The Affirmative Argument

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The Question

"Resolved: The Internet enables citizens to have a greater voice in politics and is, on balance, already a tremendous force for strengthening participatory democracies around the world."

Quick Link to The Negative Argument

The Argument in Favor of the Resolution:

Introduction

Experience has shown that in order for participatory democracy to thrive, there are a number of necessary ingredients that a society must exhibit. Among these are a strong, unbiased, truthful media, fair and balanced elections, a politically engaged citizenry, a citizenry educated on political matters, transparency and accountability, and economic democracy.

It is our contention here that the internet has the capacity to, and in certain circumstances already has, improved the health of participatory democracies along each of these metrics. In other words, as compared to a world without the internet, the world with an internet is more conducive to participatory democracy.

However for the purposes of our argument as presented here the focus will be predominantly on societies that already have some level of participatory democracy. In states where there is in effect no channel for civic participation then it is additionally likely that access to the internet is also likely to be stringently prescribed as for example in the DPRK

Although there are a number of arguments that the internet enhances democracy in a more general sense, our focus here is on the effect the internet has on the power of individual citizens to influence the political process in a way that, depending on the baseline, either enhances existing democracies or helps bring about new democracies.

A Strong, Unbiased, Informed Media

Democracy cannot work without abundant, readily available information. (See Note 1) If leaders, elected or not, are to be held accountable to the wishes of the people, the people must know what the leaders are doing. The privately owned media (defined here very generally as widely available information sources not controlled by the government) has long served as a watchdog of the government, and as the most important supplier of political information to citizens. The internet enhances the power of individual citizens to leverage the reach of traditional media outlets, and also to serve in the watchdog and information spreading roles themselves:

  • By aggregating potentially inflammatory or interesting stories, Global Voices raises the likelihood that one of those stories will become viral on the internet, or be noticed by the mainstream media. Therefore, Global Voices gives a lone, otherwise insignificant blogger/activist/witness the power to tell other citizens about an issue in a way that she could not have done before the advent of the internet.
    • Assuming leaders know but do not care about the problem (or are causing it themselves) the faster a story becomes salient to a significant portion of the public, the sooner a 'tipping point' will be reached when people demand change in a voice loud enough that leaders must listen. This effect is particularly important in places where democracy does not yet exist. In other words, the ability of individuals to spread subversive news makes democratic revolution more likely, insofar as widespread knowledge of injustice motivates citizens to act.
    • Assuming leaders would care about the problem but are unaware, this new ability of individual citizens to put out an alert will result in faster action. It's easier to fix problems while they're still small.
    • In countries with a biased media, or a media that is controlled by a corrupt government that limits the freedom of media to tell citizens things the government does not want them to know, bloggers can fill the gap in terms of the watchdog and information-spreading functions.
    • In places where the media is not biased or controlled, but is ineffective at serving as a watchdog or spreading information because of a lack of resources or poor physical communication channels, the internet allows those media outlets (or individual bloggers) to move information quickly and efficiently to those citizens who have internet access. This effect will be present even in minimally wired countries. As long as there is one wired person in an area, the internet can get the information there despite weather, treacherous topography, war etc, and word of mouth will do the rest. The internet can get information to places that newspapers, mail and even TV cannot. This is of course assuming a basic “internet infrastructure” already exists.
  • While Shirky's curve does point out that there are still a few dominant players in the information market in the blogging world, many of these players are individuals. One popular blogger can reach more people than a billion dollar newspaper empire. That's a lot of power for an individual. And it is possible that in a place with corrupt media, the lone blogger will be the only voice of truth that people can trust, and he'll have enormous power over the political process.
  • Even in places with "good" media, the internet still enhances participatory democracy in various ways. For example, bloggers can add nuance to the "sound bite culture" of mainstream media. People who are interested in a story they see on TV can go online to learn more, and bloggers will be there to provide that information. Bloggers can provide detail and analysis that traditional media outlets might not find it profitable to provide. Bloggers can also act as an extension of the editorial pages, including serving as "letters to the editor" that don't get published. If the mainstream media is only providing the facts, the bloggers can provide direction for citizens on how to interpret those facts. For example, bloggers can speculate behind the facts to the possible motivations of the leaders, a topic in which citizens might be greatly interested but don't often get because traditional reporters don't often speculate. (There is a lot of potential for problems and abuse here, as we mentioned in Note 1, but the fact remains that these extra functions online do have the capacity to enhance participatory democracy by enhancing the traditional media functions of supplying information and serving as a watchdog.)
  • Blogs may also have potential as a new situs for investigative journalism. Where a "story" is not an existing object to be found but rather the constructed product of large time and energy investments, the internet opens the door for that effort to be distributed across the citizenry. By analogy, see SETI@home.
    • The website Talking Points Memo has been following the firing of 8 U.S. Attorneys since well before it hit the front pages. A handful of full-time investigative journalists at "TPM Muckraker" leveraged the time and energy of the blog's readership to go in-depth into the story. The 8 firings were covered in local newspapers and aggregated by readers who reported the stories to the site; readers later sifted through Justice Department documents and reported their findings to TPM. We return to the image of bloggers-in-pajamas, but this time they are cast as a disaggregated, 24-hour news bureau. "Assignment Zero" at Wired Magazine also seeks to leverage this citizen-powered journalism. NPR: Talking Points Site Kept Attorneys Story Alive

