The Negative 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 Affirmative Argument

The Argument Against the Resolution:

Introduction

The following argument will first accept and discuss the factors for participatory democracies set forth in the Positive Argument section. Then, it will show that the internet has not had the tremendous effect on democracy that it is claimed to have had. Further, while the internet has enabled some citizens to find their voices and influence politics in a way they would not otherwise have been able to, the internet's ability to do that is decreasing, not increasing. The internet has been exciting because it is a new space for interaction, but it will become like every other space.

Factors for Participatory Democracies

A Strong, Unbiased, Informed Media

  • The internet allows anyone who has something to say to get a website, get online, and say it. But this is not the same thing as a stronger, less biased, more informed media. In fact, it is the opposite.
    • Individuals who want to get online and participate in politics are likely to have a strong point of view. Thus, they are likely to be more biased, not less biased, than mainstream media and larger entities.
    • Individuals who create blogs are generally not people with special inside information about certain topics - they are just individuals with opinions. They likely get the news about which they post from the mainstream media itself. Thus, the internet has not created a more informed media.
      • As an example, note the Indian blogs speculating about the source of a recent train bombing - they have no more information than anyone else.
  • The most important aspect of a strong, unbiased, informed media is the ability to convey true information to a citizenry. Cititzens need to be able to trust the information they recieve.
    • The internet has made that less likely, not more. Sites like blogs, personal discussion pages, and even Wikipedia can be riddled with inaccuracies. For instance, Allen Iverson's favorite color is not blue, but I just put that fact up in the Wikipedia Iverson trivia section. Let's see if it will get fixed.
      • Wow - in fairness to the argument, this did get fixed within 24 hours.
    • People can put these inaccuracies in for their own political interests. One good example of this is the John Seigenthaler case where he was accused in Wikipedia to have been involved in the Kennedy assassinations (John Seigenthaler case at usatoday.com)
  • Information on the internet can be derived from two main categories of sites: classic newspaper-like sites run by the mainstream media, and sites not run by the mainstream media. This second category tends to have less accountability. In countries with a fairly reliable mainstream media, the second category of sites is much less trustworthy, and people will continue to rely on the mainstream sites for their news. Even in countries in which the mainstream media is controlled or biased, people searching for information will have a hard time finding true information. If the government can control the mainstream media, it can also post blogs of misinformation. Even if some blogs post the truth, individuals will have a hard time sorting those from the false ones. Thus, the internet has not changed the nature of the media.

Fair and Balanced Elections

  • While it is easy for a new/unknown candidate to put up a website, it takes more than a website to get elected. We have yet to see a candidate come from obscurity and get elected on the basis of his web presence. The Dean campaign, which could have been the example for this, failed.
  • The idea that an unsupported candidate can garner all the support he needs by getting himself noticed online is unrealistic - especially in light of the Shirky article. See the Power Law section below.

Engaged Citizenry

  • There is no question that there are politically motivated individuals on the web who are engaged in politics and engage each other by means of the internet.
  • But the internet is just a new space for this activity. Without the internet, politically motivated people would motivate in other ways.
    • There is an argument that the internet makes it easier for people to be engaged, so people who would not otherwise participate are doing so now. But this argument is circular. The internet has merely made it easier for people to participate in politics in certain ways. The internet has also made it easier to communicate with friends via email and instant message. But that does not mean that people communicate with friends more now than they did before. It just means that they use the internet more, and the phone and visits less.
  • The internet has made it easier for people to engage on topics that interest them, but it is certainly not pushing them towards politics.
    • The Pew Study on blogging states that 9% of internet users said they read blogs "frequently" or "sometimes" during the campaign. That is NOT a big number. Especially since the "sometimes" category was 5%, and the "frequently" category was only 4%. Heck, if I read one political blog during the campaign, I would check "sometimes."
    • A quick Global Voices survey of the blogs in Nigeria shows that people are blogging about a new dance inspired by soccer moves, wealthy Americans, and an investment opportunity.
    • In Syria, important blogs tell the world how to make a delicious fish recipe and that the ice cream cone was a Syrian invention.
    • People are using the web to do things they were otherwise inclined to do, and no more. While I may search the web for YouTube videos of political flub-ups, my friend is reading The Superficial.
    • Indeed, the Pew Study on blogging states that those who were heavily involved in the campaign already, by getting news and information and emailing arguments to friends, "were more likely than others to read political blogs." Thus, they are just doing what they would have done anyways, in a different way.
    • Similarly, the people who go to GlobalVoices are people who would be interested in that stuff anyways. The people reading, though, don't necessarily have any more power to affect change than if they had obtained their information from a different source.
  • On Valentine's Day of this year, Global Voices reported the brave actions of a young tech geek, who managed to circumvent Iran's internet filtering system to provide Iranians with access to a popular and censored site. The site? Flickr, a photo-sharing website.
    • Granted, Flickr appears to be helping expose the corruption of the dictator in the Republic of Congo, but how many people are using it for that? And who didn't know that dictator was corrupt, anyway?
  • An argument could be made that the internet has a positive affect on public participation more generally, and that this improves democracy. I would disagree. Again, the internet is a platform that enables people to pursue their interests more effectively. People who would engage in public participation will do so on the internet, but people who want to keep to themselves will use the internet to do non-social things. Indeed, the stronger argument may be that the internet allows people to do so much from home that they get out less, thus having less of the unexpected interactions with others that are important. Instead of going to the mall, they will order clothes online. This could make them less connected to the rest of the public, not more.

