The internet: an opportunity missed, or an opportunity lost?

But nothing compares with the revolutionary impact of the internet. The internet has altered drastically the nature of our political campaigns, conventions, constituents, candidates and costs. Some politicians regard it with suspicion, others with pleasure. Some candidates have benefited by using it-others have been advised to avoid it. To the voter and vote-getter alike, the internet offers new opportunities, new challenges and new problems.

The above quote was taken from an article written by a future liberal American president. A highly skilled and cunning operator, he identified early on that this technology would play a crucial role in political life.  Furthermore, it would later be a key factor in electing him to the highest office in the land, leaving his opponents trailing far behind as they failed to grapple with the opportunities this new technology provided.  But this above quote isn’t all that it seems.  For one thing, it was written in 1959.  For another (obviously) the article was not about the internet, but about television.  And, of course, this future liberal American president was, in fact, John F Kennedy.

The emergence of television as a major communications tool had the potential to revolutionise the relationship between politicians and the electorate. Rather than remaining remote and detached from the people who would elect them, politicians could now appear in every constituent’s living room, communicating with them directly in a way they simply were not able to before.  Of course, this development did alter the nature of political campaigns and politics in general, much as Kennedy predicted, but it made no tangible difference to the relationship between the governed and the governors.  If anything, television simply reinforced existing power structures. One only has to see the relationship between commercial television and the political elite, both funded by the same corporate sponsors, both defending the interests of those same sponsors and the economic system which benefits their funding streams.  Television did nothing to challenge existing power structures, it merely reinforced them.

Television’s reinforcement of the status quo is perhaps unsurprising. Whilst it has the potential to reveal truths about our society to a much bigger audience than any other medium has managed (thanks perhaps to the power of the moving image), it has largely been a one-way communication tool. Whilst it has afforded the opportunity for some interaction, and for viewers to engage in populist TV shows, it has done little to engage or empower people in democratic processes. And then came the internet…

The internet certainly has the potential to radically alter the relationship between the governed and the governing. The growth of social media in particular has opened up the potential to enable greater communication between the two. Whereas the flow of communication has primarily been top down, from the governing to the governed, the internet and social media enables a cycle of communication between the two. The internet and social media has, unlike almost every other communications tool that preceded it (like television), the potential to be revolutionary in its impact. Unfortunately, this potential has not, in my view, been realised. Rather than heralding a radically new political environment, the internet has increasingly become just another communications tool for the elite to assert authority over.

Of course, the great “Arab Spring” has often been heralded as a watershed in terms of the ability for social media and the internet to facilitate radical social and political change.  Whilst it undoubtedly had some impact, it was perhaps not the great game changer that many claim it to be. Of course, that hasn’t stopped many of these actions being acclaimed as “Facebook Revolutions”. But there is perhaps a Western-centric view of the influence of these tools, primarily because many of these tools are Western creations. It is perhaps unsurprising that the Western media have latched onto Western technology as a hook to interest their populations in uprisings that happen in parts of the world where they have previously shown little interest.

Wael Ghonim, a key figure in the use of the internet as a tool to support the revolutionary movement in Egypt, documented his experiences of running a social media campaign in support of the uprising in his book, Revolution 2.0. Whilst it is undoubtedly an interesting read (I’d certainly recommend picking it up if you get the chance), as one reviewer points out:

“…it clearly states that the Kullena Khaled Said page even at its best only reached about one million readers, a large number for an Internet campaign no doubt, but only a small minority in a nation of 81 million people. Ghonim makes scant any reference to, for example, the wave of strikes that begun in Mahalla in late 2006 and which played a major role in mobilising people against the Mubarak regime. Thus, this book represents a rather narrow view of the Egyptian revolution, something Ghonim also asserts himself.”

The exaggeration of the impact of social media appears to be borne out in a report prepared for the Defense Intelligence Agency in the United States. In “The Impact of Social Media on Social Unrest in the Arab Spring” [PDF] the authors investigated the impact of social media upon social unrest and presented three main findings:

1)      Exogenous political and economic shocks served as the necessary underlying drivers of social unrest; without grievances, individuals would have no cause for protest.

2)      The authors did not find a consistent correlation between social media use and successful mass protest, suggesting social media is a useful but not sufficient tool for protest.

3)      Social media boosted international attention to local events by facilitating reporting from places traditional media has limited access to and by providing a bottom-up, decentralized process for generating news stories.

The authors ended on a cautionary note. Social media was increasingly being used by authoritarian governments to “repress opposition movements and stymie democratisation”.

In short, social media made a contribution to the development of the Arab Spring, but it was not the key factor. Unsurprisingly, a number of factors came together which led to the successful overthrow of authoritarian regimes. Social media didn’t change the dynamic between the regimes and the people they controlled, but it did facilitate the protest movement once it began to develop and grow. What is important to note, however, is that the technology is increasingly being used by repressive regimes to reinforce existing power structures, rather than to open up and democratise society. But what about in the West? Has the internet had the revolutionary impact its potential suggested?

