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Global Constitution-Building

Essay by Herbert Burkert

After an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting system of Internet regulation, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the Internet. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the INTERNET, the safety and the welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of a universal network in many respects the most interesting phenomenon of our times …

Only a foreigner, it seems, may be forgiven for bending the first sentences of the Federalist Papers, a set of documents so dear to the political culture of a nation and doing so with no other excuse but to find a rhetorical re-entry into a somewhat ailing debate on Internet rule-making. But why did those setting the framework for this debate evoke these historically loaded documents in the first place? Why this reference to the political history of just one particular country at a moment when this country seems no longer to have the largest amount of Internet users? Why such a debate anyway, and why now – again? What should be the issues? And what could be the desired outcome?

The historic reference may have been chosen for the purely heuristic reason of eliciting responses to the political significance of this current moment by recalling a significant moment in the history of political thought. And the reference to the history of the United States of America may be justified because of the role this country has played in the genesis of the Internet. Some may even hold such a reference to be justified because of an intellectual climate which, they say, this country has provided (while others maintain it is still providing and yet others see it providing soon again) in which people from different cultural backgrounds could experience the limitations of their own prejudices and the opportunities of free exchange while at the same time being given a lingua franca facilitating their exchanges and leaving them free to maintain their identity— all this being experiences and associations which we still sense today whenever we use the Internet even if only for the most mundane purposes.

This somewhat lengthy attempt at justification may, of course, also be read as proof that the “American reference” in all things relating to the Internet should no longer be taken for granted. Even if one of the key organizations of Internet infrastructure, ICANN, is still operating on the basis of a contract with US authorities, the focus of Internet policy and rule-making has been shifting significantly. This is no longer a debate mainly by, among and about US Americans, exclusively within their set of cultural references. Furthermore, this is no longer a debate about the existence of dominance, and how to deal with dominance. This is a debate with global participants about the present and the future of global communication as such.

The Internet is the “space” where we all experience the profound moment between when we have spoken and when we are heard, between the moment we hear and the moment when we set out to answer. The Internet is the communicative experience of our time, it is, if we want to continue to use the metaphor of space, the Global Communication Space in which we are offered the opportunity to constitute our individual and collective identities – and all of us. We may stay with this metaphor of space, we may take a more functional approach and see the Internet as a communication tool, or, we may perceive it even as a Public Good, since its global reach gives it its special meaning.

However, it is precisely this globality which is at stake. The “American reference” is not so smoothly being replaced by a new higher “federalist” political reference to the Global. Rather what we see are multiple references, within multiple territorial boundaries— may they be geographical, political or boundaries of belief and culture— which have become increasingly rigid in the last decade. Those seeking to move in the global communication space experience collision, conflicts with habits and values and rules, set for them by what they had thought to be traditional agencies of power slowly losing their relevance. This experience of collision simultaneously meets with increasing doubts about the technical and organizational sustainability and scalability of the technical infrastructure of the Internet itself. A window of opportunity when it seemed politically possible to finally match global technical capabilities with the human need for communication seems to be closing, ironically at a moment when we have just come to understand our natural environment and the health of our bodies to be truly global issues.

Still this moment gives us two options: We can rely on the traditional way of constitution-building, drawing from our past experiences of how to construct national or regional political institutions, procedures and rules. We can discuss and eventually attempt to reset the powers of technical maintenance and scaling, the rules of content and behavior, the powers of exclusion and inclusion. We can look for new—and realign old— sources of legitimacy, and we can construct a new system of checks and balances for such powers. We might, however, be forced to realize that this is not about building just a new box in which we will eventually place and protect a more and more fragile Internet. While we set out to design such a box, the Internet is already being boxed in. While we may find new ways for making new rules, rule-making is happening all the time around us. Since its very beginnings the Internet has seen its communicative potentials domesticated and its potential reach contained.

The other option seems to be to intervene now in the existing political processes and governance structures whenever and wherever the global understanding of the Internet is at stake, defending our communication habitat, just as we are defending our natural habitat by intervening in traditional political processes. To arrive at an Internet living up to its global potential we may have to make direct use of all those institutions and processes which are already shaping the Internet.

We might still call this process constitution-building.

But within this option such a task is far more complex. It builds a constitution by intervening at all moments and on all levels in a multi-player, multi-issue and multi-fora environment. Such an approach, with all its decentralized activities, would still require its own legitimacy, its specific focus, as well as subtle organization and synchronization. Much of that might be generated simply from the interaction of the many, harnessing their intellectual and social potential. Also, new bodies might evolve creating new fora, free of at least some of the negative associations which we link with many current global institutions. Given the necessary determination, we could also rely on institutions and processes of traditional legitimacy, on our existing bodies of local, regional and global policy-making and insist on linking them with carriers of acquired legitimacy such as non-governmental organizations. The essential will be to focus – again similar to the environmental debate – on the common and express goal of maintaining and enhancing the Global Communication Space, its infrastructure and its accessibility.

Whatever option is taken, it can build on the experiences of such “Continental Congresses” as the ones in e.g.Marina del Rey, or Geneva, or Tunis, or Athens.

And it can take inventories from the environmental debates as long as we keep in mind that all our constitutional efforts are in the end about our current and future will to share and to partake in other peoples’ joys and sorrows in the most direct way currently possible over distances. This is about nothing less than the way in which we intend to deal with hate and violence—as individuals, communities, as societies—within a global framework, and what we are willing to offer, to share and to learn for this aim.

Herbert Burkert is Professor of Public Law, Information and Communication Law, and President of the Research Center for Information Law at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. He is also an International Fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School and a Senior Research Fellow at the Fraunhofer Institute for Intelligent Analysis and Information Systems in St. Augustin, Germany. He has authored and edited numerous publications on information law, technology, and data protection.