Educated Citizenry

  • The availability of more information on the web does not mean that the citizenry will be more educated, as much of the information on the web is misinformation, and the creators of individual sites are less accountable than mainstream media.
    • For example, a number of websites like this one, which falsely states that HIV does not cause AIDs, have caused a fairly big crisis in South Africa.
  • If a story is important, and true, it will be picked up by mainstream media. The internet is not needed for that.

Transparency and Accountability

  • While the internet can be used to reveal bad things that politicians have done, in order to educate the public, it can also be used to create lies about politicians. A reliable-looking story about how Governor Romney made a racist comment could fly around the internet very quickly, even if untrue.
    • A lie like that could ruin a candidate, and never be dispelled. Even if Romney denies it, he could be permanently sullied in the eyes of voters. Indeed, even if voters realize that the rumor was untrue, it may become an association in their minds anyways. You can't unring a bell.

General Arguments Against the Internet Having a Positive Effect

Shirkey's Power Law Argument

  • The internet has been an exciting space until now because it has had little to no barriers to entry.
  • But, the longer the internet exists, the more barriers to entry there will be.
  • The big bloggers are getting more established, making it harder for newcomers to have an influence.
  • Already, it is nearly impossible for a new blogger to start up and get a lot of hits - the hits are taken by the few most popular blogs.
    • If the internet is enabling people to make blogs that no one will read, it is doing nothing. Those people may as well be writing diaries.
    • The longer the internet lasts, the more blogs there are out there. There are so many voices that none of them are being heard. White noise is not democracy. It only clouds issues and masks what candidates are really trying to say.
  • Also, we can no longer say that the popular bloggers are independent. Maintaining a popular blog nowadays is a full-time job. These bloggers need to be supported by someone.
    • The longer the internet lasts, the more likely the popular blogs and sites will be supported by big money. Company's are beginning to realize that certain blogs are powerful, and are seeking to align themselves with them.
  • In this way, the web is becoming more like the book publishing world. While anyone can start a new website, they need money for the publicity to really get it going and published. Similarly, while anybody can bind a book, it takes money to get it published widely. The internet space, the longer it lasts, it becoming more like any other space for communication and less revolutionary.
    • A good example of this is YouTube. While it started with a bunch of homemade videos, some of the most popular posts were a series by LonelyGirl15. She appeared to be an average dorky girl podcasting from her bedroom, but she was really an actress hired by Creative Artists Agency.

Sunstein's "Daily Me"

  • If the internet allows people to be more involved with their politics, it does not do so positively.
  • If a person espouses one viewpoint, he or she will search for other sites that support that viewpoint. The individual will become further and further removed from the center, and less able to relate to people on the other side of the debate. This will increase partisanship and extremism, and stifle healthy democratic debate instead of encouraging it.

Government Control

  • The government presence on the internet (and lack of understanding about exactly what government can do to find you) chills speech and political activity online. The mere thought that the government's "sword of Damocles" is hanging over you is enough to stifle free political speech.
    • Whereas before you could send an anonymous tip to a reporter who could publish it safely, now people will fear the government can trace the tip back to the source. So they stay quiet. You can of course still use the old methods, but people may not think of that because the internet is so dominant.
    • As the web becomes more tethered and less generative, regulability of individuals online increases. (e.g. Great Firewall of China) That's not such a huge problem in countries with relatively robust notions of free speech and assembly, but in developing democracies, that may mean that the government will have the ability to cut off the only means of political discourse that most individuals have.
    • The internet allows for more pervasive psychological control by governments than ever before. As Palfrey suggested, it seems China has a strategy of constantly changing what is blocked and what is not. That sends the message to internet users that government knows what you're trying to get at, is baiting you to click on it, and is just waiting to pounce. This terrifies citizens and controls their thoughts and actions in a way that the SS or China's Red Guards never could have done.

