume’ this supply have a positive answer to a cyberspace structured in these terms.
The commercialization of the Internet is a product of the sweeping changes in the market and the needs of the subjects operating in it. The diffusion of forms of entertainment is a response to a demand evidently not satisfied elsewhere. The ‘strong’ presence of these dimensions in virtual space cannot be employed to accuse the Internet of not having contributed to improving democracy in contemporary societies. In fact, the model of the Internet without a centre and without hierarchies permits the coexistence of different dimensions, from entertainment to politics, impeding the formation of monopolies.
Considerations of the relationship between the Internet and democracy must, therefore, be tackled by exploring other questions. First of all, one must query the model of democracy that is, all too often implicitly, assumed. The model of participatory democracy has been seen as the closest approximation to direct democracy, with its expectation of involving citizens in decision-making processes. Modelled after the Athenian ideal, it differs considerably from the model of representative democracy. To the extent that participatory democracy is based upon the premise that citizens want to be involved in political processes, one may argue that with new technologies they can now do this: they can interact directly with both national and local government, conduct political transactions (such as voter registration), and connect with those who share a similar political stance. The model assumes that all citizens have access to the new technologies and that there is a willingness to take advantage of the new tools to become more informed and more involved in civic life. But to what extent is this scenario real?
First and foremost, there is a question of access. Data for the month of March 2000 published by Nua Internet Surveys reveal that Internet users number 304 million, 136 million of whom are concentrated in the United States and Canada, 83 million in Europe, 69 million in Asia/Pacific, 11 million in South America, 3 million in Africa and some 2 million in the Middle East. While the number of users is sky-rocketing, strong imbalances persist between strong and weak countries, and the sharp profile of users persists as well: in all countries the average user is male, between 30 and 45 years of age, with a university education and an elevated socioeconomic status.
The diffusion of the Internet among the young age brackets is lowering the median age of Internet users. The profile continues to be marked by a high educational level, good economic resources and what Wilhelm calls ‘antecedent resources’ or ‘the skills and capacities that a person brings to the table to achieve a certain (political) functioning’ (2000: 32). The differences between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ remain and continue to determine inequalities in the possibilities of using the Internet. The need to guarantee equal opportunities to all subjects in accessing the new communication technologies has been written into the agendas of the countries where the Internet is most developed (the United States and the UK), testifying to the need for ‘political’ intervention to correct the actual situation. Whether one surfs the Internet to consult the latest Disney site or to consult the summary of a political debate, the conditions to do so must be in place.
Another question concerns the difficulties experienced by citizens in using the Internet. The unexpected availability of an additional and, in a sense, alternative space has found citizens unequipped to exploit this new potential. Attracted to or obliged to be in cyberspace, traditional political players have sometimes created just a ‘showcase’ presence that is wholly marginal in their overall communication strategies. Being on the Internet has become, in certain cases, a sort of status symbol, an indicator of modernity but one that is difficult to use. For this reason, in past years many sites have been constructed on the exclusive supply of information on party structures, on party leadership, on current initiatives, and on the candidates in election campaigns, but with almost nothing on the true potential of the Internet for direct contact with citizens.
In the United States, where politics has been online for many years, the Internet’s potentials are still only partially exploited. A survey by the Markle Foundation (1997) of several sites devoted to the major political parties and to organizations dedicated to the improvement of the political and cultural participation of citizens reveals an almost exclusive offer of information that fails to exploit interactivity. While the highly democratic value of information is recognized, the use of the Internet is ‘limited’ to only a partial exploitation of its available potential. Studies of the recent primary campaigns for the 2000 United States presidential campaign allow us to identify a shrewder use of the Internet by candidates and political institutions. This use included but was not limited to: fundraising, organization of cyber volunteering, activation of town halls, and requests for citizen collaboration in drafting the party’s political platform (Democratic National Committee). We cannot yet assess the true impact of these innovations on the processes of citizen participation and on the real capacity of political actors to recover the ability to listen to the demands and needs expressed by citizens.
The difficulty in exploiting the potential of the Internet by those who have the greatest interest in doing so allows us to explain the relatively marginal position of CMC until now in the transformation of the relationship between citizens and politics. Nonetheless, the use of the Internet by citizens to reactivate relations with the political domain must be noted. Even though it has not led to the rebirth of the Athenian agora, it has certainly helped create the coordinates for a meeting space without controls and external restrictions. The existence of numerous discussion groups, and the speed with which they are springing up daily, testify to the need to have independently managed meeting points. The birth of ‘netiquette’ and the mechanisms enacted to ensure that it is respected represent a form of maturity and civility worthy of respect.
The key question regarding these initiatives lies in the characteristics of the subjects activating or taking part in them. In fact, these subjects are very well informed and concerned with the functioning of public life and the mechanisms of democratic control. Sometimes, as Hill and Hughes (1998) have maintained, participants in the newsgroups relaunch modes of relating and objectives proper to political groups: recruiting new subjects and shunning those who do not share the group’s political line. Rather than becoming an arena where contact between the political sphere and distant citizens is reinforced, the discussion groups activated on the Internet reproduce externally identifiable dynamics that are designed to reinforce pre-existing relationships. The contribution of the discussion groups to improving the relationship between citizens and politics has been rather limited, except in the case of certain subjects who exploit through discussion groups the opportunity to activate occasions for exchange and debate. As Davis notes, ‘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 Internet for political activity will be primarily those who are already politically active’ (1999: 168).
The accusations aimed at the Internet of failing to reactivate new, direct relations between the political world and citizens are based on an underlying equivocation created by a transposition of elements starting with the possible sharing of a model characterized by the absence of a locus. These accusations strive to show that the Internet is not a tool of democracy, and any value it holds for democracy is marginal. Instead, the Internet offers a new model of democracy, a democracy with no reference to a centre, no longer equivalent to the form of the nation-state and no longer equivalent to the global form of decision-making. Rethinking the notion of democracy may derive from a prototype invention that in turn derives from the model of the Internet, but it will not be the mechanical consequence of a quantitative diffusion of the Internet (Berardi, 1996: 116). So the Internet and democracy may coexist and nourish each other, but there is nothing automatic in their affirmation and mutual development. The sharing of a model—consolidated in the case of the Internet and in competition with others in the case of democracy—does not involve the attribution of other connotations either in the current situation or in the future one.
Seen in these terms, recognition of the democratic nature of the Internet once again becomes the object of analysis conducted on the tangible applications identified up to now. So it is no longer a tool of democracy tout court but a tool both flexible and open to multiple uses and purposes, not least of which is the creation of a new ‘locus’ of encounter between political subjects and citizens. This is a locus without a centre and without vertical control that can also host ‘a free and influential public space, a sphere of social action not separate but fully linked to and a protagonist in conflicts and antagonisms’ (Carlini, 1996: 21). Creation of this venue is the fruit not only of the application of the new technologies but also of the contribution of all those who must guarantee an active presence toward this end. The Internet will be a tool of democracy only when all those navigating it will allow it to be so. Until then, the Internet will continue to be whatever we want it to be: a fascinating tool with multiple uses ranging from business to escape, from the acquisition of information to discussion on a vast range of topics.