The Internet, Politics and Power of the People

Vox populi vox dei — the voice of the people is the voice of God — was supposed to represent democracy in action. Until now, however, the true state of democracy was perhaps best expressed by the saying “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.”

The Internet and associated technologies are changing that.

“I think there are more voices in the civic sphere now thanks to social media,” Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, told LinuxInsider.

The Project is a non-partisan, non-profit research organization that studies the social impact of the Internet.

The Internet gives candidates and citizens new tools for interaction and conversation but this does not seem to have cut into the power of more traditional actors such as interest groups, mainstream media reporters and campaign consultants, Rainie said. “It’s more the case that new actors and new political spaces are being created.”

The entire political discourse has been turned on its head, contends Deanna Zandt, a media technologist and consultant to progressive media organizations including AlterNet, Hightower Lowdown and The Media Consortium.

“A lot of little folks are being empowered with tools and communications in ways that were previously unavailable,” Zandt told LinuxInsider.

This, she said, is “a huge paradigm shift, from a small number of people controlling communications to everyone having the power to communicate with everyone else.”

The Almighty Dollar

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama pulled in more than US$1 million a day in campaign donations for the entire month of January, mainly from online contributors who gave small sums of money.

On Dec. 16, Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul pulled in $6 million — a record for one day of fundraising — from just over 58,000 individual contributors online.

That was the second time he broke the online fundraising record; on Nov. 5, he pulled in $4.2 million from contributors over the Web.

Are these two campaigners the masters of Internet politics?

Does the Internet really matter?

How will it impact politics in the future?

Leveraging the Internet

Both candidates are leveraging the Internet for all they’re worth, with donation buttons on their Web sites, links to major Web-based media such as YouTube,, StumbleUpon, Facebook, MySpace, Flickr and Twitter, and pages that sell items such as campaign buttons, among other things.

Are they going about things the right way?

Well, 42 percent of people 18 to 29 say they regularly learn about the campaign from the Internet, and 20 percent of those below 30 have gotten campaign information from social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan organization studying social issues, attitudes and trends.

This practice is “almost exclusively limited” to young people, the Pew Center said.

That’s because young people under 25 “tend to have less boundaries, and are more fluent than we are with the Internet and social networking tools,” Zandt said.

They’re using their tools to support their views: People are “taking over whole pages on MySpace and having content battles, with Democrats debating Republicans and arguing about the candidates up for election,” DeAnne Cuellar, director of the Texas Media Empowerment Project, told LinuxInsider.

Cuellar’s organization uses music, media and technology as community organizing tools for political and social engagement, and she has seen “people as young as 9 years old up to people in their 40s and 50s are using YouTube and MySpace to inform themselves about politics and government.”

Facebook the Weapon

Yes, and they’re battling it out on Facebook.

On Jan. 16, someone named Farouk Olu Aregbe created an Obama Facebook Group, “Barack Obama (One Million Strong for Barack)” aimed at getting one million Obama supporters to join. By Feb. 26, it had 482,930 members.

Perhaps more telling is another Facebook group: Stop Hillary Clinton: (One Million Strong Against Hillary). That had 881,895 members by Feb. 26, almost double the number of the pro-Barack group.

There are other Facebook groups for and against Obama and the other candidates. Looks as if the war is going onto electronic turf.

And it should: The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning (CIRCLE) estimated in November 2000 that there were almost 43 million U.S. citizens in the 18-30 age group and that they constituted 17.7 percent of the country’s population at the time. When the 73.3 million citizens aged 0-18 come of voting age, they will outnumber even the Baby Boomers, to become the largest single demographic group in the country.

“Obama has the younger generation, and where else do they express their opinions but in social networks?” Shireen Mitchen, founder of Digital Sisters, an organization that provides technology training to under-served communities, told LinuxInsider.

Citizens under 30 are very politically active, with more than 3 million of them participating in the Super Tuesday elections earlier this month according to CIRCLE’s estimates.

One reason why is that “you have candidates reaching out with these tools and empowering them and, in effect, saying ‘I trust you,'” Zandt said.

Brave New World

It’s not just the social networking sites and the Internet that young people use; it’s the digital cameras, the cell-phone cameras, the podcasts, all the new technology.

This will exert tremendous pressure on candidates in future elections.

Think about this: A politician loses his temper and utters a few choice words. Someone captures it on a digital video camera and posts it to YouTube. The politician’s public relations representative insists he said something innocuous … and people fall off their chairs laughing as he wipes the egg from his face.

“Many more people are now being scrutinized and their activities broadcast in the age of user-generated digital material,” Rainie said.

Candidates will be “under scrutiny every minute they are within range of someone with a cell-phone camera. Not only can their actions be captured, but they also can be captured for posterity. When this material is posted online it can be easily searched for and found,” Rainie added.

So, the time-honored “road testing” phase of a candidacy, when candidates could meet with voters in small venues such as the voters’ living rooms or in diners, to try out their ideas before going fully public will have to be phased out.

“Nowadays, every candidate encounter in public should be conceived as a ‘mass audience’ event because candidates can never tell when someone will blog about what they say and do or take pictures of them and post them on the Internet,” Rainie said.

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