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Web Campaigns, Online Participation and Deliberative Democracy

There is already a growing narrative about the impact of the Internet on the 2008 Presidential election. For example, Wired argues that Sen. Barack Obama owes his recent Democratic nomination victory to the Internet. Noam Cohen picked up on this theme in the New York Times, writing that the themes of Obama’s campaign–“openness, transparency, and participation”–were “merged perfectly” with the Internet. Further, Cohen described Mr. Obama as the first real “wiki-candidate,” whose supporters generated video clips, created posters, built enthusiasm for the campaign, and even gently mocked him online. Most of the narrative in the press revolves around the Obama campaign, but it’s necessary to also highlight the use of the Internet by others, particularly the Ron Paul campaign, which used Facebook as their primary online organizing tool–as we discussed last month at the Institute of Politics. And it will be interesting to see how John McCain harnesses the Internet (or not). For one, he’s reached out actively to political bloggers, while Obama has not.

These anecdotes raise the question of the Internet’s impact not just on political campaigns, but also on deliberative democracy. Antje Gimmler notes that the Internet strengthens deliberative democracy in two ways. First, the Internet provides unrestricted and equal access to information. Second, it facilitates opportunities for interaction and participation. In terms of increased access to information, a recent Pew study found that nearly a quarter of Americans (24%) regularly learn about the presidential campaign from the Internet, almost double the number from a comparable point in the 2004 campaign (13%). However, the Pew study also found a growing generation gap regarding campaign news, with those under age 30 more likely to gather their campaign related news from the Internet than older Americans.

The Internet is also becoming an important platform for political participation through social networking and online video sites, such as Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube. Pew reported in January that nearly 10 percent of people under age 30 say that they have signed up as a “friend” of one of the candidates on a site. In the hard-fought battle in cyberspace between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, more than 800,000 peoplehave registered on Obama’s social networking website, making him the most popular politician on Facebook. Perhaps most importantly, Obama’s support in the virtual world has led to action in the real world, with more than 30,000 events organized to support his candidacy.

However, Jame Surowiecki cautions that the collective wisdom of the crowd in cyberspace might not produce the best outcome for deliberative democracy. Deliberation is essentially a procedure of open interaction aimed at achieving rationally motivated consensus through rational, tolerant, and civil interaction or debates. Cass Sunstein and many others have found that deliberative interaction on the Internet is problematic. They argue that polarized and extreme positions often dominate the online discursive space. Participants, especially young Internet users, often cannot detach themselves from their preferences, which results in a discourse of exclusion and persuasion. In the end, the ability of the Internet to improve deliberative politics and the openness of decision-making processes remain open questions.

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3 Responses to “Web Campaigns, Online Participation and Deliberative Democracy”

  1. Ladan Mahabadi Says:

    Following the same train of thought, WIRED published the following article on Sunday

    demonstrating the record high political participation of Americans in the most recent presidential election.

  2. Corée du Sud : une vérification du nom réel des internautes dès 2009, en réaction à la net-mobilisation ? | CiTiZeN L. aka Laurent Francois Says:

    […] be cautious about irrationalism in cyberspace that may threaten online democracy (as I mentioned in my last post). Yesterday, South Korean President Lee warned that “the spread of false and incorrect […]


    […] be cautious about irrationalism in cyberspace that may threaten online democracy (as I mentioned in my last post). Yesterday, South Korean President Lee warned that “the spread of false and incorrect […]