Power elites regroup to defuse net threat

April 2, 1999

Hopes that the internet will transform political life by upsetting existing power structures will be disappointed, a session at last week's Political Studies Association conference in Nottingham was told. Richard Davis of Brigham Young University, Utah, rejected the views of analysts like Esther Dyson who have argued that the net will create a more interactive, less passive democracy.

He said: "You don't transform people that way" and argued that there were serious barriers to any such change. Powerholders in the present political and media structures have already adapted to the net - newspapers, government departments, pressure groups and candidates are already online. In the 1998 United States elections, a third of House of Representatives candidates had sites, along with half of the senatorial contenders.

Professor Davis said that these groups had considerable advantages of organisation and reliability: "The plethora of sites and options is great fun for the enthusiast, but chaotic and not very attractive for the new user. People want information quickly, efficiently and attractively presented and the existing providers are good at this. There is a tendency to turn to the familiar as a way in - and the media organisations are aware that they can organise the net for users." He quoted one media executive as saying: "In a world of massive choice, you still need somebody to create order."

He went on to argue that while most people were wary of existing media providers, they were no more likely to trust amateur web sites. The sheer diversity of the net also makes it easy for those uninterested in politics to steer clear of it.

"You can choose out, and most people choose out politics. If you pick up a newspaper to look for the sports page, you may still glance at the front page - however superficially. The internet has no front page."

He was unimpressed by the net's capacity to produce more deliberative politics: "If you look at newsgroups people tend to talk past, rather than to, each other. They have a tendency to congregate in groups where they broadly agree, or to verbally attack each other. They are not designed for problem solving."

Nor was there any evidence that elite groups were anxious to hear from the public. Neither the White House nor congressmen who had solicited email had any idea how to respond to it: "There is a tendency to think that an email is too quick and easy. It lacks the credibility of a written letter." Electronic democracy is unlikely because of barriers to participation: "It requires technical literacy, a commitment of time and financial resources. No democracy has ever placed such high barriers in the way of voters. It is easier and much less expensive to walk to your nearest school to cast a ballot or pull a lever."

Professor Davis said he thought change was even less likely in the United Kingdom than the United States. American candidates and pressure groups are forced to reach out to the public because of the relative lack of a party apparatus: "The British system is much less porous."

His argument was challenged by Ivor Gaber, professor of communications at Goldsmiths College, London who said: "I can imagine us sitting in a similar meeting in 1936 and saying that television was not going to have much of an impact - fine for entertainment, but not much else. Much as I respect your argument intellectually I am sure you are wrong. I do not know what the mechanism will be, but this will be the television of the 21st century." Professor Davis responded that television's great advantage had been passivity: "The internet requires much greater effort and attention."

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