DOES THE REVOLUTION BEGIN HERE?
HOW THE INTERNET MAY (OR MAY NOT) CHANGE POLITICAL COMMUNICATION
2.8 "Ya say ya wanna a revolution?"
Much allusion has been made in this review, as it is throughout
the literature on the subject, to the 'revolutionary' nature of
the Internet. Proponents of an 'information revolution' or 'communications
revolution,' would have us believe every individual will empower
herself with information, find her voice and make it heard via the
Internet. This implies not only vastly increased access to information
(which may indeed be true), but also that rational individuals will
gather and use this information in truly radical new ways to overthrow
or alter the existing relations of production. While not impossible,
in a Downsian model this seems improbable.
Shapiro (1999) suggests a "revolution" is "a distinct
break with the past, the rise of a new order," and he wonders
if "that is what we are experiencing because of the Internet
and new media."1 Arguing that society is in fact
experiencing a "control revolution," he suggests that
use of new technologies will trigger a
... potentially momentous transfer of power from
large institutions to individuals. The real change set in motion
by the Internet may, in fact, be a control revolution, a vast
transformation in who governs information, experience, and resources.
Increasingly, it seems that we will.2
But what is a revolution? In the most extreme view,
When neither the ballot nor the feet constitute
adequate modes of expression, there is still Chairman Mao's barrel
of the gun.3
The concept of revolution actually has two dimensions.
One emphasizes a means of change that is extra-legal and normally
violent. The second emphasizes the extent of change that occurs.
Thus on one hand extremely violent 'revolutionary' upheavals may
produce relatively minor changes in the political community or regime.
On the other hand, changes of 'revolutionary' dimensions may occur
in the regime of political community through perfectly legal and
What causes a revolution? According to historian
R.R. Palmer, the unifying feature of the revolutionary activities
that instituted democracy throughout the western world at the end
of the eighteenth century
... seems to have been a demand for self-determination,
a sense of autonomy of the personality, a refusal to accept the
norms laid down outside the self, leading sometimes to a profound
subjectivity, or an insistence on self-expression rather than
adjustment to preexisting authoritative standards.5
Drawing on Rousseau's Social Contract,
in which a collective self defines right and each citizen is triumphantly
demonstrated to be subject and sovereign at the same time, Palmer
suggests this same note of personal autonomy underlies all the practical
demands for political and economic liberty.6
This universal impulse to liberty is kept in check.
In the political sphere, anarchic individualism is avoided by stressing
equality of rights, and by the ideas of fraternity and of law, all
bound together in the idea of constitutionalism. In economic theory,
natural law prevents liberty from degenerating into confusion.7
Public choice theorists find challenge in predicting
why rational individuals choose to participate in revolutionary
activities, and thus why revolutions occur.
An individual must first decide to participate in
a revolutionary group and then decide how much time to contribute.
The decision to participate must be based on dissatisfaction with
the present regime and the expectation of benefits should the revolution
succeed and a new order be imposed. The probability of this occurring
depends on how much time the individual contributes as well as the
time all other citizens contribute. In addition to expected benefits
from success, an individual may also receive personal pleasure from
participating in the revolutionary movement, whether it succeeds
Against these benefits must be weighed the costs
of participation. While the individual may not face a fine or imprisonment
due to her participation in Shapiro's "control revolution,"
the financial, technical, print and media literacy costs, as discussed
in section 2.4, are significant and would increase relative to involvement
in the revolution. In addition, by devoting time to the revolution,
an individual may forego income. For the average rational individual
citizen, the benefits from the revolution's success are the pure
public good benefits from living under one regime rather than another.
Are the tangible benefits of the "information
revolution" great enough to incite the average rational individual
to join a revolutionary group? Not likely.
