The Internet and Political Communication

1) What are the Internet's political features?

2 Why is the Internet important for politics?

3) How does it impact upon the public sphere? What sort of politics?

There are a number of different ways that the Internet can be discussed in terms of politics; there are the issues that surround the governance and regulation of the Internet (by nations and international organisations), there are the technical debates that emanate from the computer industry and telecommunication companies (or the standards debates), and there is the actual application of the Internet to the communication of political ideas by various political groups. It is the latter that is the most interesting form of new politics.

1) What are the Internet's political features?

The main characteristics of the Internet that makes it important for politics is that it could be described as an electronic 'agora' or 'global commons'. An agora, is one of the foundation principles of democracy from the Greek, in that is a place where people come together to share and discuss ideas about the broader political society in which they live.

In terms of the Internet's unique political features;

  • each node is privately owned but 'donated' to the network; anyone can join for a modest fee
  • replaces one-to many communication of mass media with a new model of many-to-many communication; each consumer can also be a publisher (low entry levels)
  • Communication with groups is as easy as communication with individuals (easy dissemination). It is as easy to send one email to one person as it is to send one email to a million people.
  • greatly extends international communications on a person to person basis
  • can bypass the 'gate keeping' mechanisms of older media.

2) Why is the Internet Important for politics?

  • The Internet, in particular, has altered many spheres of political life; principally through giving a voice to numerous groups and individuals that other wise wouldn't have access to any media at all (and this can be good or bad as it is not just empowering for progressive groups).
  • Arguably this has altered democratic relationships between government and citizens and between citizens themselves.

3) How does it impact upon the public sphere? What sort of politics? (case studies)

  • The Internet fits within an overarching historical change that has occurred since the early 1970s when we first witnessed the marriage between politics and all sorts of media. Politics has increasing become a media-manipulation game
  • Our 'political information systems' are vital in a representative democracy as it is where people 'deliberate' to make decisions about who they are going to vote for and why. The public sphere is meant to contain a variety of views and opinions about issues that concern us all.
  • In some ways, newer communication mediums (such as the Internet) may be revitalising citizen participation in political discourse (or at least assisting our participation in many components of it).

Why is the Internet Political? (What are the new political features?)

Engineers originally designed the Internet as a communication system to overcome the probability of a central communication facility from being destroyed in the event of a nuclear attack (and thus render the network inoperable). The network structure had no central point thus any point within the network could operate as the centre point. The messages sent on the network could follow any route and should any part of the system become un-operational, messages could find the next viable route. In terms of communicating political ideas to a broad public, the Internet is attractive to those who wish to bypass more established means of communication (especially if those political communication mechanisms are seen as unrepresentative). With the take-off of the Web in 1993/94, the more horizontal, de-centralised form of communication was seen as a fundamental challenge to mass-media culture, and the political relationship it sustains.

Interactivity

  • The major new feature of the Internet, that is useful for politics, is that it is the first true interactive media (as apposed to broadcast mediums like television and radio that are centralised from one place and broadcast to many…although there is talk back radio, which seems to have been populated by a certain type of politics)

· Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, defines interactivity as this:

· "We ought to be able not only to find any kind of document on the Web, but also to create any kind of document easily. We should be not only able to follow links, but also to create then between all sorts of media. We should not only be able to interact with other people, but to create with other people"

Who is Time Berners-Lee?

In 1980, Berners-Lee proposed a project based on the concept of hypertext, to facilitate sharing and updating information among researchers. In 1989 Berners-Lee saw an opportunity to join hypertext with the Internet. In his words, "I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the TCP (the Internet protocol) and DNS ideas and – ta-da! – the World Wide Web".

Open Publishing (Indymedia example)

Open publishing simply means that anyone can publish online, within reason, without the usual editorial gate keeping devices of other mediums. The best example of open publishing that I know (apart from Wikipedia) is the global Indymedia network. The Indymedia system was originally built on an Australian made content management system built by activists in Sydney. Anyone can publish political stories on the site, but there are of course certain community constraints as contributors must uphold certain political values (and after you read a few of the stories you will get an idea of what stories are appropriate for the network).

http://www.indymedia.org/en/index.shtml

http://liveradio.indymedia.org/

There are about 100 Indymedia collectives in most of the world's major cities who have their own local web sites and a whole range of political communication initiatives. There is also an Indymedia radio site that streams a number of alternative radio stations online, and there are also a number of independent news bulletins that are distributed free online to television stations and other organisations.

http://www.video.indymedia.org*

*There is a good video on this site called 'globalisation and the media'. It is a documentary exploring how the mass media shape public opinion on the War on Terror . It offers a wide range of viewpoints from broadcasters, journalists, alternative media activists, and news editors. It also investigates the bias of Television news during the protest blockades of the IMF and the G8 summits. It includes a report on state suppression of alternative media in Europe. Discover how new technology, such as the Internet and camcorders, is challenging the role of the traditional news gatherer.

