Internet, Impact on Politics

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Internet, Impact on Politics


Since the mid-1990s a new force has emerged to reshape modern societythe Internet. One aspect of society that the Internet has changed significantly is politics. In politics, the Internet has produced three types of change. The first is the way that politicians reach the voting public. Previously, politicians could only reach the public using the established media (television, radio, or newspapers and magazines) or by meeting people on the street. This is no longer the case. The second change produced by the Internet relates to the participation of the average citizen in political processes. People used to be limited to voting, sit-ins, strikes, public gatherings, letter writing, and similar types of activities, but since the advent of the Internet, many new activities have developed. The third change caused by the Internet is the creation of a whole new group of participants in the political process. Before the Internet was available, the only private groups that were politically active were either very large, very specialized, or both; the Internet has enabled small, local groups to also participate in politics.

Politicians and their staffs can use the Internet to maintain contact with supporters and to gather new supporters. Chat rooms, blogs, and email updates are the preferred resources for maintaining contact with supporters. These allow supporters to form a community and to receive the latest news about a candidate directly. The process of drawing new supporters relies on World Wide Web (WWW) sites maintained by the candidate and his or her staff. Politicians may also gain support through blogs maintained by people not officially affiliated with the candidate, as well as through email briefs to bloggers and traditional media, search engines, and general information sources such as Wikipedia. The Internet is sufficiently important in political campaigns that by the time of the 2004 U.S. presidential election, major candidates maintained staff positions dedicated to Internet campaigning.

The ability of politicians to reach their constituents does have some drawbacks. Political opponents can employ the same technologies to undermine candidacies, as happened to Barack Obama in the presidential campaign at the end of 2006 with the release of information about his attendance at a Muslim school. In the beginning of 2007, John Edwards illustrated that candidates are also capable of damaging their own campaigns when attempting to employ blogs. Both of these incidents spread over the Internet with incredible speed. Some organizations form explicitly to use the Internet politically against politicians, as with Moveon.orgs actions against President George W. Bush, while others such as arise to inform voters. Just like organizations, individual reporters from independents like the Drudge Report to mainstream reporters from The Washington Post or The New York Times have used the Internet to present various positions.

During elections, private citizens can use the Internet to show support for preferred candidates by using the candidates Web sites directly (including making online donations) or by visiting general sites, through which they may take part in opinion polls or contribute to blog commentary. Supporters may also visit private Internet sites supporting a candidate or even sites run by interest groups that support a slate of candidates. Although Internet voting has not yet been employed on a large scale, Arizona has experimented with limited Internet voting as far back as 2000. Beyond election-related activities, citizens can use the Internet to engage in the political process in many new ways. The U.S. Congress and some state legislatures post proposed and enacted legislation on the Internet. Interested citizens can then email a representative or senator. Some state, county, and even city governments provide Web broadcasts (webcasts) of meetings. Many bigcity police departments maintain Web sites with law enforcement information and crime reports.

This information allows interested citizens to follow government activity and react quickly when appropriate. Usually, citizens communicate about politics using Web sites, email, and text messaging (also called instant messaging or IM). There have been a number of instances when people used Internet resources to come together quickly to pressure a government. For example, the Internet allowed people to organize for a large protest in the Philippines in early 2001 that forced President Joseph Estrada from power. In such cases, instant messaging can be used to gather large numbers of people so rapidly that law enforcement is too slow to respond. Such gatherings, known as flash mobs, have been known to force change in governments. Flash mobs were used by protestors during the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, Washington, and overwhelmed local law enforcement.

Small local groups are also able to use the Internet for political purposes. It was once necessary for groups to establish either size or significant specialization before they could influence national or international politics. The Internet has allowed smaller, more localized groups to combine their influence, tap public opinion, and take a role in both national and international politics. For example, the leaders of various organizations within the militia movement in the United States have used the Internet to connect with each other, organize jointly, disseminate propaganda, and trade techniques since the late 1990s. Examples of such efforts in other countries include the Mexican Zapatista movement, whose leaders used the Internet to garner international awareness of their situation and apply international pressure on the Mexican government during the mid-to late 1990s. Activists involved in the world environmental movement used the Internet during the June 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, a meeting known informally as the Earth Summit, to coordinate the activities of numerous disparate groups. During the 1992 Rio sessions, these groups organized and presented their positions to delegates using the Internet. As a result of these Internet-based efforts across national borders by small political-interest groups, the opinions of these groups were taken into account and included in the resulting international treaty. Although activities at the Rio sessions predate the Internets arrival into mainstream political activity, it showed the potential of the then newly-emerging technology and helped to promote the early use of the Internet. Although the Internet was not sufficiently widespread for groups to reach public audiences, the environmental groups used email to communicate with technophiles in other groups and to coordinate activities. The capacity of the Internet to influence closed totalitarian societies remains unclear, but its impact on open societies is generally accepted.

From the perspective of politicians, individual citizens, or interest groups, the Internet has changed the way in which people participate in politics by allowing them to break free from historical limitations. In the case of private citizens and small interest groups, the Internet has allowed both to gain access to the political process and political powers in a manner not previously available. The role of the Internet on politics is still developing, and research on its impact is underway.

SEE ALSO Internet; Politics


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David B. Conklin

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Internet, Impact on Politics

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