For a few leaders, revolution represents the benefits
from a position of increased power after the revolution and their
participation is easier to explain. Under public choice theory,
leaders of a revolution are like entrepreneurs in the theory of
the firm, risk takers with extreme optimism regarding their ability
to beat the odds.8
Dahlgren distinguishes between two opposing visions
of the transformational potential of the Internet in the political
process. The optimistic view, "cybereuphoria," envisions
the use of new technology to enhance democracy; "digital dystopia"
predicts new technology will be dominated by power elites, effectively
assisting them to enhance positions of strength.9 Between
the two extremes lies the status quo, wherein the Internet extends,
and possibly enhances, the utility of the traditional media in the
Barnett (1996) suggests four key areas for strengthening
(1) a more knowledgeable citizenry, whose understanding
of issues is fostered by the availability of relevant, undistorted
(2) greater individual access to the collective rational debate
in which citizens can deliberate and develop their own arguments;
(3) increased individual participation in democratic institutions,
whether through voting, membership in an interest group, or attendance
at political events; and,
(4) increased individual use of the electoral process to hold representatives
Barnett concludes that none of the above is likely
to occur. "New technology may upgrade the means of vote casting
from telephonic to electronic, but it will not change the very limited
significance of this participation."11 Rather, new
media may amount to "little more that a form of technological
time-saving for the politically active or politically interested."12
Barnett is not alone in predicting the Internet
will be far from revolutionary. Althaus and Tewksbury also "challenge
the conventional wisdom about the revolutionary nature of the Internet."13
Davis (1999) also suggests that "rather than acting as a revolutionary
tool rearranging political power and instigating direct democracy,
the Internet is destined to become dominated by the same actors
in American politics who currently utilize other mediums."14
The interaction between politicians, traditional media and special
interest groups will continue to govern the production of political
information as it does presently. A select group of highly sophisticated
Internet users may bypass the online offerings of traditional news
and information providers, but most users will welcome the organization
and structure provided by the traditional news and information providers.15
Others who studied the 1996 presidential campaign
are more optimistic, refusing to dismiss the potential of the Internet,
albeit unrealized thus far. Selnow argues that by facilitating feedback,
the Internet will allow the audience to influence politicians and
media alike. He predicts feedback will inevitably be mined for valuable
information on voter preferences. Politicians will then be able
to send personalized campaign messages to individual voters and
reporters, which Selnow rather naively predicts could lead to revolutionary
changes in political communication.16
Its capacity to soak up user information and respond
to users individually is a revolution in public communication
that will occupy our attention for years to come.17
While Selnow paints this as a fortuitous outcome,
we are reminded that the same eventuality conjures dire predictions
of the loss of balanced issue coverage or, worse still, the voting
process amounting to little more than choosing between Coke and
Pepsi. Even Selnow, the rosy optimist, acknowledges the risks inherent
in dispersing the audience in a political system built on consensus.
Not only could voters altogether miss issues that occur outside
their routine surveillance of events, but they could also fail to
benefit from alternative views of issues in relying on partisan
or ideological information sources.18
Sparrow (1999) suggests "the public would be
well served by the presence of as many news organizations as possible:
with more voices, there is a greater probability of more distinct
political voices, consistent with John Stuart Mill's marketplace
of ideas."19 However, the presence of new technology
in and of itself is unlikely to readjust the economics of making
non-market decisions. According to Sparrow, it is unlikely that,
... the new technology itself will re-excite Americans
about national politics or presidential elections or that the
Internet will change the qualifications or selection criteria
for candidates to public office (as television, arguably, has
done). The news media will remain the arbitrators of political
Sparrow predicts the Internet is doomed to insignificance
by three factors: money, numbers and overwhelming government control
of information. Sparrow joins the growing chorus of scholars who
warn that "technologies of freedom" are more constraining
in their political impact than most people realize because they
technically facilitate invasion of privacy and enable increased
and less detectable surveillance of individuals by government and
In their study of how political parties in the United
States and the United Kingdom use the Internet, Margolis, Resnick
and Wolfe (1999) support Sparrow's normalization hypothesis. They
conclude that as the Internet develops, patterns of socioeconomic
and political relationships online will come to resemble those of
the real world, especially in the United States.
Another legitimate approach at this early stage
in the evolution of the Internet is to plead ignorance. It is possible
we may not yet be able to predict how new sources and means of gathering
information and new ways of communicating will affect individual
According to Johnson, Braima and Sothirajah (1999),
... the poor performance of the Internet in improving
voter knowledge does not mean that its proponents' hopes that
the Web could transform media coverage and campaigns away from
soundbites to substance are wrong, but simply premature.22
In their study of traditional and new media use
in the 1996 presidential campaign, they suggest that while only
two per cent of their study group said they got a great deal of
information from political Web sites in 1996, the Internet is like
television in the early 1950s: a decade away from significantly
influencing the political process. Realistically, it may be a few
years before the Internet achieves "some of the lofty goals
predicted of it."23
1. Shapiro, 1999, p. 9.
2. Shapiro, 1999, p. 10.
3. Mueller, 1989, p. 173.
4. Van Loon and Whittington, 1987, p. 192.
5. Palmer, 1963, p. 3.
6. Palmer, 1963, p. 3.
7. Palmer, 1963, p. 4.
8. Mueller, 1989, p. 173-175.
9. Dahlgren, 1996, p. 60-61.
10. Barnett, 1997, p. 195.
11. Barnett, 1997, p. 212.
12. Barnett, 1997, p. 214.
13. Althaus and Tewksbury, 2000, p. 40.
14. Davis, 1999, p. 5.
15. Davis, 1999, p. 6.
16. Selnow, 1998, p. 31
17. Selnow, 1998, p. 2.
18. Selnow, 1998, p. 193-194.
19. Sparrow, 1999, p. 184.
20. Sparrow, 1999, p.197.
21. Sparrow, 1999, p.199-200.
22. Johnson, Braima and Sothirajah, 1999, p. 114.
23. Johnson, Braima and Sothirajah, 1999, p. 114.