From the Bottom-Up: Using the Internet to Mobilize Campaign Participation

Essay by Dana Fisher

This essay is one in a series of responses to A Working Hypothesis, Internet and Politics 2008: Moving People, Moving Ideas

Additional responses include: The New Activism: Why Volunteering Declined in Campaign 08, by Ari Melber, Participation and Polarization in the Networked Public Sphere, by Henry Farrell, A Response to Working Hypothesis for Internet and Politics 2008, by Sunshine Hillygus, The Revolution of the Online Commentariat, by Peter Daou, and Not the Digital Democracy We Ordered, by Matthew Hindman.

During the 2008 Presidential Campaign, both parties aimed to mobilize volunteer armies of supporters to help get their candidates’ elected.

The campaigns ran “meetup-style” components of their Websites for volunteers to take action: McCain Nation and (which was termed “MyBo” by supporters). This election was the first time that such e-tools were made available through a national campaign to mobilize and engage local people. Although both campaigns aimed to enhance participation, the differences between the specific components of the sites had an effect on the functionality and usability of each site. In particular, the McCain site was much less usable and not as transparent for users who wanted to get involved. For example, if you wanted to participate in an Obama-related event, you could pull up all events taking place within five miles of your location, get information about the organizer, and register to participate in the event. Then, you received an automatic e-mail confirmation that you had signed up and soon thereafter, the organizer usually got in touch.

Getting involved in a McCain-related event was harder: participants could only pull up events within a wider radius, and when they tried to RSVP for an event, the request was sent out into the ether of cyberspace. Only rarely did organizers respond to requests from supporters to participate in events. There is no question that the differences between these sites had an effect on the ways individuals got involved in each campaign, as well as the degree to which they participated.

Perhaps in part due to the differences in the ways the campaigns used the Internet to connect with their base, many more Obama supporters reported giving money online. Based on research conducted at the public debate watching events in New York City during the first Presidential Debate, more than half of the participants at all of events reported donating money to their respective campaigns. Among those who gave money, 82% of the Obama supporters had donated money online and 64% of the McCain supporters had donated money online. It is likely that the constant email appeals to donate money to the Obama campaign along with the campaign’s connection to younger voters also contributed to these differences.

Beyond the technology, when we look at the people who participated in the campaign events, the differences provide insights into the diverse approaches that each campaign took with regard to reaching out to, and actively involving local people.

The people who participated in these events in New York City were very different. As one might expect, Obama supporters were much more diverse. Participants at the McCain events were predominately white males. More than half of the participants at the Obama events were women (59%). Seventeen percent of them self-identified as Latino and 44% of them self identified as being non-white. Given the demographics of Internet use in the US, it is likely that the Obama campaign was able to mobilize such a diverse group through the participants’ social networks, along with the campaign website.

The supporters were also very different in terms of their levels of civic engagement, as defined in part, by their previous voting records. While 90% of the McCain supporters had voted in the 2004 Presidential election and 70% had voted in the midterm election in 2006, only 80% of the Obama supporters had voted in the 2004 Presidential election and 57% had voted in the 2006 mid-term election. In addition, participants at the McCain events had much more political experience: 59% reported having worked for a political campaign (versus only 26% of the Obama supporters). McCain supporters were also more involved in the campaign: for those who said that the debate event was not their first involvement in the campaign (48%), they reported on average having attended 12 campaign events prior to the first Debate (versus 6 events for those Obama supporters who said that the debate event was not their first involvement in the campaign).

Overall, these differences indicate that the Obama campaign’s strategy of mobilizing people through their personal connections that capitalized on their personal stories, combined with a campaign Website that included components to channel people into events, was extremely successful in getting people plugged into the campaign in innovative ways.

Dana R. Fisher is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University. Her research focuses on political decision-making, grassroots activism and civic participation. Within her work, she explores the role that the technologies of the Internet play in grassroots mobilization and how they compare to more traditional forms of political mobilization. Her second book, Activism, Inc. (Stanford University Press 2006), analyzed the grassroots tactics of the Republican and Democratic Parties in the 2004 Presidential election. For more information, go to

The Revolution of the Online Commentariat

Essay by Peter Daou*

This essay is one in a series of responses to A Working Hypothesis, Internet and Politics 2008: Moving People, Moving Ideas

Additional responses include: The New Activism: Why Volunteering Declined in Campaign 08, by Ari Melber, Participation and Polarization in the Networked Public Sphere, by Henry Farrell, A Response to Working Hypothesis for Internet and Politics 2008, by Sunshine Hillygus, Not the Digital Democracy We Ordered, by Matthew Hindman, and From the Bottom-Up: Using the Internet to Mobilize Campaign Participation, by Dana Fisher.

*This piece has been cross-posted to The Huffington Post and Techpresident

The pyramid of Internet political functions consists of message (communications), money (fundraising) and mobilization. Atop that pyramid sits communications. Message drives money and triggers mobilization. Devoid of a compelling message to spur their use, the most advanced web tools will lie fallow. The impetus to use technology is always external to the technology; the impulse to connect and contribute begins with the inspiration to do so and the inspiration derives from the message.

Notwithstanding that hierarchy, the wave of Internet acclamation in the aftermath of the 2008 election has been focused primarily on mobilization and money, on networking tools and techniques, their effect on governance, and on the medium’s capacity to generate eye-popping revenue. Less noted is the impact of the ever-growing online commentariat whose pointed opinions shape our worldview and whose influence on the 2008 election was nothing short of decretive.

Virtually every online venue that played a role in the ’08 race provided a platform for public dialogue. Blogs, boards, news sites, YouTube, Twitter, and social networks large and small were inundated with millions of individual comments, the aggregate effect of which was to determine how voters viewed the candidates and the race. The democratization of opinion-making that began with the rise of the blogosphere reached a new level of maturity, the global discourse a new level of complexity.