In terms of independent media expression outside the constraints of 'big media' the web does offer a cheap and effective means of distribution; not just of text but off all sorts of media.. And it's global reach that may facilitate a new sort of politics outside of the boundaries of nation-state political communication.

Political Podcasts

Podcasting is the distribution of audio or video files, such as radio programs or music videos, over the Internet using RSS syndication for listening on mobile devices and personal computers. A podcast is a web feed of audio or video files placed on the Internet for anyone to download or subscribe to. Usually a podcast features a type of 'show' with new episodes either sporadically updated or updated at intervals (such as daily, weekly, etc). Besides that there are podcast networks that feature multiple shows on the same feed. Podcasting's essence is about creating content (audio or video) for an audience that wants to listen when they want, where they want, and how they want.

Subscribing to podcasts allows a user to collect programs from a variety of sources for listening or viewing off-line, whenever and wherever is convenient. In contrast, traditional broadcasting provides only one source at a time, and the time is broadcaster-specified. While podcasts are gaining ground on personal sites and blogs, they are not yet widespread. One easy way to find podcasts is to use the Podcast Directory in iTunes; these automatically-updated podcasts can then be synchronised to a portable multimedia device, such as an MP3 player, for off-line listening (see Wikipedia for more details)

There are not too many examples of political podcasts. There are a few drab American example where politicians and their parties have used podcasts to beam their message directly to their supporters.

Impact Upon the Public Sphere

So how the Internet impacts upon the public sphere? In some ways the Internet is its own public sphere in that much of the communication that circulates on it never reaches other mediums or impacts upon broader public debate (and this is probably the case with a lot of the Indymedia publishing initiatives in that they may reinforce the identity of a particular audience, although their reach beyond that audience is not always that clear. However, there are a number of examples of where the Internet has 'set the media agenda' in other mediums.

The S11 Web Site (go to the Pandora.Archive's web site and search for s11.org)

A famous example is the s11.org web site that was produced in conjunction with the protests against the World Economic Forum held in Melbourne on September 11, 2000. The S11 site is significant for a number of reasons. One is that it helped in the logistical organisation of the S11 (anti-corporate-globalisation) protest in Melbourne in September 2000 and was probably the first time that a web site had been used for large scale political mobilisation in Australia. Arguable the protest wouldn't have been as successful without the aid of the site as it acted as a central organising mechanism for the eclectic range of political groups who attended

Apart for the logistical and political information that site published there are a few other ways that the media activists that designed it gained notoriety and publicity in the mainstream press. One is through the famous Nike.com DNS Hack that redirected millions of hits from the US based corporate web site to www.s11.org (or what is commonly know as Hacktervism)

In September 2000, a activists hacked into the DNS entry for Nike.com on the ICAAN directory so that when ever someone typed Nike.com into their web browser then they were directed to the S11.org web site. I think that s11.org was taking about a million hits per hour until Nike discovered it and rang the FBI who in turn rang the small Internet Service Provider here in Melbourne who had conveniently lost all the Logs that may have directed them to the culprit. And once the press found out and reported it widely then the traffic was increased even more

Rights at Work http://www.actu.asn.au/work_rights/

This is an ACTU web site that concerns the rights that workers have in their workplace. It is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly it is a news aggregation site with stories that focus upon industrial relations conflicts in Australia. But it's a lot more than that as it is also highly interactive in that it also has a weblog section where people can respond to the articles. And it also has a video section where people can view videos from recent protest and actions.

