Matthew Hindman: The Myth of Digital Democracy
The Internet is redistributing political influence; it is broadening the public sphere, increasing political participation, involving citizens in political activities that were previously closed to them, and challenging the monopoly of traditional elites. This…definition of democratization presumes first and foremost that the technology will amplify the political voice of the ordinary citizens. The Web is instead dominated traditional news organizations and a very few bloggers who, whatever their partisan differences, bear a remarkable resemblance in terms of race (white), gender (male), and regular profession (lawyers). Rather than “ordinary citizens” then, politics on the Internet is quite similar to politics before the Internet. Politics has been digitized, but not “democratized.”
Certainly the Founders, who created a republican system precisely to avoid the perils of too much democracy, would not be disappointed to see that yet another technology has failed to deliver on its promises. It will suffice for now to consider how implausible the promise of democratization was in the first place, going against both human nature and the most basic laws of economics. Note, that the myth posits a series of things that reality demonstrates to be unfounded, that all things being equal we would desire a broader public sphere and prefer to be more involved in politics. However, these options are closed to us somehow and, therefore, elites have a monopoly on politics.
Really, how many people who wish our daily lives were more politicized? Who think we get too little politics? Have you been to a local School Board meeting, town meeting, or local party meeting and seen how sparsely attended they were? And was that because they were inaccessible to the unwashed masses or because of genuine lack of interest? Ever volunteered on a political campaign? They didn’t turn you away for your ordinariness did they? In fact, if you came for a few days in a row they probably started loading you with responsibilities. The fact of the matter is that our politics is quite open and discussion of it is freely available throughout the various media and in community milieus. We’re more likely to be found seeking to escape the sphere than banging to be admitted. A goodly portion of the citizenry seems to have quite enough on their plate just dealing with work, family, church, etc. and to feel rather little need to muck about in politics.