It’s hard to know how many members of the online commentariat participated in other political activities this cycle, how many formed or joined networks, canvassed, phone-banked, organized and donated using the web. It stands to reason that many did. But while the latter activities are justly heralded as evidence of a political/technological coming of age, the true revolution goes largely unmentioned, namely, that the sheer magnitude of publicly expressed opinions is changing the way we see the world – and as such, changing the world itself.

For the first time, we are thinking aloud unfettered and unfiltered by mass media gatekeepers. Events, information, words and deeds that a decade ago were discussed and contextualized statically in print or through the controlled funnel of television and radio, are now subjected to instantaneous interpretation and free-association by millions of citizens unencumbered by the media’s constraints, aided by the optional – and liberating – cloak of anonymity.

This is transformative, not just because it is a web-driven enhancement of traditional political and social mechanisms (as we’ve seen with organizing and fundraising) but because it is a radically different way that the world processes information and understands itself. If there’s one thing that makes the 2008 election an inflection point, it is this: that the context, perception, and course of events is fundamentally changed by the collective behavior of the Internet’s innumerable opinion-makers. Every piece of news and information is instantly processed by the combined brain power of millions, events are interpreted in new and unpredictable ways, observations transformed into beliefs, thoughts into reality. Ideas and opinions flow from the ground up, insights and inferences, speculation and extrapolation are put forth, then looped and re-looped on a previously unimaginable scale, conventional wisdom created in hours and minutes. This wasn’t the case during the last presidential election — the venues and the voices populating them hadn’t reached critical mass. They have now.

The contrarian (and even cynical) view is that this is just technological triumphalism, that all the articles and blog posts celebrating the web-fueled campaign greatly overstate the role of the Internet in the final outcome. Some writers have bucked the web-centric trend and published entire post-campaign analyses with barely a reference to the Internet. Even this die-hard Internet evangelist acknowledges that the web’s role can sometimes be overstated, or at least misconstrued. The truth is that the Obama campaign was a triumph of integration more than technological innovation. It was the wildly successful marriage of time-tested political strategies and tactics, executed with acumen and discipline, seamlessly combined with cutting-edge technology and tied together with an empowering grassroots message. With a brilliant candidate at the helm. That, in itself, was innovative.

But even if we accept the fact that old-fashioned campaign machinery still matters – and it does – it would be a serious mistake not to recognize that political communication is forever altered. Never before have so many people conversed publicly and never before has the global discourse been so accessible, recursive, and durable. The impact is real: it is now axiomatic that the greater the number of online commenters discussing an event or issue, the more unpredictable its unfolding. The days following Sarah Palin’s VP announcement illustrate the point.

How does this affect the triangle of media, political establishment, and online community? For the press and punditry, an important reversal: their agenda-setting role is eroded and they are now compelled to partner with the online commentariat for validation and legitimation. For the political establishment, the standard methodology – where strategists and pollsters conjure and test messages to be disseminated by media teams and press shops through traditional channels – is inadequate. Politicians and public officials must now contend with higher levels of risk and uncertainty that confound traditional communications strategies. They must posses the awareness and agility to navigate a churning ocean of opinion where every word, every press release, every policy paper, every speech, every document, every surrogate remark is recorded, magnified and repurposed by the online community. Image making and message crafting, enduring political arts once the back-room purview of a select few, are now in the public domain.

What is unclear is how the online activist community benefits. Bloggers – the heart and soul of the online commentariat – continue to be troubled by the chasm between their oversized real world impact and their disproportionately limited insider clout. Part of the challenge is figuring out how to leverage unpredictability, no easy task. And part of it is to distinguish between the community’s active and passive power, John Locke’s useful distinction between the power to receive change and the power to make it. I suspect the gap will close as the online community further expands and its emergent self-knowledge deepens. I certainly hope it does, since the community’s overall thrust is progressive.

So, from my perspective, while it’s intriguing to see how the new administration utilizes social networks and email lists to foster transparency and interactivity, it’s even more fascinating to see how the online commentariat ultimately processes and influences future events and defines – and changes – them.

Peter Daou is an Internet strategist who has advised leading campaigns and organizations including Hillary Clinton for President, Kerry-Edwards ’04, the United Nations Foundation, Clinton Global Initiative, Planned Parenthood and AARP. Since 2006, Peter has been an Internet Adviser to Hillary Clinton. He blogs at UN Dispatch.

Not the Digital Democracy We Ordered

Essay by Matthew Hindman

This essay is one in a series of responses to A Working Hypothesis, Internet and Politics 2008: Moving People, Moving Ideas

Additional responses include: The New Activism: Why Volunteering Declined in Campaign 08, by Ari Melber, Participation and Polarization in the Networked Public Sphere, by Henry Farrell, A Response to Working Hypothesis for Internet and Politics 2008, by Sunshine Hillygus, The Revolution of the Online Commentariat, by Peter Daou, and From the Bottom-Up: Using the Internet to Mobilize Campaign Participation, by Dana Fisher.

Without the Internet, Barack Obama would not have been elected President of the United States. But even as information technology has assumed unprecedented importance in American democracy, its effects on the public sphere and on campaign practice remain misunderstood.

Let us start with the obvious: Obama raised $500 million online. Without the infusion of online cash, Obama would almost certainly have lost to Hillary Clinton in the primaries. And while Obama might have won the general election without boatloads of money, his campaign organization and overall strategy would have looked radically different.

Yet Obama’s fundraising success owed much to the fact that online audiences are not, in fact, highly fragmented. Forget the Internet caricatures offered up by journalists, campaign staffers, and even the candidates themselves. The contemporary media environment many not be as concentrated as it was in the Cronkite era, but online news audiences are far more concentrated than (rapidly declining) newspaper readership.

Moreover, as the 2008 campaign ramped up, online audience concentration—already potent—increased substantially. The largest news organizations, along with the largest left-leaning political sites, were the biggest beneficiaries.

