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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 February 2007, 11:24 GMT
The political power of the network
Ballot box
Will the net have an influence at the ballot box?
Online campaigns and e-petitions are only the beginning of what the net can do to politics, argues Bill Thompson.

Over the last few weeks we have seen many candidates for the US Presidency launch campaigns to seek nomination by their respective parties, and all have used the internet to get the message out.

Hillary Clinton actually launched her campaign on her website, while Barack Obama has been pushing himself to the bloggers.

On the Republican side John McCain seeks to prove his own credentials with a somewhat stilted video outlining his position, and he too will be working hard to ensure that he speaks directly to the wired world.

Sites like Prezvid have been set up to keep a keen eye on what's going on, and commentators are already claiming that the activities of YouTube activists, blogging pundits and citizen journalists will be as significant to the outcome as editorials in the New York Times or commentary on Fox News.

Bill Thompson
Thanks to the internet we have, in some places and some areas, a more open political system, but there is a fundamental difference between openness and democracy

And throughout the process the word "conversation" has been bandied around with gay abandon by candidates seeking to hitch themselves to the bandwagon of conversational media, despite the fact that serious political campaigning is as much about proselytising and arguing as it about gentle discussions via video conference.

Yet whatever its faults, the whole thing is generally seen as an exercise in democracy, as one aspect of the democratising influence of the internet on the political system.

Here in the UK the Downing Street e-petition service, developed by the mavens of social change at mySociety, has attracted widespread publicity after nearly two million people signed a call to abandon plans for road pricing.

Novel way

The petitioners, all of whom received an e-mail from the Prime Minister, have certainly engaged with the political system in a novel way, but as with electronic voting there are questions to be asked about the value of making something easier.

The effort of going to a polling station and marking a piece of paper is, to me at least, a valuable part of the whole process, and I wonder whether signing a petition electronically has the same weight as being stopped in the street to scrawl on a badly-printed sheet of A4.

Yet despite these reservations it is reassuring to see the network having an impact on the level of political engagement, and if getting an e-mail from Tony Blair encourages people to become more interested, more active and more involved then this is a wholly good thing.

However I am not sure that online campaigns and online petitions justify the claims that the internet is revitalising democracy either here or in the US or in any other country where online activism and e-government are coming together.

Encouraged debate

The network, and the tools and services it supports, have certainly encouraged debate and discussion. Websites have cast light on political funding and how it distorts the exercise of power, and social network sites have encouraged citizen action of many different forms.

Thanks to the internet we have, in some places and some areas, a more open political system, but there is a fundamental difference between openness and democracy.

Democracy is a political system, and as such it is concerned with the exercise of power. While open debate is generally recognised as being one of the building blocks of an effective democracy it is, as the philosophers put it, a necessary but not sufficient condition.

Free speech

Free speech does not, of itself, build a democracy and having held a consultation does not give a democratic mandate to the holders of office.

Government of the people, by the people, and for the people, especially the sort of representative democracy that has evolved in this country as we seek to combine elements of an autocratic monarchy with an elected legislature, is about far more than openness.

In the media openness to different points of view may be desirable but does not amount to democratisation. Power in the media still lies with editors and proprietors, just as power in the British political system still lies with the government.

So although we should welcome openness and interaction we have to hope that new technologies will lead to changes in the distribution of power and not merely superficial changes to political practice, just as access to the network and mobile phones are starting to change business, education and forms of social engagement.

The emergence of online candidacies, and the success of e-petitions, are far from being the end of the process. They mark, at best, the point where we can finally see that the earthquake is beginning, where the early tremors are starting to shake some buildings but the real shock is yet to be felt.


Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.



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