DOES THE REVOLUTION BEGIN HERE?
HOW THE INTERNET MAY (OR MAY NOT) CHANGE POLITICAL COMMUNICATION
2.5 Groups online: uses and impacts
While individuals' incentives to provide or access political information
online may be low, at the group level Internet use may be far more
effective (and therefore rational), especially among those groups
in society that complain of being unable to get attention from the
traditional news media.
As discussed in section 2.2, ours is a democratic system that relies
on the news media to provide low-cost information on community issues.
Marginalization, real or perceived, from the public agenda is critical
to a group campaign, particularly with regard to decision-making
during an election campaign.
Schultz (2000) proposes that, ideally, "new media will facilitate
consensus-finding processes, in which the participants will take
part in a public discourse that is free from what Habermas calls
the imperatives of the systems world, i.e. money and power."1
Schultz suggests the Internet offers a space where social movements
and local communities can use computer networks to revitalize the
public sphere and bulletin boards and Internet discussion groups
can balance the power and biases of traditional mass media. The
Internet may provide individuals and groups with a tool for an electronic
public journalism that is independent from traditional media.2
In fact, American political portals dedicated to
political activism and promoting democratic participation have emerged.
SpeakOut.com, which calls itself an "activism portal,"
allows users to create online petitions to lobby government. Grassroots.com
describes itself as the "political action destination"
allows users to form and join online interest groups.3
In a study of women's issues in the 1996 American
presidential campaign, based on a similar deliberative model of
democracy, Klotz and Broome (1998) also theorized that issues that
are otherwise downplayed in campaigns, such as women's issues, might
be discussed extensively on the Internet.4
Recognizing that the perception that women's issues
are "divisive", or appeal only to a targeted constituency,
underlies the tendency for candidates to avoid women's issues in
TV ads, the Internet might appear to be a liberating form of targeted
political information sharing for groups wanting to discuss such
issues with candidates. Unlike expensive television advertisements,
where time is precious and politicians' resources are rarely wasted
making appeals on narrowly focused issues, the Internet offers unlimited
space for discussion.
Women's issues are among the issues that have seldom
met the threshold for meriting discussion by candidates in their
TV ads but seem likely to meet a new Internet threshold. Even
if a candidate wishes to avoid taking a clear position, the Internet
affords the opportunity to show concern about a problem.5
While the opportunity clearly exists on the Internet
for expanded discussion of marginal issues, Klotz and Broome found
the results in the 1996 presidential campaign were mixed. "Although
the amount of discussion of women's issues on candidate Web sites
is low, the amount does represent a modest increase over that typically
contained in TV ads."6
So while Internet technology affords unlimited potential
for groups to create discussion space for their issues, the technology
provides no overriding imperative for political attention. It is
an alternative area to congregate, but does not shift the balance
of communicative power from politician to interest group members
and does little to compel politicians to engage in discussions or
take positions on issues they would rather avoid. In fact, with
more and more narrowly focused groups establishing an Internet presence,
the incentive for politicians to engage in discussion, online or
otherwise, on narrow constituency issues may actually be diminished.
1. Schultz, 2000, p. 206.
2. Schultz, 2000, p. 206-207.
3. Suellentrop, Slate, February 23, 2000.
4. Klotz and Broome, 1998, p. 67-68.
5. Klotz and Broome, 1998, p. 73.
6. Klotz and Broome, 1998, p. 81.