The increase in traffic to top sites coincided with greater institutionalization and commercialization in the online public sphere. Media organizations both old and new—from The Atlantic and Time to Politico and The Huffington Post —have rounded up stables of bloggers that function much the way op-ed columnists have long functioned at elite papers. The individual blogs that got most political traffic in 2004 seem quaint by comparison.

What we did not see in 2008, though, was the professionalization of the blogosphere. That is because professionalization was present from the very start. There was never a moment—never—when the majority of blog traffic didn’t go to highly-educated professionals with degrees from Ivy League-caliber schools.

Institutionalization of blogging has brought some benefits, particularly in making the blogosphere marginally less male and less white. In much the same way that many newspapers seem to have a “quota of one” for female and minority voices on their op-ed pages, several top online publications have been forced to expand beyond one gender and a single ethnicity.

Institutionalization has also inspired some prominent efforts to dilute the elitist character of online discourse, though with only mixed success. The Huffington Post’s “Off the Bus” project, for example, has consistently produced quality content. A close look at the bios of those participating, though, suggests that these new voices are not the sort of folks who bring a lunch pail to work.

The increase in financial resources available to campaigns is inseparable from another shift. In addition to all of the other firsts it involved, the 2008 cycle will be remembered for taking database-driven campaigning far beyond previous heights.

Both campaigns constructed statistical models of turnout and partisanship for every voter on the rolls in every swing state. While this was not unprecedented, the Obama campaign’s dedication to information-centric campaigning was a difference in degree so profound that it became difference in kind.

Every aspect of the campaign information infrastructure was dramatically better than 2004. Data from myriad sources—state voter files, the candidates’ Web sites, field contacts, private information vendors—was integrated into a single system. In just a couple of presidential cycles, the statistics used to model voter attitudes and behavior have gone from rudimentary cross tabs, to the same sorts of cutting-edge learning algorithms Amazon and eBay use to predict consumer behavior.

As the election approached, the Obama campaign constantly pushed the latest models back out to field staff, and even the volunteers knocking on doors and manning the phones. And the models worked. As DNC chair Howard Dean told the National Press Club, “We can predict with 85 percent accuracy how you’re going to vote based on your credit card data without bothering to see what party you’re in.”

In truth, Dean’s claim oversimplifies the power of these models (and glosses over some key weaknesses). But his comments do force us to ask some uncomfortable questions.

Campaign databases improve with every election cycle, and the voter models get better every year. If 85 percent is the correct number this year, at what point will the number be 95 percent? How do voters feel about having their political leanings inferred from their subscription to Golf Digest, or—hypothetically—their purchase of condoms at the local pharmacy?

Whatever the implications for democratic theory, there is no denying that database-driven campaigning represents an enormous shift at both the tactical and the strategic level. For any campaign, the key metric is dollars per vote. Information-centric campaigning allows campaign professionals to measure and track the return on their spending almost in real time.

Better information on voters also allows use of the old school techniques that are most effective at getting people to the polls. Databases can provide knowledge about voter preference that neighbors, ward captains, and shoe leather provided in an earlier era. Campaigns can mobilize their base without also energizing their opponents.

Such database-driven campaigning has complex, even contradictory, implications for citizenship. The more predictable the leanings of a voter, the greater the incentive one campaign or the other has to get him or her to the polls. Better modeling of partisanship, turnout, and campaign tactic effectiveness should result in a large and durable increase in voter participation.

Yet more information can also produce new forms of digital redlining. Obama improved over Kerry’s performance partly by being able to reach solidly blue voters in otherwise red parts of swing states.

Now instead of unfriendly counties or regions being ceded to the opposition, it is the unpredictable voters—those for whom data are sparse, or for whom the models don’t predict well—who are being ignored.

Long term, this means that true swing voters are likely to shrink as a portion of the electorate. Among other things, information-centric campaigning is a recipe for increased political polarization.

For some, the notion of political candidates keeping extensive data on every citizen is alarming and creepy. Though a few safeguards exist (particularly with the use of credit information), there remains potential for abuse. Some worry that microtargeting might be Orwellian in its effectiveness, and that telling citizens exactly what they want to hear crosses the line from persuasion to manipulation.

Such fears are, as of yet, overblown. Thus far it is much easier to predict a voter’s preferences than to convince her to change them.

But the single most important thing about information-centric campaigning is that it provides a framework for constant, incremental improvement.

Statistical models of voter behavior will continue to get more accurate with each passing election. This is certainly progress, of a sort. But it is becoming increasingly clear that database-driven citizenship is not exactly the digital democracy that many have been expecting.

Matthew Hindman is an assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University. His first book, The Myth of Digital Democracy, has just been published by Princeton University Press.

A Response to Working Hypothesis: Internet and Politics 2008

Essay by Sunshine Hillygus

This essay is one in a series of responses to A Working Hypothesis, Internet and Politics 2008: Moving People, Moving Ideas

Additional responses include: The New Activism: Why Volunteering Declined in Campaign 08, by Ari Melber, Participation and Polarization in the Networked Public Sphere, by Henry Farrell, The Revolution of the Online Commentariat, by Peter Daou, Not the Digital Democracy We Ordered, by Matthew Hindman, and From the Bottom-Up: Using the Internet to Mobilize Campaign Participation, by Dana Fisher.

An emerging social science literature has examined the impact of new information technologies on electoral politics. Research has shown, for instance, that new technologies have transformed the way citizens acquire political information, discuss the political realm, and participate in political activity. Others have traced changes in the way candidates communicate with voters, raise money, and try to make political news. Fundamentally, however, most research on the topic has focused on how information technology has changed the style, but not necessarily the substance of political campaigns. In our recently published book, The Persuadable Voter(Princeton University Press, 2008), Todd Shields and I argue that new technologies have shaped not only how candidates communicate with voters but also who they communicate with and what they are willing to say.

