The Political Impact of the Internet
By Ronald Meinardus
As we know it today, the Internet is just 10 years old. The invention
of point-and-click browsers has not only revolutionized the personal
communication habits of many of us. Digital technology has also
had a considerable impact on other spheres of life, notably the
economy. In many countries, the Internet has also affected political
communication, even the political system as a whole.
In the early stages, back in the 1990s, the new technology created
what may be called an internet-euphoria. Optimists assumed the
digital technology would lead mankind into a better world, creating
more chances for mass participation in the political and economic
"marketplace." These euphoric assessments have given
way to more cautious appraisals, as more and more people become
conscious of the potential dangers of the technological developments.
"The digital divide is one of the greatest impediments to
development, and it is growing," says James D. Wolfensohn,
the president of the World Bank. For him, as for many others,
the growing technological divide is the result of underlying economic
disparities and underdevelopment. These prevent large segments
of the world population from gaining access to the digital technology.
The numbers speak a clear language: While today more than half
of all North Americans regularly surf the internet, only 0.02%
of Ethiopians, 0.08% of Cambodians or 0.7% of Indians have that
opportunity. There are currently twice as many users in Sweden
than across the vast continent of Sub-Saharan Africa, writes Harvard
professor Pippa Norris and warns of a "new virtual Berlin
Wall splitting rich and poor worlds."
How one evaluates the impact of the internet on society, is dependent
on one's respective vantage point. This has become clear to me
after spending the last decade or so working in so different places
as Germany, South Korea and now the Philippines. While all three
nations may be termed democracies, they are very different in
terms of economic development, and, consequently, also poles apart
regarding internet penetration and the impact of digital technology
For politics in the Philippines, the internet to this day plays
hardly any role at all. With the exception of one left-wing group,
none of the mainstream political parties represented in Congress
has its own website. There are a handful of personal homepages
run by senators, and, of course, the government departments and
agencies have their sites. But for the great majority of the political
class in the Philippines, the digital age seems to have not yet
arrived. Recently, I wanted to send an electronic message to the
members of the House of Representatives. As a newcomer to the
Philippines, I was surprised to discover that two out of three
parliamentarians do not have an e-mail account.
This is not to say that politicians in the Philippines don't
like to communicate or have a problem with modern technology.
Quite the opposite is the case, if one considers the popularity
of technically highly sophisticated mobile telephones and the
much-quoted world-supremacy of the country in the "art"
of sending text messages (SMS). The lack of enthusiasm for digital
politics may be attributed to the relatively low Internet access
rate in the Philippines. With only two to three percent of the
population online, there are much more effective ways to reach
the masses than sending e-mails or posting websites. From an electoral
angle, however, this may soon change: Just in time for next year's
general elections, Congress has enacted the Overseas Absentee
Voting Law which, for the first time in history, entitles an estimated
seven to eight million overseas Filipinos to cast their votes.
"These people rely heavily on the Net to communicate,"
says a political strategist in Manila, who is working to set up
a party website in the near future. From what I hear, at least
two of the major Philippine parties are in the process of setting
up their own presence in the World Wide Web (www).
Asia's digital powerhouse and undisputed leader in the political
use of the internet is South Korea. Students of digital politics
are full of admiration for what one reporter recently termed "the
most advanced online democracy on the planet."
The rise of "webocracy" in South Korea, as it has also
been termed, became apparent to a wider international audience
during last year's presidential elections. These were won by a
politician, who no longer relied primarily on the traditional
mass rallies, but instead exploited the possibilities of the internet
and other modern communication devices systematically.
Roh Moo-hyun, who claims to be the world's first leader to understand
HTML internet code, succeeded in mobilizing millions of mainly
young supporters, who regularly logged onto his website to donate
money and receive political updates. Tens of thousands of e-mails
flooded into Roh's mailboxes. Many of the messages contained policy
recommendations which the candidate promised to consider seriously
in his decision making.
"South Koreans call it digital democracy and e-politics,"
writes one correspondent.
"They have become the world's leaders in cyberspace campaigning."
No doubt, the new technology has opened the door to new forms
of grass-roots participation. More importantly, there are indications
that on-line politics are changing the traditional power structures
-- as the internet has made the political process more transparent,
more communicative, more participatory, in short, more democratic.
Probably the political impact of the Internet is larger in South
Korea than in any other country. Why South Korea, one may ask.