Fair and Balanced Elections

As a definitional rather than an aspirational matter, true democracy entails elections that are actually decided by the voters, in which the best-suited candidate can rise to the top and be elected.

  • The internet makes it possible for an outsider or a fringe-party candidate to spread his message, even if he starts at a severe handicap because he is not supported by an established political machine or wealthy donors that favor tried-and-true incumbents. Websites and email are basically free, which means that any candidate can spread his message if it's one that people are willing to read.
  • As for the fairness of elections, see the Transparency and Accountability section below.

Engaged Citizenry

In a system that is ostensibly run by the people, more engagement by citizens is better. (See Note 2) The internet can be used to encourage individuals to become more active, and enables those who are active to be more effective.

  • Citizens become engaged when they come to believe there is a serious problem that needs addressing. Seeing is believing. The internet enables single witnesses to 'show' everybody else the truth using firsthand accounts via YouTube videos. Liars, criminals, bullies and tyrants lose plausible deniability when everybody sees them committing their crimes. The citizenry then mobilizes against what they now believe is a violation of rights. That was not as easy before the internet. But even then it was extremely powerful (e.g. Rodney King video and the incredible public reaction to a perceived injustice in the form of the Los Angeles riots). That effect is magnified with the internet.
  • The internet enables individual activists to become super-activists. (see Palfrey's "classical and jazz" argument, that the internet enables people to do better what they were otherwise doing.) Those who were already engaged are able to reach more people and spread their message more effectively using blogs, email lists etc. What could have only been done by a huge organization can now be done by one highly motivated individual.
  • The internet enables far-flung individuals to combine on big projects (for example, Wikipedia, Seti@home) which, because so many people have a vested interest in them, become accurate and popular. As Wikipedia has done for the world of encyclopedias, so a political communal project could become a 'public forum' on the internet where everybody can participate in the political debate. Even non-elite citizens can participate in this kind of forum, taking the power and focus away from the few talking heads that have heretofore dominated political discourse.
    • The content of blogs and the links they provide tend to take one side of a particular issue. Any given blog has a tendency to reinforce the preconceived notions of its regular readers. But a centralized wiki is a place where all sides of an issue could focus and make sure that all nuances of every issue are presented truthfully and completely. It could be a great resource for others to become educated on the issues.
    • A wiki would also provide a forum for people who want to be engaged on a small scale; one might not have enough to say to warrant a blog, but has one small argument or a few facts that could be added to a wiki.
  • The blogosphere as a whole (as opposed to individual blogs) already acts as a 'public forum' on the internet for some issues and in some places. There are communities of bloggers that discuss particular issues in conversation with each other, in a way that millions of people can read and comment. So, those who are engaged enough to say something to the public have a place to do so.
    • However, 'blogosphere as public forum' is less effective than it could be because bloggers tend not to present the opinions of their opponents or link to opposing arguments. So the conversations tend to be one-sided. Whereas the editorial pages of newspapers or radio call-in programs or physical public fora like public parks enabled both sides of an issue to be heard, the blogosphere doesn't always operate like that.
  • The internet greases the wheels of political activity by otherwise un-engaged citizens. For example, there might be voters who are unwilling to walk door to door to campaign, but are happy to send emails to their friends. Or they might be unwilling to go to the effort to stamp an envelope to send a donation, but will click on PayPal. Citizens who have a 'day job' no longer have to sacrifice those other activities, because political involvement is so easy and efficient on the internet. Of course the increase in the quantity of political activity does not in and of itself assure an improvement in the quality of that engagement. Traditional political involvement involved real costs to those engaged not merely financial but just as critically their time. In a sense therefore those involved presumably were willing to “pay” such a price as the issue was worth at least that much to them (cost/benefit analysis). Where the actual cost of engagement is extremely low, that is negligible, as is the case with the internet then there is a risk that some of the engagement may be the result of short term concerns and which are responded to in a greater than proportionate manner simply due to the ease to air one’s views. However this is a normative issue and it is impractical (if not downright dangerous) for an external party to make interpersonal comparisons of the degrees of concern that different individuals might hold on a particular subject.