In particular, the ability to microtarget communications to small segments of the electorate—through direct mail, email, text messages, personalized website ads, and so on—has led to dog whistle politics, in which candidates communicate messages that can be heard only by intended targets, like the high-pitched dog whistle that can be heard by dogs but is not audible to the human ear. By microtargeting controversial messages, candidates don’t have to worry about alienating voters who disagree. As a consequence, we see a very different policy agenda communicated in the “ground war” than in the “air war.” In the 2004 presidential election, for instance, less than 1% of television ads talked about divisive issues like gay marriage, abortion, stem cell research, and the like. In contrast, more than 25% of the direct mail sent by the candidates and parties mentioned such issues.

Such microtargeting is possible because campaigns have created massive databases that include information about every registered voter in the country. The cornerstone of these databases is the voter registration file, which typically includes a voter’s name, address, party registration, vote history, and other information. Since the 2002 Help America Vote Act , this information has been compiled into computerized, statewide electronic files. Matched to these files are information from consumer databases, census files, political polls, and other sources. Campaigns then use this information to statistically predict who will turnout, how they are likely to vote, and what issues they care about. This allows campaign strategists to more efficiently and effectively target their communications. This means that individuals unlikely to vote or unlikely to vote for the candidate are completely ignored. And the all-important persuadable voters can be targeted with messages only on the issues on which they agree with candidate. As a result, campaign dialogue is fragmented, with different voters receiving very different campaign messages.

Some politicos and academics have called microtargeting a welcome development in American politics. It’s thought that personalized contact might increase interest and participation in the electorate. Microtargeted communications have been credited with engaging citizens because they connect with voters based on the issues they care about the most. Unfortunately, microtargeting has potential negative consequences as well.

The ability to microtarget creates incentives for candidates to focus attention on the issues that will help them win a particularized segment of the electorate, irrespective of whether those issues are a concern to the broader electorate. It is hard to imagine that snowmobiling policy topped the public’s list of political concerns in 2006, for instance, but the Republican National Committee targeted working-class snowmobilers with the message that the Democrats’ environmental views stood in the way of better snowmobiling opportunities.

Microtargeting also has implications for the quality of public dialogue in the campaign. Targeted voters receive information about the issues they care about but may be unaware of the other issue priorities being targeted to others. In 2004, the Bush and Kerry campaigns took positions on at least 75 different issues in direct mail. The electorate clearly did not have a thoughtful, sustained, or public debate on each of these issues.

The fragmentation of campaign dialogue also makes it difficult to interpret the eventual election outcomes. Any interpretation of what the election was ‘about’ will be incomplete because there was a multiplicity of policy agendas presented by the candidates. And there may be negative implications for governing as well. Presidents often hope to use their electoral ‘mandates’ as leverage to implement their campaign promises. Unfortunately, a fragmented and diverse policy agenda undermines the potential for an election to signify public support for any particular policy. The strategic decisions that help candidates win elections do not always translate into successful governing coalitions. Voters supporting different policy interests might come together temporarily for electoral purposes, but their solidarity will be severely tested when it comes to policy-making. Once the pressure of governing becomes real, electoral coalitions are likely to break, leaving the governing party without substantial leverage to accomplish their goals.

There is little doubt that information technologies have transformed electoral politics in many ways – and in many ways for the good. But we must also consider some of the potentially negative consequences of such transformations on the basic interaction between candidates and citizens in the democratic process.

D. Sunshine Hillygus is the Frederick S. Danziger Associate Professor of Government and director of the Harvard Program on Survey Research. Her research and teaching interests include American voting behavior, campaigns and elections, survey research, and information technology and society. She is co-author of The Hard Count: The Social and Political Challenges of the 2000 Census (Russell Sage Foundation, 2006) and The Persuadable Voter: Wedge Issues in Political Campaigns (Princeton University Press, 2008).

Participation and Polarization in the Networked Public Sphere

Essay by Henry Farrell*

This essay is one in a series of responses to A Working Hypothesis, Internet and Politics 2008: Moving People, Moving Ideas

Additional responses include: The New Activism: Why Volunteering Declined in Campaign 08, by Ari Melber, A Response to Working Hypothesis for Internet and Politics 2008, by Sunshine Hillygus, The Revolution of the Online Commentariat, by Peter Daou, Not the Digital Democracy We Ordered, by Matthew Hindman, and From the Bottom-Up: Using the Internet to Mobilize Campaign Participation, by Dana Fisher.

Public intellectuals interested in American politics have spent much of the last two decades agonizing over low participation and the poor state of public debate among Americans. Their arguments have been transformed by the advent of the Internet. Some – such as Yochai Benkler – have argued that the Internet offers the potential to transform participation and debate in America, by creating a ‘networked public sphere’ of civic argument and activity. Others – most prominently Cass Sunstein – have been more skeptical, claiming that new forms of debate on the Internet are liable to problems such as erroneous information cascades and balkanization of different groups into separate universes of discourse.

This debate began before the data had properly begun to come in; the wheels of social science research grind exceedingly slowly in Internet time. But we are now beginning to assemble a clearer picture of how the networked public sphere may work – and how it may indeed be transforming American society. The best data we have is on blogs – both how blogs connect to each other through hyperlinks, and what kinds of people read blogs.

At first, this data seems to support Sunstein’s view. We see good evidence of balkanization among blogs. Left wing blogs tend overwhelmingly to link to other left wing blogs; right wing blogs to other right wingers. Only around 12-16% of links cross the partisan divide. The data on blog readers is perhaps even starker. Very few people indeed read both left wing and right wing blogs. The vast majority of blog readers read only left wing or only right wing blogs. Furthermore, there is strong evidence of ideological polarization – when we scale blog readers’ views on various ideological issues, they clump together at the left and right extremes of the scale. Blog readers are far more polarized than viewers of network news, including Fox News.

