About the Internet and Democracy
In less than a generation, the Internet has altered the daily lives of individuals in ways few would have conceived in its nascent stages. Initially a playground for the computer savvy, the world of blogs and tweets has given equal voice to anyone with a computer and a web connection. It is also where Americans increasingly look for news and informationaccording to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, last year the Internet surpassed newspapers as the source of national and international news, nearly doubling from the year before. Barack Obama channeled the power of the Internet to reach millions during his presidential campaign, and his administration has launched innovative methods to use the Internet to govern.
This foundational shift in the media paradigm is having major implications concerning how the public receives, understands, and engages with public affairs. Should we fear this evolution, or embrace its potential? Will digital media fulfill the ideal of direct democracy, or will it generate, in the words of Google CEO Eric Schmitt, a “cesspool” of erroneous information?
The Internet, supporters say, has enhanced democracy by widening the public sphere and further equalizing political power. It has served as a means for the mobilization of unprecedented numbers of people around various campaigns and causes, most visibly during the Iranian presidential election last June. It has democratized fundraising, reducing dependence on large donors and increasing the ability of a more diverse group of politicians to mount serious races. It has given voice to more journalistsincluding citizen journaliststo report and comment on news without being limited by print space and line counts. It has also allowed the government to connect more broadly and more rapidly with the public on critical issues such as the H1N1 virus. Finally, it has enhanced the ability of citizens to talk to each other and to talk back to elites and professional journalists.
Opponents argue that while information is now at everyone’s fingertips, so is misinformation, which can appear and circulate virally across the Internet. The rise of the Internet as a source of information has undercut the economic model upon which professional journalism is based. Consequently, there is less support for high quality, disinterested information produced by journalists—the type of information upon which democracy depends. Newsrooms full of professional reporters are diminishing as bloggers and online commentators gain larger followings. The resultant new environment is one which enables citizens to choose the ideological slant of virtually all the information they receive. This means they encounter fewer facts upon which their opinions are based and are less frequently confronted with perspectives that challenge their beliefs. Despite the dramatic increase in the availability of diverse sources of information and the possibility of checking the veracity of information, the ability to attend only to information and online communities with which one agrees results in alarming percentages of Americans believing assertions which have been proven to be false.
The future of the Internet and its long-term impact on democracy remains unclear. It is at once a future of promise and peril. As the medium through which much of our information is received, public opinion is formed, and citizens interact with the state, few issues are more important to the health of our democracy.