2.1 Introduction
2.2 Putting ‘information' in rational perspective
2.3 Why the Internet matters to political journalism
2.4 Individuals online: usage and impacts
2.5 Groups online: usage and impacts
2.6 Politicians online: usage and impacts
2.7 Media online: usage and impacts
2.8 ‘Ya say ya wanna a revolution?'
2.9 Further study

Submitted by:
A.M. Burton

Submitted to:
School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada),

in part completion of the requirements for the

Master of Journalism

September 2000

:: Research Base



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 non-violent means.4

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 or not.

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 democratic process.

Barnett (1996) suggests four key areas for strengthening democracy:

(1) a more knowledgeable citizenry, whose understanding of issues is fostered by the availability of relevant, undistorted information;
(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 accountable.10

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 information.20

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 private organizations.21

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 political decision-making.

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

Foot Notes

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.

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