Yet if we look at the data more closely, we see some evidence of a tradeoff that isn’t really considered by Benkler and Sunstein – one between participation and cross-cutting ideological debate. Political scientists such as Diana Mutz have argued that discussion between people of differing ideological persuasions tends to depress participation in politics. While we don’t have direct evidence that this is happening, we do see that readers of political blogs are significantly more likely to participate in politics than non-readers, and that readers of leftwing blogs are especially likely to participate.

We have to be careful with this kind of data (it doesn’t tell us much about causal relationships), but one plausible interpretation is that people who are more exposed to political information that supports their own ideological biases are more likely to get involved in politics, and that people who are exposed to the kinds of movement politics that we see among left-wing netroots blogs are especially likely to get involved. In short – the kinds of polarization that we see among blog readers may have positive consequences as well as negative ones. In particular, it may make these readers more likely to participate in politics in a variety of ways.

What does this have to tell us about the relationship between the networked public sphere and US elections? Three things. First – that at least part of Benkler’s argument is right. We are likely to see a major increase in political participation, especially among activists, as a result of the Internet. Nor is there any good reason to believe that this will be confined to the left wing. We may expect to see more mobilization taking place on the right, as they adopt new tools to their own particular purposes and circumstances.

Second, this surge in participation will be strongly partisan in nature. What evidence we have suggests that the people who are getting more involved in politics are far more partisan and more ideological than the average American citizen. Some may see this as a problem – American political elites tend to like bipartisanship and moderate consensus. But there are real political advantages to stronger partisan divisions – as a minor strain of American political thought has argued, they provide voters with real choices in a way that different flavors of centrism cannot.

This furthermore has interesting possible consequences for the Obama administration (I have a piece forthcoming on this in the next issue of The American Prospect). Obama’s governing philosophy is one of pragmatist consensus and civic participation. But the party machine that he has created may help spur further partisan mobilization, both on the left (as people continue to stay involved in politics) and the right (as Republicans begin to try to emulate the Democrats in order to start winning elections again).

Third, we are likely to see a growing division between partisan activists, who will participate actively in politics, and moderate non-activists, who will turn out only at elections, if at all. Markus Prior has argued that media choice is leading to a differentiation between the apathetic and moderate majority who have little interest in consuming political news, and intense partisan minorities, who are voracious consumers of information. This phenomenon may have knock on consequences for elections. We are plausibly going to see increases in participation among both apathetic moderates and engaged partisans, but in very different ways. Apathetic moderates will turn out in greater numbers at the polls (because of better GOTV technologies, social pressures from partisans etc) but will otherwise remain unengaged. Intense partisans, in contrast, are not only likely to vote, but to engage in a variety of other activities. We’re likely facing into a new age of American politics, dominated by partisan activists. It’s going to be interesting.

* This note builds on results reported in Eszter Hargittai, Jason Gallo and Matthew Kaine, “Cross-Ideological Discussions among Conservative and Liberal Bloggers, Public Choice (January 2008) and Henry Farrell, Eric Lawrence and John Sides, “Self-Segregation or Deliberation? Blog Readership, Participation and Polarization in American Politics,”. Eric and John deserve full credit for the underlying research, but should be in no sense held accountable for errors or overblown claims in this note.

Henry Farrell is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the George Washington University, where he is affiliated with the Center for International Science and Technology Policy. Previously he was Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto. In addition to a book forthcoming with Cambridge University Press, Professor Farrell has authored or coauthored eighteen peer reviewed articles for journals including International Organization and Comparative Political Studies and non-academic articles for Foreign Policy, the Financial Times, the Boston Review, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Nation and The American Prospect. He blogs at Crooked Timber and The Monkey Cage.

Internet and Politics 2008: Moving People, Moving Ideas

A Working Hypothesis

Responses include: The New Activism: Why Volunteering Declined in Campaign 08, by Ari Melber, Participation and Polarization in the Networked Public Sphere, by Henry Farrell, A Response to Working Hypothesis for Internet and Politics 2008, by Sunshine Hillygus, The Revolution of the Online Commentariat, by Peter Daou, Not the Digital Democracy We Ordered, by Matthew Hindman, and From the Bottom-Up: Using the Internet to Mobilize Campaign Participation, by Dana Fisher.


Internet technologies—whether deployed to entice voters, raise money, recruit and organize campaign workers, or coax voters to the polls—now infuse every step of the electoral process.

This year’s edition of Internet & Politics, Moving People, Moving Ideas, will examine how digital technologies reshape the practice of campaigning and the movement of political information. We are bringing together an exceptional group of participants from various constituencies working at the intersection of technology and politics: campaign strategists, political activists and organizers,
independent analysts, members of the media, academics, students, and more. Our goal is to meld theory, data, and practice, synthesizing diverse perspectives and experiences in order to facilitate learning and collaboration. In doing so, we will draw upon the unique expertise of the Berkman Center community, the Harvard University Institute of Politics, and the accomplished group of conference participants.

Have digital information and communications tools enhanced critical elements of political strategy, such as leadership formation, community-building, and coordinated action? Are digital technologies influencing offline actions (for example, the ways campaigns contact and interact with potential constituents)? Some observers argue that technologies have enabled the transformation of relationships and created different forms of political participation. Others maintain that social networks, user-generated content, and voter databases are merely the newest ways of achieving old goals.


The recent presidential contest has integrated formerly peripheral and experimental “virtual” aspects of political campaigns into core areas of organization, messaging, fundraising, and strategy. Conference participants will consider this shift via two overlapping thematic areas.

Moving People: New Forms of Political Organizing

We will examine the emergence of the Internet as a means to strengthen relationships, organize effectively, and coordinate distributed collective action. How are virtual technologies employed for real-world action? Are they transforming the way people work together to achieve common goals? Or are they fostering a sense of community that doesn’t necessarily lead to results? What are the biggest barriers to the success of technologically enhanced organizing?