Class Discussion Questions

  • The hottest topic in Bangladesh on February 12 was that Nobel Laureate Br. Muhammad Yunus had expressed his intention to start a political party and run for the next election. Dr. Yunnus chose to announced his candidacy in an open letter to the public published on an online new source called The Daily Star. Is his choice of publishing on an online new source, rather than a paper news source, significant?
  • Blogs on Global Voices report demonstrations against the government that have been happening for years and continue to happen.
    • Doesn't this show that the people have more faith in the traditional modes of protest? Won't a grand demonstration always be more effective than some voices online?
    • Granted, the internet can help organize the demonstrations, but can it do it in a significantly better way than flyers and word of mouth?

Examples to Discuss

  • Finding examples for the negative argument is always a difficult thing, but the more pertinent point is the LACK of examples. After an exhaustive reading of Global Voices - in the governance, free speech, human rights, and protest sections - I cannot find an example that says, "Look! Look at the impact we have had! We posted, and this happened in response!" If it would be anywhere, it would be on Global Voices.
    • In fact, the first post in the protest section begins: "Fed up with all the politics in the Middle East? Me too. This week, we will take a pictorial tour of the region. . ."
  • The Dean campaign was exciting, but did it go any further than it otherwise would have?
    • Even if it did, now that all the major candidates are signed onto using the internet, will one dark horse be able to shine out like Dean did? Or were people just excited because there was one interesting candidate on the web? Won't it all cancel out now?
    • Can this be a mini-model of the internet's role in participatory democracy more generally? Dean's campaign was exciting because it was new and different, so people responded well to the use of the internet. But now that all the candidates are using the internet, the excitement of the use of the internet will not benefit any one candidate. Thus, the internet has already had the most effect it could have on our democracy, and will make no further waves now that it is established.
  • YouTube's You Choose '08 campaign got a lot of people very excited about the internet's ability to affect participatory democracy. The idea was for each candidate to have a spotlight week in which he or she posted a video asking the YouTubers a question, received their responses, and responded in another video. In their spotlight weeks, the first candidate's video recieved seventy-one video responses, the second candidate received fifty-two response videos, and the third received only twenty-nine. People, apparently, lost interest in the project, perhaps because they did not feel that they were getting real interaction with the politicians, and perhaps because they did not feel like their voices were being heard. Either way, the You Choose '08 campaign, which could have shone as a model of people using the internet to get more involved in politics, failed. Like the Dean campaign, it blew up with excitement, then ultimately flopped, making no real changes. My argument is that the internet's effect on politics will be the same.

Other Thoughts

  • As we saw with the Obama, Clinton and Romney websites, they're mostly using the internet as a platform to talk "at" people, just like they did with the TV. The only difference is it's free. That indicates that at least those candidates don't think it's much of an improvement over traditional media. If this is all they can come up with, it doesn't look like it's going to revolutionize American presidential politics.
    • For the most part, it just seems like American presidential candidates are just using the internet to make them seem hip. (e.g. the DoddPod). They're not using it as a revolutionary tool, but rather as a fashion accessory.
  • Individuals may have a place at the table now, but they are not accountable. A blogger can say anything and have no repercussions for it being wrong, as long as he keeps a readership. Thus, if he knows he has a dedicated following, he can choose what is news and post what he likes. This is similar to the Daily Me argument. This sort of free-for-all system cannot be good for democracy.
  • Whatever use the internet has had in political activities now will decline as the regulability of the internet increases. As people get tired of viruses and hackers, they will demand computers that can’t be as changeable. They will demand locked-down, tethered devices. But such devices will allow governments to regulate even more what comes to and goes from a computer, so political protest will be more difficult.
  • Fine, the internet has made contacting other people for political reasons easier. But that is because it has made everything easier. Shopping, spreading gossip, and finding friends are all easier now. But this makes it all a wash. If the internet made ONLY political action easier, more people would gravitate toward political action than otherwise would. But, since everything is easier, people will gravitate toward their predisposed tendencies. "It's easier to shop now, yay!"