    • Such low levels of involvement may not seem like much, but when aggregated across (potentially) hundreds of millions of people, it adds up.
    • Once such people have been brought into political involvement, they may develop a taste for it, and become more active. They will at least be more motivated to vote, bringing up voter participation numbers.
    • Even people at a low level of political engagement may find themselves on email lists (such as the annoyingly active one run by Moveon.org). While an individual may have initially become involved because of one small issue, they may be exposed to other interesting issues in these emails, and might become further involved. (see Sunstein's argument about the need for a common space where people will be exposed to new ideas. Email lists can serve this function).
  • The very structure of the internet means that it's unlikely there will ever be any sort of centralized control structure. Instead, individual members of the community that might have wanted to be involved before, but were afraid, are now emboldened to generate input more openly. They may feel more comfortable to expose their political ideas on the internet – especially if their ideas contradict policies/rules of their current government. Government censorship and surveillance are certainly problematic, but a determined activist can make her thoughts known online with some degree of anonymity in ways that were not possible before the internet.
    • It is the tech firms (usually American) that enable government censorship and surveillance online. While there are other ways to unclog the channels of information in repressive regimes such as GOFA and the Voluntary Principles (no link provided due to confidentiality), the most interesting thing about the internet is that because of its structure, this type of government or corporate intervention is helpful but not necessary. Whereas there is not much an individual could do about government censorship of a TV station or newspaper, the internet enables "user-innovators" like MIT's Richard Stallman to develop and disseminate software that prevents/thwarts government attempts to control political thought online. (See Eric von Hippel's book "Democratizing Innovation" for more on the phenomenon of user-innovation.) Without the internet, anti-establishment individuals would not have as much power to unclog the channels of political discussion. Interestingly, China has adopted the GNU Linux operating system, leaving their filtering and surveillance vulnerable to individual subversive action. The recent censoring of certain websites in Thailand was achieved through the main gateway into Thailand which is CAT (Communications Authority of Thailand). Although initially both CAT and the Ministry for Information and communications technology (a government ministry) initially denied that censorship was taking place blaming each other for the “difficulty” to gain access to You Tube, amongst others, it quickly became apparent that they were acting collaboratively.
  • While it is hard to break into the club of top bloggers described by Shirky, people do. There is a much more active revolving door in the blogging world than in traditional media. All the individuals in the long tail of Shirky's curve have an incentive to educate themselves on political matters and get involved, in hopes that they'll be the one to have the power of the big bloggers. In the physical world, there is a slim chance that any given person will end up owning a media empire. But online, anybody could become the next Andrew Sullivan or Wonkette or Daily Kos. So, the internet provides a space where the dream of hitting the big time is realistic. And even those that don't make it will be more engaged in the political process in hopes of hitting it big. On balance, it's better to have more people paying attention to politics and honing their argumentation skills.
  • If voting can be done through the internet, the number of voters will increase greatly since people tend not to go to cast their vote at the designated poll if it inconveniences them to travel there. But if people can log on and vote from their office, they are far more likely to do so. This does also however go to the matter of frequency of voting. If an entire electorate has easy access to be online should therefore critical issues be placed before them for their on a regular basis for voting on? thereby reducing the legislative body’s position as being a representative institution that is empowered to enact legislation on behalf of the population as a whole. The risk is that whilst elected officials will presumably have access to all relevant information and be able to make a decision based on long term matters, individuals who are not privy to such intelligence and who might be more myopic and self serving may in fact reach non optimal decisions.