Moving Ideas: Political Information in the Networked Public Sphere

We will explore the effects of the Internet on political communications and the flow of information. How do new participants, messages, and formats influence the movement of ideas? How do key messages filter up (or down) and gain traction? Are digital networks enhancing political strategies, transparency, and democratic debate? Or are they leading to information overload, undermining legitimate authority, misrepresenting reality, or polarizing the electorate?


In convening this conference, we endeavored to illuminate the role that technology has played in this year’s presidential election, from the “air wars” of campaign messaging to the “ground wars” of canvassing and voter registration. Following the 2004 presidential contest, the defi ning technology story was the emergence of the Internet as a major fundraising tool. While the capacity to finance campaigns on the Net has grown, the role of the Internet and digital media in U.S. elections now encompasses a range of broader, more complex issues. We will seek to evaluate the technological innovations of the 2008 election cycle in this new landscape.


Four years ago, the Berkman Center convened a similar gathering to help separate reality from hype in the wake of the 2004 election. We emerged with new insight and a practical agenda for further research. With Internet & Politics 2008: Moving People, Moving Ideas, we will bring a fresh perspective informed by recent elections and developments since 2004. We will assess experiences from the field, narratives from the media, and data emerging from empirical research. The event will provide scholars with theoretical and empirical insights to enrich their analyses. It will also be an opportunity for practitioners to evaluate their recent experiences within a broader context. The
conference will offer a unique nexus for both reflection and the frank exchange of ideas.

Throughout, we will focus on the core tensions and synergies among new technologies, organization and mobilization, and the fl ow of political information. We will ask participants to consider how innovations that emerged in the 2008 election cycle might shape the future of American democracy, and discuss the implications of these developments for political and governance agendas across
the world.

The New Activism: Why Volunteering Declined in Campaign 08

Essay by Ari Melber

This essay is one in a series of responses to A Working Hypothesis, Internet and Politics 2008: Moving People, Moving Ideas

Additional responses include: Participation and Polarization in the Networked Public Sphere, by Henry Farrell, A Response to Working Hypothesis for Internet and Politics 2008, by Sunshine Hillygus, The Revolution of the Online Commentariat, by Peter Daou, Not the Digital Democracy We Ordered, by Matthew Hindman, and From the Bottom-Up: Using the Internet to Mobilize Campaign Participation, by Dana Fisher.

Yes, we reached the turning point. This is the first time a presidential candidate successfully used the web to: upset a frontrunner in the primary; recruit broad-based support in the general election; route around traditional media on a national scale; completely obviate the post-Watergate campaign finance system; and foster novel forms of activism to stimulate people not only online, but across the three screens that mediate modern life.

Obama’s aides applied the Internet as a platform to relentlessly simplify, atomize and promote volunteering, activism and political expression. While organizing is often considered ideologically neutral, the campaign cultivated an organizing ethic that valued grassroots labor, energized supporters and reinforced the candidate’s message of reform and change. The campaign encouraged a new, rich range of activism for supporters, from posting grassroots events to downloading phone-banking lists at home to promoting the candidate across viral networks.

We know that many of these efforts were popular and effective. Recent data on web fundraising, email lists, ObamaMobile, social networking, YouTube and new media penetration bear this out. (See, e.g. There is one exception, however.

The national volunteering rates for this presidential campaign actually dropped compared to last cycle. The share of voters who say they “volunteered” on a presidential campaign fell compared to 2004, from nine to seven percent, in Pew’s post-election survey. (“High Marks for the Campaign, a High Bar for Obama,” Pew, Sept. 13, 2008 ). So is this year’s mass activism actually a mirage?

No, quite the opposite, for reasons that suggest our model (and discourse) of political engagement is in flux.

Here is one hypothesis: It is precisely the success and accessibility of new, alternative activism opportunities that create the appearance of a decline in volunteering. In fact, only traditional volunteering is receding.

Traditional volunteering, such as registering to help in person at a local field office, has dipped slightly (at least as a proportion of the voting public). Meanwhile, a new range of decentralized volunteering and online activism is catching on. It simply does not register in traditional survey questions.

Activists themselves may not perceive that they are “volunteering,” even though they are contacting voters for a candidate, or acting with encouragement from a campaign. (See, e.g. “The Obama Campaign: A Great Campaign, Or The Greatest?,” Sarah Lai Stirland, Wired, Nov. 30, 2008.) Forwarding political messages — whether by email, text or video — is essentially a volunteer act designed to impact the election. It spreads a candidate’s message to persuade or mobilize potential voters, just like calling voters off a list at the local office.

(See, e.g. “Obama’s Wired Tuesday Push,” Ari Melber, The Nation. Also note that from 2004 to 2008, the share of voters who received campaign email spiked from 14 to 24 percent, according to Pew, while 53 percent of voters said they received campaign phone calls.)

Voter contact based on preexisting relationships and social networks is especially valuable for electoral politics — as a supplement to organized field programs. Obama’s field operation, for example, designed an iPhone application on the premise that people are more influenced by friends than cold calls. (See, e.g. “Obama’s Web-Savvy Voter Plan,” Ari Melber, The Nation, Oct 8, 2008. ) So as citizens explore different ways to engage and support a campaign or cause, some may favor the new activism over traditional volunteering. Why lick envelopes when you can make your own campaign commercials?

For the question facing our conference, these shifts in how people conceive and practice politics present a turning point for digital politics. An open, interactive spirit animates the activism that so many citizens are engaging in today. Open source politics can fulfill old promises and ideas from American life, from the progressive era’s emphasis on transparent government to the civil rights movement’s call for more participatory democracy. Internet politics can even aspire to the very founding vision of America: An open frontier where everyone has an equal voice, superficial differences recede, and citizens are empowered to debate and govern their future together.