Moveon.org http://www.moveon.org

This US organisation works on donations from its 3.5 million members and it has raised 9 million dollars for progressive candidates and advertisements

Check some of Moveon's adds in their archive: http://www.moveon.org/archive.html

And Australian example is Getup: http://www.getup.org.au/

They Rule.net http://www.theyrule.net/

'They Rule aims to provide a glimpse of some of the relationships of the US ruling class. It takes as its focus the boards of some of the most powerful U.S. companies, which share many of the same directors. Some individuals sit on 5, 6 or 7 of the top 500 companies. It allows users to browse through these interlocking directories and run searches on the boards and companies. A user can save a map of connections complete with their annotations and email links to these maps to others. They Rule is a starting point for research about these powerful individuals and corporations"

(Check out Walmart)

Summary

Terry Flew of QUT (in New Media an Introduction 2002) says that to date, new media has been better at supporting grass roots activist groups of geographically dispersed people that come together through a common cause (such as Environmental activist and human rights activists). And I tend to agree if you look at how the major parties are using the Internet

http://www.alp.org.au/

(It has RSS feeds but only a small way to interact via a 'feedback form'.)

http://www.liberal.org.au/

(No RSS feeds, a generic email address, but you can download the Liberal part logo).

http://www.greens.org.au
http://www.greens.org.au/mediacentre/syndication/

(A little better, in that it has a poll, a sophisticated set of RSS feeds, and a member's area).

Drs Sally Young and Peter Chen quoted in an article in the Age in January of 2005 that:

"…the main parties want compete control over the timing and content of material they're connected with. Softened up by television campaigning, with slogans crafted word-by-word with focus groups, the main Australian political parties are not interested in real interactivity". (Young and Chen Age, Jan 2005).

and again from Terry Flew

"…the 'democratic dividend' that many have sought from the greater application of ICTs has largely failed to eventuate, as governments at all levels have been reluctant to open these sites as forums for citizen input into the decision-making process". (Terry Flew)

(I don't entirely agree as political elites are also becoming net savvy…but to summarise the key political features of the web for political communication. It is a:

  • Cheap and effective means for activists to communicate both globally and locally.·
  • May facilitate trans-local and transnational forms of politics that are outside of the usual bounds of the nation state (such as Indymedia)
  • Facilitates temporal, rapid response politics in response to urgent political events (peace movements etc.).
  • The Internet is also important because it has dramatically opened up access to political information (Hansards, press releases, newspapers, speeches, party policies, etc.) But also it's opened up a whole new range of alternative voices, ways to demonstrate, and ways to organise both at the grass roots level and globally.
  • The growth of the Internet mirrors the growth of single issue lobbies/parties

Technorati : , ,
Del.icio.us : , ,
Ice Rocket : , ,

3 Replies to “The Internet and Political Communication”

  1. In countries where political activism is severely repressed, blogs have been one way for activists to draw international attention. It was interesting to see how bloggers around the world rallied to the cause of imprisoned Egyptian blogger Alaa (who has just been released):

    http://freealaa.blogspot.com/

  2. Fwd: from Hughie

    Hi all. First-time poster and chronic, freeloading lurker here.

    To be honest, I find this stuff unrealistic and techno-utopian. 11 years
    ago it would possibly have been ground-breaking 🙂 . I don’t have time
    to critique it fully here, (my interests have moved away from politics
    specifically) but a couple of points:

    Craig wrote:
    “1) What are the Internet’s political features?

    The main characteristics of the Internet that makes it important for
    politics is that it could be described as an electronic ‘agora’ or
    ‘global commons’. An agora, is one of the foundation principles of
    democracy from the Greek, in that is a place where people come together
    to share and discuss ideas about the broader political society in which
    they live.”


    [Yawn] An inaccurate and outdated metaphor. Useful for introducing High
    Schoolers to the idea but that’s about it. There are many significant
    differences between the fora that have yet to be precisely defined but
    are too manifest to be ignored.

    “In terms of the Internet’s unique political features;
    each node is privately owned but ‘donated’ to the network; anyone can
    join for a modest fee replaces one-to many communication of mass media
    with a new model of many-to-many communication; each consumer can also
    be a publisher (low entry levels)
    Communication with groups is as easy as communication with individuals
    (easy dissemination). It is as easy to send one email to one person as
    it is to send one email to a million people.”


    Well, actually, no. *Sending a message* to one person is (almost!) as
    easy as sending it to a million, but that’s not the same thing as
    communication
    …. too many practitioners have been too slow to figure this essential
    difference out, and it’s keeping us in the communication dark ages.
    Uncle Rupert (among others) should shut up and listen at this point.

    “greatly extends international communications on a person to person
    basis can bypass the ‘gate keeping’ mechanisms of older media.”


    Well, sort of. If we’re being honest, we’d probably revise that to
    *really* emphasise the “Can” and add an “often doesn’t”. The figures
    are showing that, even on the Internet, most people are sticking with
    the trusted “brands” for most of their information and entertainment.
    They don’t explore much beyond what’s thrust into their faces – except
    in areas of particular interest, and even then they tend to get stuck in
    “silos”, particularly when it comes to reinforcing pre-existing
    political bias. There certainly appears to have been a flattening of
    the distribution curve for political information but this seems to have
    mainly affected political afficionados and not the wider voting public
    much.