Educated Citizenry

In a system where citizens are running the country, its important that they know what they're talking about. The most obvious advantage of the internet is its ability to quickly and cheaply educate citizens about political matters.

  • Even in countries where the government tries to restrict the educational function of the internet through censorship and filtering, individuals can circumvent those controls, enabling other citizens to be educated about things the incumbent government doesn't want them to know. The cycle of government repression and citizen circumvention is a tit-for-tat that would have never been possible before the internet. Before, the secret police had only to destroy the printing press, and that put a stop to the production of subversive educational materials in that place. The ability of individual hackers to disable government censorship is an enormous power that individuals did not have before the advent of the internet.
  • Even as China and other countries try to "let in the light while keeping out the flies", a few flies are getting in. It only takes a little bit of information in the hands of the right people to get other people talking, breed discontent, and cause change. A little education goes a long way. The photo of the unknown rebel in Tienanmen Square is an example of a small bit of information that could have a profound effect on a political regime if it were widely seen and its significance discussed.
  • As we discussed in class on February 13, perhaps the most effective way to campaign for a cause is by word of mouth. Individuals with Live Journals are able to "speak to" and perhaps educate friends and family all the way across the country, or around the world. That kind of discourse is important for a democracy. We may never know whether or how it changes votes, but it's good that people are discussing political issues. Again, a little bit of education is better than none, and can have a profound effect in the hands of the right people.
    • Even if votes aren't changed in the short term, the development of this inter-personal discourse online helps lay a foundation for a time when it may matter more. For example, if a big event happens, there will already be a network of inter-connected bloggers and their readers in place to get the "real" story out, mouth to mouth, in a way that people trust. And it will be a tool for mobilizing people to demand change.
  • The country/world is a lot smaller than it was before the internet. Before the internet, one might have theoretically cared that control of the government came down to one close senate race in Virginia, but one might not have known about it. And even if one knew, there was not much you could do about it on the afternoon of November 7 if one was in Oregon. But now, people can educate a huge amount of interested people very quickly. And in turn, those people can become involved by sending money, VOIPing people in that area encouraging them to vote etc. The internet allows the whole country to participate in what used to be purely 'local' elections by educating people that those elections are important.
  • The internet makes it easy to find information online. From the Pew survey, it seems that people are relying more on the internet as their source of political information [1]

Transparency and Accountability

  • Any individual who happens to know the truth can break the story. The major networks can no longer act as bottlenecks to stop important stories from getting out there (if the networks are in bed with the interested parties). For example, Senator Allen's macaca comment is said to have derailed his campaign because the internet enabled it to be seen by so many people who were outraged by it. There is no evidence to support this, but it is possible that a network might overlook something like that in hopes of garnering favor with a candidate, but could be pressured into making it a big deal by the tidal wave of interest online.
  • The internet enables extensive and fast fact checking. A person at a town hall with a candidate could have her laptop open and check voting records as the candidate answered a question, and expose the lie right away. Even if this doesn't happen often, candidates will know it can, and will be scared into being more honest and transparent.
  • Flip-flopping will be exposed. Romney and McCain can't get away with their recent flip-flopping because we have video footage of them holding opposite positions. The internet makes it extremely easy for individuals to expose the lies to others. A potentially valid criticism is that this will further encourage bland uncontroversial opinions only to be expressed in public and that therefore paradoxically the effect may be to reduce the electorates’ ability to accurately gauge what are in fact the truly held views of candidates and officials.
  • Politicians respond to polls. The internet enables much faster and more widespread polling. Individuals can (when aggregated in a poll) have a more efficient way to respond to the decisions of leaders and direct policy.

Economic Democracy

  • The internet provides jobs (e.g. tech-service in India), access to markets, and an ability to acquire and use capital that leads to the emergence of a stronger middle class. People who are not living hand-to-mouth have more leisure to educate themselves, engage in politics, and pressure governments to act in their interests.
  • Further the internet reduces the ability of some local suppliers to maintain monopoly power in the market as access to the web allows for the world to become the local market place and enhances consumer sovereignty in the process.

Examples to Discuss

The following are some examples from various countries concerning the question of how the internet can enhance citizens participation in politics. Some thoughts for possible arguments are also included.