Ari Melber is the Net movement correspondent for The Nation and a writer for the magazine’s blog. During the 2008 general election, he traveled with the Obama Campaign on special assignment for The Washington Independent.

Melber is also a columnist at Politico and a contributing editor at the Personal Democracy Forum. Previously, he served as a Legislative Aide in the US Senate and as a national staff member of the 2004 John Kerry Presidential Campaign.

The Path Towards Centralization of Internet Governance Under the UN

Essay by Anonymous

This essay is the third of a three-part series (1,2). It focuses on the steps of a possible roadmap for centralizing Internet governance under the UN.

The first essay in this series introduces the idea that the course of Internet governance may be following the same incremental steps that international strategists follow when wishing to establish a permanent body with authority to deal with a given area. The second essay details the steps as applied to recent moves for Internet governance under a UN umbrella. This final essay discusses reasons for concern and suggests that participation in the process may nonetheless be the best way forward given those reservations.


There are at least three reasons for serious concern over what appears to be a roadmap for centralization of Internet governance under the UN, as described in the previous two essays. First, there is no place for true dissent. Second, unless institutionalization carries a commitment in advance to recognize civil and political rights, it is risky to assume that the end institution will consider these values foundational for the policy framework of the information society. Third, as ubiquitous computing blends the physical and virtual worlds, an overarching UN body coordinating Internet policy will be empowered with an extremely broad mandate.

• No place for dissent

Whereas dissent would normally be an option, the roadmap for institutionalization will allow for no obstruction: Even voices of dissent can be translated into expressions of support, cited as evidence that the process is inclusive.

Arguably, stakeholders are being used to give the appearance of democracy and to legitimize the process of establishing a permanent body to deal with Net-related, public policy issues at the international level. Participation in effect is a contribution toward centralized Internet governance.

People who disagree with what is taking place face a paradox: The very act of organizing opposition can be captured and used by proponents of central control as evidence that the UN process is inclusive and legitimate, providing for dissent and serving as a necessary center for debate. In other words, dissenters’ voices may add volume to the discussion on international Internet governance and lend it legitimacy. This would-be opposition group thus confronts the quandary that it may be counter-productive even to come together. For them, the question is whether to resist a force that is advancing, or to join it so as to infuse its ranks and influence its direction.

One therefore wonders if taking the discussion elsewhere is even possible. Just as dissent within the official forum is used as confirmation that the process is inclusive and therefore a good one, dialogue involving people beyond the elite insiders could also inappropriately be cited as proof that the public is interested in institutionalization. On the one hand it is unappealing in any way to be part of a process that distorts dissent and repackages it as support for institutionalization; on the other hand disengagement might boil down to a choice to forego the opportunity to influence the direction of Internet governance.

• No guarantees for democracy and human rights

Centralization might be acceptable if it had guarantees for democracy and human rights as its foundation, and if it provided appropriate redress in case of a violation. At the moment it does not have these commitments. Rather, the objective seems to be to promote centralization rather than to hold freedom as the paramount concern.

The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) has structured discussion in such a way that it does not give preeminence to foundational principles like those found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This lack of elevation would seem to suit those who favor the centralization of Internet governance under the UN: For them, the strategic stance at this stage is to have the IGF be inclusive and politically agreeable to the UN’s wide membership, with a view to obtaining a permanent mandate. However, if there is no attempt to recognize fundamental values at this stage, it is risky to assume that the end institution will consider them foundational in building a policy framework for the information society.

It is unappealing to think that in participating in discussions of the IGF, one is contributing to the establishment of such a standing institution, especially when at the outset it is impossible to know what shape this institution will take and what principles will guide it.

• The inside-out likelihood of online rules applying to the physical world

The matter is particularly pressing given the pace of technological change and the difficulty of changing international decisions once agreed. As the Internet infuses the information society and people find themselves living in a ubiquitous computing environment, global rules for Internet interactions will extend into the realm that used to be thought of as the distinct, real world. In that sense, international Internet governance must be understood as an early form of global governance that reaches into countries, local regions, neighborhoods and homes.

Given the pervasive role that the Internet will play in the future Information Society, a permanent international institution with an expansive mandate would essentially represent a significant step toward global governance.

Governments have already agreed on numerous treaties and have accepted standards that arguably add up to a framework for governing the Internet. These international rules will likely serve as the default ones the more that the virtual world bleeds into the physical world. For example, a person using a networked device to receive location-based services may be exchanging information with entities in several jurisdictions at once, even as he is trying to obtain information about a physical place immediately in front of him – perhaps even his home. Such services will be facilitated by global rules crafted to enable e commerce and security, and these global rules will, in an inside-out way, end up extending to that person’s experience with his local surroundings.

In other words, the question of centralization is not merely an esoteric one for people specialized in the technical workings of the Internet. Rather, it concerns everyone as the implications come to their doorsteps and even reach inside their homes.


Certain actors have been pushing for centralized Internet governance under the UN’s umbrella. The road map for this centralization arguably began with a move to position the UN as the arbiter of all actors in the information society, with governments placed on the same level as corporations and non-profits, and other stakeholder groups. The idea is that, once this multi-stakeholder forum is made permanent, it will stand as the logical point for coordinating Internet policy. Central coordination can gradually turn into administration, with decision-making functions subtly added. This international Internet governance has potential to evolve into global governance generally as the Internet increasingly infuses the physical world.

Centralization appears inevitable given the course so far, particularly since participating in discussions about this trend – even if to dissent – is interpreted as evidence of demand for a permanent place for global dialogue, and since disengagement prevents one’s voice from being heard. If fundamental freedoms are to be the founding principles of future society, they may need to be enshrined in this early stage of international Internet governance. Perhaps the best chance of enshrining these principles lies in flooding the IGF dialogue with the message that these values must be the bedrock of any system for Internet governance.