How Politics Is Being Changed by the Web

Internet mediated activities in recent years have created a new, diverse and engaged political culture throughout the world. Public awareness of important issues is increasing like never before, due to the increasing participatory social culture, catalyzed at least in part by the Internet as a technological platform of rich social communication. Organization and activism, which used to be primarily isolated to special interest groups, is becoming trivialized with smaller groups being able to utilize the social power of the Internet. This has resulted in social demands for greater levels of government transparency and accountability. This essay focuses on three specific aspects and the effects of the Internet on Politics, the Internet as an Information source, how the Internet has changed political campaigning and the new emerging trends of cultural citizenship.

The virtually ubiquitous adoption of the Internet in most industrialized countries has allowed people to very easily and quickly find and attract large audiences. These audiences are virtual public spheres where geography has little, if any impact. Local stories, which traditionally would stay localized, can become global rapidly, and do so with amazing regularity. Robert Scoble a well-respected American blogger and technical evangelist claimed that the 2008 Chinese Earthquake was being discussed on Twitter up to a full hour before the mainstream press was reporting on it. Traditional media coverage is no longer the only viable way that groups and individuals can be heard effectively. Part of the reason for this is that the Internet is a great equalizer; people have unrestricted access to worldwide audience to share their unique experiences and opinions. Shiky says that the Internet allows people to escape their usual limitations and avail themselves of capabilities previously reserved for professionals. In this way, anyone is able to report or discuss political issues without limitation, difficulty or professional training and as such, everyone becomes a media outlet. Transfers of powers from professional classes to the general public supports a culture of participation. The increased participation allows the public to rapidly coordinate protests and pooled resources. While its probable that most of these synchronized community efforts are usually destructive in nature, focusing on “stop energy” the trend is generally positive because they improve community expectations of the standards and accountability of government.

In 1993 the UK government published a white paper entitled Open Government, in which it stated that an “Open government is part of an effective democracy”. The premise of the paper was to illustrate that while it is often necessary for a government to maintain secrets to ensure public safety, ministers and public servants had an obligation to explain policies and decisions to the public. The Internet provides a perfect platform for the government and the public to communicate transparently. Sites like WikiLeak’s strive to pursue transparency and accountability, and continue to do so despite the wrath of international political forces.

The Internet has also made it easier for groups to self-assemble and for individuals to contribute to communal effort without the need for formal management. Burgess & Green recount the story of how citizen journalism rose to a new never-before-seen level of public outrage after video of the tasering of a young UCLA student by campus police was uploaded to the video sharing site YouTube. This became such a politicized issue that it actually reached national US press coverage. Similarly, the 2008 formal Apology to the Stolen Generations speech was uploaded for posterity, but was soon complemented with people uploading their own remixed versions with each individual’s commentary, reactions and emotions about the speech, published to an global audience. Burgess & Green claim that these events transcended the typical viral-culture of Internet media and became a purposeful sphere of public conversation and self-mediated representation, expression and encounters of highly political issues.

These factors mentioned above have also created a platform ideal for top-down and mass grass-roots political campaigning. The proliferation of political campaigning on the Internet is proof of how serious politicians consider the web as a campaigning platform. However, Burgess & Green argues that “the forms of political engagement … has just as much to do with celebrity culture as they have to do with Capital-P political culture- in the same way that tabloid mainstream media focus on individual candidates as media personalities.” This is evidenced by official candidate stances on issues becoming nothing more than a back-story for the ‘gotcha’ moments and sound bites. Politician’s are clearly aware of the use of the Internet in mainstream everyday life and is used, particularly in the case of minor Republican 2008 presidential runner Ron Paul, for driving up the popularity of an underdog candidate. At times during the primaries, Ron Paul was more popular on YouTube than Hillary Clinton or even Barack Obama, which speaks volumes to the Internet being a successful tool in disseminating political rhetoric.

The Internet supports and promotes the idea that contemporary citizenship is not only an individuals and rights obligations to the state, but also the concerns the way individuals participate in matters of collective shared interests. The worldwide web transcends cultures, persuasions and borders and political thought is virtually impossible to control. Even despite employing over 30,000 people to monitor maintain it’s censorship regime the Chinese central government finds it nearly impossible to control the political voice of it’s civilian’s who choose to speak.

In conclusion, the Internet is a perfect, powerful and versatile platform to facilitate this shift in political thinking and ideology, while ultimately will lead to a more egalitarian society for everyone.

This post is a slightly modified version of a piece I wrote for a University assignment for the Curtin University Subject Internet Studies 102/502: The Internet and Everyday Life, answering the question: Describe and explain how everyday life is now experienced through Internet-mediated activities of information and communication with reference to ONE of the six topics (Sex and/or Dating, Music, Health, Games, Faith and Politics) in the first module?

See more from this unit.

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