  • ePetitions: In England, British citizens can petition the Prime Minister directly online. This system allows millions of British people to say what they want directly to the government. Today, there are more than 1.5 million signatures only for the "Scrap the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy" petition. (For more examples of countries adopting e-petition, see Scotland and Germany)
  • eVoting: Some countries have an election system that allows voters to transmit their ballots over the internet.(See, for example, Geneva eVoting Project)
    • Possible Arguments: How can we ensure that the system will support the principle of “one man, one vote”? Will there be a vote robbery problem (voters might cast their ballot on counterfeit voting sites)? What about the voters' privacy; will their information be revealed?
  • eRulemaking Initiative[2]: This is an attempt to increase citizen participation and understanding in the rulemaking process by making the process easily accessible via the internet. Citizens have an opportunity to become educated about the current rules and policies and have the ability to participate in the rulemaking process by submitting comments which will improve the quality of the leaders' decision-making processes.
    • In the US, there is an eRulemaking Initiative which was launched in January 2003 by the Bush Administration. They established the eRulemaking website - regulations.gov – which allows anyone to read and comment on proposed federal regulations. In fall 2005, the newer version of this site was released by incorporating the ongoing development of the Federal Docket Management System (FDMS) which provides the public and agencies access to the entire regulatory docket, including rules, supporting documents, and public comments. (see regulation.gov and whitehouse.gov)
  • Online Dialogues: The internet makes it possible to have online interactive regulatory dialogues among large number of people, allowing them to discuss any social or political issues with each other as well as with government officials. For example, in 2001, the EPA established an online dialogue project (which won an E-Gov 2002 Explorer Award) on its new draft Public Involvement Policy so that the public could participate and help the officers to determine what kind of revisions to make to the policies. (For more examples of public online dialogues, go to info-ren.org
  • Thailand's political change in 2006: The internet is an alternative source of information when the government controls and restricts the freedom of the mainstream media (TV, newspaper, radio etc.) to shut the eyes and ears of the people. (see iht.com and asiaweek.com) . For example, it is fair to say that strong criticism of the policies and actions of the former Thai government through various mechanisms online (blog, email, IM, video/audio sharing websites etc.) was one of the main factors that led to the significant political movements and changes in Thailand last year. Various facts and criticisms that could not be found anywhere through the mainstream media are often available online Tak Bai and hrw.org for examples).
  • Campaign websites: Perhaps the reason that the campaign websites of Romney, Obama, Clinton, Edwards are so tame and fail to really make use of the interactive power of the internet is that they fear the power it gives to individuals. They realize that the internet has the power to take politics off the pedestal and make it rough, dirty, personal and democratic, like Truman's Whistlestop Campaign of 1948. They don't actually want to interact with the people. They want scripted sound-bites and tame debates. They feel it's easier to get elected and rule when citizens are not individually empowered to interact with their leaders, because then the leaders would actually be accountable to the people. Since the internet has the capacity to enable a more personal, democratic style of campaigning and governing, they fear the internet. That explains why they fail to make full use of the internet to provide a truly interactive experience for voters.
  • Semiotic Democracy: Was the Obama advertisement criticizing Hillary Clinton, modeled after the 1984 Apple advertisement, an example of a new trend in politics, wherein individuals are creating content and meaning without the authorization of the candidates they intend to support? Or was it just a fluke? If this is a new trend, how will it shape politics in the future? Is this something we should encourage or discourage?

Class Discussion Questions

  • The study of the effect of the internet on democracy is very new. One of the most significant question is to ask what a democracy needs to thrive, and ask whether that thing is being enhanced compared to a world without the internet.
  • In what new ways could individuals harness the internet to increase their power in participatory democracy?
  • Is the effect of the internet on participatory democracy going to increase in the future, or have we reached its zenith?
  • Will the internet have more of an effect on improving democracy in countries that currently don't have democracies, or that have new democracies, than it will in countries with established democracies?
  • Many of these claims are subject to the retort "Yeah, in theory that's good, but it doesn't happen." Well, only time will tell. There seem to be plenty of stories from Global Voices about these things happening abroad. Perhaps the internet is a more important tool for developing (or future) democracies, rather than the already-settled democracies of the West.
  • Rather than ask whether the internet is a force for democracy, the more fruitful line of inquiry would be to explore how we can make the internet a stronger force for democracy.
    • We know individuals are empowered in a lot of ways by the internet, especially Web 2.0. Now we need to find a way to use that to empower them in the political sphere.