Is the Internet really changing politics?


This week Robin, Simon and I attended an event at Demos entitled “Is the Internet really changing politics?”. It’s tempting to dismiss this as a trivial question – the success of the Obama campaign, the rise of political blogging and the creation of new civic institutions such as MySociety all point to a simple “yes”, the open-ended nature of the question meant the panellists were free to take us down the roads they were on.

Coming out firmly fighting for the Internet was Tom Watson MP, one of Britain’s first blogging politicians and in his post-ministerial career, leading campaigner for digital rights and the gaming industry. Though the next election will still rely heavily on broadcast media, he sensed change in the air on how political institutions and parties use the web, but emphasised it will take strong leadership to use digital technologies wisely. This is particularly pertinent given the existing tension between the proponents for digital scarcity and digital plenty – restrictions such as DRM, disconnection of suspected filesharers and data record retention will only serve to restrict the Internet’s potential as well as encouraging repressive regimes abroad to follow suit.

In the other corner is Evgeny Morozov, who has this month’s cover feature in Prospect, arguing that the Internet has done little to topple dictatorships, and in some cases, has actually aided authoritarian regimes in oppressing their political opponents (to which Clay Shirky has written a reposte). Morozov is right in this respect – despite the wealth of grassroots movements and citizen journalists, no government has yet been toppled by a microblog platform or social network. However, you’d have to be hard pressed to find a digital activist who has spent any time working in the ‘real’ online world to claim that the web is going to topple old regimes; to claim that it’s just going to be online tools that revolutionise or even destroy politics is glib and harmful.

Although it’s easy to label such discussions as optimists versus pessimists, it’s rarely that case. Tom Watson as an MP is well used to the realities of working political life, while Evgeny Morozov is no Andrew Keen and in his piece proposes several constructive, optimistic ideas about how to make our use of the web better in helping spread democracy abroad. Although both would disagree on some things, no doubt they would agree that the Internet is largely a neutral technology – or if not that, then a highly flexible one – and that results depend not just on the tools you use but how you use them.

Using the Internet to effectively campaign politically needs not just a nice blog, or a Facebook group, or a Twitter hashtag (although they’re all good starts); you need to know what your goal is, who your likely followers are, and the people in power you need to target. You need to educate users in the tools they are use and the risks they bear using them, as well as dealing with the possibility of being subverted or misrepresented by your opponents and detractors. In short it needs to deal with precisely the things any ‘offline’ campaign would have to deal with – it’s about ignoring the difference between ‘offline’ and ‘online’ and approaching the Internet with maturity and an open mind.

So what’s the answer to the question? It’s very hard to see when you’re in the middle of it, but slowly politics is changing, but probably not as much as the optimists like to make out. It’s certainly not been as radically altered as the music and news industries, but it’s also not hard to see the mistakes some in these industries made treating the internet as a fringe phenomenon and refusing to see the changes it was bringing until it was too late. It would be very poor for democracy if political parties and institutions made similar mistakes…