Apart from political factors such as the existence of an energetic
civic society that has been struggling for a larger say in politics
for years, the answer is to be found mainly in the technical field:
South Korea today has the highest broadband internet usage in
the world. Nearly 70% of South Korean households now have broadband.
The internet has long become part of the daily routine of most
citizens. It has also become a powerful political weapon, threatening
the dominance even of the once almighty conventional media.
In the debates on the political
impact of the Internet two schools of thought may easily be identified.
The so-called cyber-optimists argue that the new technology helps
increase the role of the citizens in public affairs and therefore
promotes participatory democracy. The optimists may look to recent
developments in South Korea to find justification for their confidence.
The so-called cyber-pessimists, on the other hand, argue that
the digital technology has not (and may not have) this progressive
and liberalizing effect after all. Recent empirical studies
from my own country, Germany, tend to validate the scepticism
of the pessimists.
In modern democracies, the
media have the crucial function of disseminating information to
the citizens. Reliable information is an essential prerequisite
for forming political opinions – a precondition for participating
in a responsible manner in the political process.
No doubt, the Internet has
increased the quantity (and in some cases also the quality) of
available information. Still, this availability is no guarantee
that the information is actually made use of. Regarding the situation
in Germany, there exists no evidence that the proliferation of
political information on the Net has lead to a politically better
informed and educated citizenry.
While the number of Internet-users
has increased constantly over the years, about one out of two
Germans is still not connected to the WWW. This compares with
some 90 percent of the adult population who regularly use the
conventional media (newspapers, radio, TV). Like in other industrial
nations, in Germany too, the sociological profile of the Internet
users diverges from the general public with a considerable bias
in favour of the younger, better educated and male segments of
More important than this
“social divide”, I find the question: What are people actually
using the Internet for? Surveys illustrate that political information
plays a minor role, at best. In Germany, as probably in
many other countries, the great majority of subscribers use the
Internet for their personal communication (E-Mail) and entertainment.
Such surveys are grist to the mill of the cyber-pessimists who
raise the fundamental query why the digital technology per
se should make the citizens more interested in political matters
than they were before the advent of the PCs. Some actually argue
that the opposite is happening - that, in other words, the Internet
is not “politicizing” the masses but diverting people’s attention
away from political matters.
Unlike the recent presidential
elections in South Korea, where the Internet had a phenomenal
impact, digital politics did not play a significant role in Germany’s
general elections in September 2002. Although all major parties
and most of the candidates used the new media in a professional,
up-to-date and sometimes creative way, analysts agree that the
impact of political websites was minimal. In Germany, as in other
Western democracies, political online-campaigners encounter major
problems mobilizing members of the general public for partisan
politics. While the Internet no doubt is being used for political
communication of political parties, it remains more or less the
exclusive zone for contacting the politically converted. It is
- as Harvard-professor Pippa Norris notes - a medium used “to
reinforce the activism of the activists”.
While cyber-optimists had
anticipated that the openness of the Internet would provide new
opportunities for political mobilization and participation, reality
seems to point in a different direction. Cyber-pessimists argue
that the internet has actually widened the gap between a relatively
small group of citizens who are politically interested and active
and a majority of political dropouts. According to one German
observer, this gap may even become “the most central social cleavage
of the 21st century”.
Cyber-pessimists are also
not impressed by the prospects of using the Internet as a means
to popularize political elections. Apart from the unresolved technical
issues involved, sceptics have voiced fundamental political and
constitutional concerns. There seems to be a consensus in all
democracies experimenting with online-elections that these should
only become an alternative to the traditional modes of voting
after software has been developed which guarantees general, direct,
free, equal and secret elections. Particularly, the principle
of secrecy poses a challenge for the proponents of online-voting.
Apart from the technological
problems, there again is the more general political and sociological
issue: What makes us believe that by simply introducing new technical
devices more people will be inclined to participate in political
elections than without them? Empirical evidence shows that political
participation is less a function of access to voting booths and
other practical matters, but depends much more on economic and
social determinants. In this regard, the Internet-revolution has
not revolutionized the conventional wisdom according to which
there exists a strong correlation between political participation
and the level of the citizens’ education.
Published in Two Parts
Business World Internet Edition, Manila : March 26, 2003 and
March 27, 2003
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Dr. Ronald Meinardus was the former Resident Representative
of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in the Philippines and will
leave Manila late September for a new posting in the Middle East.
He writes a blog at www.myliberaltimes.com