The Impact of Communication Technology on Democracy

The Impact of Communication Technology on Democracy

1. Introduction

This essay consists of five main sections through which I will examine the relationship between communication technology and democracy as the argument unfolds. This paper argues that technology has a disruptive effect on democracy and proceeds in a linear fashion from the fundamental changes in the structure of the public sphere to the effects of new technologies on the way people in democracies relate to one another, to their representatives, and to the function of government. Along the way, I will use the United States as a running example to illustrate points, although I intend the argument to hold more generally. The paper draws on a tradition of political theory that characterizes democracy, in Dahl’s term, as a contest over power by means of an uninhibited and open exchange of ideas and arguments leading to the informed public self-government. Theories of deliberative democracy explicate this idea by focusing on the conditions that structure public discourse and make it rational and focused on the common good. I assume the force of this normative ideal in assessing changes brought about by technology, but I do not assume that the technological changes are bad for democracy in every instance.

2. Role of Communication Technology in Democracy

This pattern of development involves changes likely to have considerable impact on the democratic process. Shifts in citizens’ information gathering and news consumption patterns will affect party competition, government responsiveness to public concerns, and the ability of citizens to monitor the work of politicians and government institutions. The full extent and implications of these changes are hard to predict. Many authors have made sweeping and optimistic pronouncements about the potential of the internet in particular to revitalize Western democracies and to promote democracy in other parts of the world.

At the other end, the new technology enables political institutions to communicate directly with citizens through a growing range of channels. Political parties, representative institutions such as parliaments, and governments now have websites designed to give information about activities and policies. Some political parties allow sympathizers to register their opinions on specific policy proposals and, in doing so, prepare the ground for electronic referenda. A well-known recent example was the use made of multimedia campaign tactics in the United States 2000 presidential election. This will become even more significant as broadband connections to the internet become the standard means of access, allowing for near universal transmission of audiovisual material.

3. Challenges and Opportunities

The World Wide Web represents the type of technology which may be matched in terms of its importance in everyday life. It spans every type of medium and public and private sector organizations. However, to say it has a profound implication for representative democracy, participation, and development is difficult to gauge. As with the Internet, it too could lead to an information-rich and poor society, and the public services provided over the medium may vary from health to entertainment. However, it does open up a new channel for communication between individuals and marginal groups with the potential of access to all. E-government over the web may well have a positive impact developing relationships between state and civil societies in nations and also at the interstate level. However, with no radical change to the power structures within the globe, it could simply be used as a tool to reinforce the interests of the more powerful.

Internet opens up new and exciting possibilities for communication. It allows interaction between people even though they may live widely separated from each other. Yet these exciting possibilities are impaired by the lack of opportunity for exchange that exists within mass media. The overwhelming amount of information, the inability to regulate the quality of that information, and the point that people are still separated by socio-economic class and political situation are all issues which plague the usage of the Internet in a democratic context. Furthermore, it has been suggested that the Western dominance of the Internet could lead to the creation of a “global popular culture” which would be as hegemonic as the culture currently spread by television, and the effects that this would bring in terms of democracy are uncertain.

4. Case Studies: Communication Technology and Democracy

In order to combat what he perceived to be overly negative and biased media attention, Chrétien sought to reach the electorate through less filtered means. He increased efforts for direct voter contact and he participated in more interviews with local news stations. Most importantly, Chrétien made effective use of new internet-based communication technologies. He used email to mobilize party workers and to remain in closer contact with constituents and their concerns. His party also made a more sophisticated use of their party website by utilizing tracking polls and voter feedback. These efforts yielded such success that the Prime Minister claimed to have changed his mind about resigning the leadership regardless of the election outcome. It is clear by Chrétien’s overall strategy and specific tactics that he sought to bypass the traditional media filter in hopes of gaining a more sympathetic hearing from voters.

The case study of elections in Canada serves as one example that clearly demonstrates the critical role that communication technologies play in modern democracy. The Canadian government under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien made recent efforts to alter how citizens access political news. The prime minister called a snap election that took place in November 2000. Chrétien and his Liberal Party had been in power for over 7 years and had witnessed a decrease in their popular vote every year since 1993. The Prime Minister had been harshly criticized by the local and national Canadian print and broadcast media. Chrétien felt that the media had become too influential in shaping voter attitudes.

5. Conclusion

The concluding chapter of this volume, which has investigated the impact of communication technologies on democracy, serves to both summarise the salient themes and issues raised by the contributors, and to highlight those areas in need of further research. Establishing the effects of communication technologies on democracy as not straightforwardly positive or negative, but as a complex set of potential influences dependent on how the technologies are implemented and utilized, the chapters in this volume have addressed a wide array of regions, nation-states and sectors. Many have discovered various ‘digital divides’, which suggest that the unprivileged citizens, nations and regions are in danger of isolation from the structures and processes of emerging information societies. The potential for deliberative systems of democracy utilizing e-platforms is explored in some of the US-based chapters, while others highlight dangers for the public sphere in an age of infotainment, global free markets and big money politics. From Eastern Europe to Asia, from indigenous people to expert publics, from environmental groups to European institutions, from small nations to the superpower, a diverse set of communicative spaces and actors are under the spotlight in the volume. In many instances the findings suggest a dislocating effect on existing structures and practices of democracy, but without pointing to a clear and coherent alternative. The concluding commentary reflects an institutionalist theme, addressing the need for more studies on the effects of specific technologies and media forms on given institutions and sectors, from parties to parliaments, NGOs to news industries. How computer mediated communication is affecting the internal functioning and external relations of these entities is a crucial question for the future of governance and civil society around the world.

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