The Myth of Digital Democracy

June 25, 2009

There's something about democracy and the internet that brings out the cranks. The ever-swelling internet punditocracy includes an unusually large number of charlatans and chancers, peddling stories of massive transformation, the collapse of political hierarchy and democracy at a mouse click. They are rarely called on their nonsense. Newspaper journalists, members of a purportedly cynical profession, swallow their nostrums with the endearing avidity of small children offered an unlimited supply of gumdrops and dolly mixtures. These journalists either want to believe in the transforming power of the internet or they are paralysed by it, fearing that the internet will gobble down their own profession as an appetiser before moving on to larger prey. A few Cassandras argue against internet evangelists, claiming that it will either leave politics unchanged or change it for the worse. However, their writings are often as innocent of facts and coherent arguments as the screeds of those they oppose.

These debates are so rancorous because we simply don't know much about the political consequences of the internet. Big arguments are cheap, but data are expensive and hard to come by. It is only in the past few years that social scientists have started to collect proper data and to analyse and debate it. Matthew Hindman's The Myth of Internet Democracy is one of the first significant efforts to bring data to bear on the relationship between the internet and democracy. He argues against the journalists and pundits who have made sweeping claims about the internet's transformative potential for democracy, and suggests that the new online bosses are not very different from the old ones. Unlike earlier sceptics, however, he has some data to support his claims.

Hindman's main argument has three parts. First, the numbers tell us that not all that many people look for political information on the internet. The putative citizens of the new electronic republic are far more interested in porn than in polling data. Second, not all websites are created equal. Some voices on the internet get much more attention than others, and indeed there are some indications that debate on the internet is less equal than offline media such as newspapers. Third, the new elites of the digital age, at least in the US, look much like the old ones - mostly white, upper middle class, male and with advanced degrees from prestigious universities.

As his book title suggests, Hindman puts paid to some of the most pernicious myths of democracy and the internet. Lazy libertarian arguments that the internet was going to create radically empowered individuals, an "army of Davids" that would topple government and so-called "mainstream media" with a few well-aimed missiles are simply unsustainable. So, too, are some of the hazier left-wing claims about how the internet would foster "extreme democracy". The internet is creating new forms of social organisation, but they have their own kinds of hierarchy. And in many cases the old hierarchies are co-opting the new ones. In the US, traditional media and think-tanks are hiring prominent bloggers. Few major bloggers are still independent, and those who are, are mostly trying to create their own miniature media empires.

Still, stupid claims for the democratic benefits of technological pixie dust may be too tempting a target. Hindman's focus on the bad arguments of internet evangelists leads him to make some over-reaching claims of his own. He argues, correctly, that the world wide web has a "winner-takes-all" structure, where a small number of sites get the lion's share of attention and resources, and the others have to squabble over the remaining scraps. But this is not anti-democratic, under most reasonable understandings of what democracy involves. Electoral competition has a winner-takes-all structure too, in which only a small number of parties have any real chance of winning seats, let alone forming a government.

Because Hindman concentrates on refuting bad ideas, he mostly overlooks how the internet is reshaping existing democracy. This neglect isn't total. The discussion of Howard Dean's campaign for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination is valuable, and the closing pages of the book have the beginnings of some new and interesting ideas. However, these feel like asides rather than the main focus of the book. To really understand how the internet affects democratic politics, we need to forget about the internet evangelists. Not only were they badly wrong, but their notions of democracy were sloppy and unhelpful. Discussions of the internet and democracy need to start from a more plausible baseline - politics as it is actually practised in the real world. Hindman's book plays a very valuable role in clearing some space for this debate to take place, but could have done more to contribute to this debate itself.

The Myth of Digital Democracy

By Matthew Hindman. Princeton University Press 198pp, £39.95 and £16.50. ISBN 9780691137612 and 38688. Published October 2008

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