    “2) Why is the Internet Important for politics?
    The Internet, in particular, has altered many spheres of political life;
    principally through giving a voice to numerous groups and individuals
    that other wise wouldn’t have access to any media at all (and this can
    be good or bad as it is not just empowering for progressive groups).
    Arguably this has altered democratic relationships between government
    and citizens and between citizens themselves.”


    Only arguably. See the above point about sending messages verses
    communication. Add to that the point about information silos and you
    get organisations finding it easier to preach to the converted, so to
    speak. “Governments” seem to be far more interested in “e-governance”
    than “e-democracy”. That is, they see it as a better investment to make
    it easier for constituents to get a licence or bus timetable online than
    for them to have any input into policy. That hasn’t “altered the
    relationship” as much as “greased the wheels” of the existing mills. (I
    apologise for the hoplessly mixed metaphor).

    “3) How does it impact upon the public sphere? What sort of politics?
    (case studies)
    The Internet fits within an overarching historical change that has
    occurred since the early 1970s when we first witnessed the marriage
    between politics and all sorts of media. Politics has increasing become
    a media-manipulation game [AMEN!!]
    Our ‘political information systems’ are vital in a representative
    democracy as it is where people ‘deliberate’ to make decisions about who
    they are going to vote for and why. The public sphere is meant to
    contain a variety of views and opinions about issues that concern us
    all.
    In so me ways, newer communication mediums (such as the Internet) may be
    revitalising citizen participation in political discourse (or at least
    assisting our participation in many components of it).”


    But here’s the rub: research shows that most people DON’T deliberate.
    They vote based on instinct, prejudice and gut feeling – not
    information. Of course, the effects mentioned above have a greater
    impact in countries where voting is not compulsory, because it’s the
    “converted” who do most of the voting. The apathetic remain … well …
    apathetic. In this sense, the Political Internet and the Agora have a
    lot in common: they’re elitist and populated by a priviledged and
    interested few. The difference is that now, unlike in Ancient Greece,
    nearly all of the population have the right to vote whether they attend
    the Agora or not. Remember, too, that membership of
    the original “public sphere” was narrow and exclusive …

    What I noticed in e-democracy activities over the past few years is that
    a lot of it allows people who were already politically active but
    media-quiet (like mens groups and the home-schooling lobby) to make more
    noise in fora already populated by people who are politically aware and
    active. That has been OK, but if the noise is not carefully abated it
    can also have the effect of alienating the kind of swing voters who
    would make a difference. That produces a distinctly anti-democratic
    result and/or creates a new set of gatekeepers rather than bypassing
    them. What the Internet *hasn’t* done is drag vast numbers of potential
    swing voters into a state of active participation and awareness.

    The other aspect that’s overlooked is harnessing the Internet’s features
    to *agregate* opinion to help policy development. That means
    many-to-one communication, not the other possibilities. Not enough
    political figures are consulting the community (however constituted) via
    New Media – and this is one area where “e-governance” and “e-democracy”
    overlap. Apart from a few petitions and the like (and acceptance of
    e-mail submission to inquiries), deliberative democracy of this kind has
    not been tried as widely as it potentially could be …

    I tend to think that, on balance, the Internet has had a positive effect
    on modern public politics and it’s made it easier for activists to
    organise and mobilise, but a lot of the literature is unrealistic and
    techno-utopian. There’s a lot more work to be done understanding the
    intricacies of the human attention span before we will make much more
    progress down this road. Disinterest and ignorance are not going to be
    defeated by providing more “information” or “debate” in a crowed, noisy
    space, nor by making more spaces. Democracy activists need to Get Out
    The Vote more, earlier and with greater effect before any of this makes
    much difference.

    Apologies for the overly-long post.

    Cheers,
    Hughie

  3. from:ellis.godard@csun.edu

    My master’s thesis (11 years ago) labelled these three aspects as locus,
    focus, and modus, respectively – governance of and within the locus of
    online interactions, design and access of internet as the focus for
    political activity, and use of the internet as a modus for political
    activity (although I conceived of all 3 as related to social movement
    activity more generally, not necessarily political).

    I’m sure Bellamy’s taken the ideas further than I ever would have, and I’m
    under no illusion that he’s aware of what I wrote or even, more generally,
    that what’s quoted below is hardly new, but… What’s quoted below isn’t
    new. 🙂

    -eg

Leave a Reply