Western liberal democracies appear not to have seen the internet as an opportunity to create a more participative democracy, but rather as an opportunity to reinforce existing structures. In terms of using the technology there appears to be two dominant strategies:

1)      Push out information about the state under the auspices of Open Data.

2)      Collect more information about citizens.

(And you could probably add a third as being that of a propaganda weapon*.)

In terms of the first (and I am primarily referring to the UK here) the internet is seen as a tool to push out government data. This is, of course, seen as a way to make public officials accountable to “taxpayers” (so the rhetoric goes) and to create, as David Cameron would have it, a new era of transparency. Of course, data without context is fairly meaningless. Opening up data in the way the UK government has been doing so does not truly empower citizens or radically impact upon the nature of our democracy. It is one-way communication between the governing and the governed, just delivered in a slightly different way. Indeed, an interview with Francis Maude conducted by the Wall Street Journal underlined that this information push is not about changing the relationship between the governed and the governing but about reinforcing the status quo (this is a fairly sizeable extract but I think it is worth extracting this part of the exchange):

Wall Street Journal: In what way does it do this? Open government at the moment seems to be about opening government up so people can see what it does, but I don’t see a lot of evidence that it is about empowering citizens. The power balance doesn’t change.

Francis Maude: What you are starting to see now in terms of opening data up in the health service changes the balance of power because there is less ‘you take what you are given whether you like it or not’. It is more you have a chance to look at what you are getting and exercise some choice, some choice which will be enabled by digital. You can see what different hospitals are offering, you can see the outcomes from different GP practices, you can make decisions based on that. That is changing, in a crucial way, what most people say is the most important public service. That is changing the balance, moving the balance towards the citizen.

WSJ: All of those things are about choosing between pre-existing choices. It is not empowering you to change those choices. How can the citizen, having been empowered to do the business of government in a better way, change the business of government?

FM: Through elections.

WSJ: So technology doesn’t have impact on the relationship? We are still in the business of putting crosses on pieces of paper and putting them in ballot boxes.

FM: Those are essentially political decisions, which are subject to democracy.

WSJ: So how do you empower democracy? How does technology change the nature of democracy?

FM: By increasing the level of information and knowledge and the access to it.

WSJ: So what can citizens do once they have been better informed?

FM: Vote in a better way. We are not changing the nature of democracy.

WSJ: Isn’t the logical conclusion of what we have seen elsewhere that digital has the ability to change that relationship? What you seem to be saying is that when it comes to politics, actually no, we are not looking to change. We, the government, will go out to you, the citizens, from whom we derive our legitimacy, we will seek your opinions on these things and then a committee of the great and the good will consider them. But there is no fundamental shift in doing that online or filling in a piece of paper and sending it in.

FM: You could have a continuous participative democracy where decisions are voted on in real time by as many people as are on line and know about it. That is an option. That would be a massive change. You could enable that — you vote for people on Britain’s Got Talent that way.  The technology is not very hard to do. We could do this.

WSJ: This is not something you are suggesting is the policy you are going to have?

FM: No.

The government’s agenda, as the Wall Street Journal point out, will not lead to a fundamental shift in the relationship. Technology is not changing the nature of democracy, it is merely reinforcing old structures.

The second strand is, of course, the collection of information on citizens. The revelations of the activities of the NSA have, thanks to Edward Snowden, shown just what lengths the state is prepared to go to in order to collect information on the governed. In the guise of national security it is prepared to conduct widespread, cross-border electronic surveillance.  Of course, this comes soon after the UK government had attempted to introduce its snoopers’ charter, an attempt that is sure to be repeated regardless of the controversy over surveillance conducted by the NSA. The growth of this new technology appears to be viewed as an opportunity to gather more information on the governed, to reinforce the relationship between them and those that govern them. If there has been a revolution, perhaps it has been in terms of what the governing can learn about us, rather than what we learn about them (despite piecemeal freedom of information legislation – which appears to be a watered down sop to demonstrate that we can conduct our own surveillance on them as much as they can on us…of course we cannot).

Not only is information on citizens being harvested, but it is being done so with the threat of exerting the full force of the state should this be disrupted. See, for example, the case ofDavid Miranda and his nine hour detention. Both here, and in the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement, we can see the lengths the governing will go to in order to protect their own interests and ensure the flow of information remains within their control. As Charlie Beckett, author of Wikileaks – news in the networked eraputs it on the LSE blog:

“…‘outsider journalism’ when combined with the best of mainstream news media and when they exploit the power of new digital networks, create a communications power that is a serious challenge to authority.”

When this one-way, highly controlled flow is disrupted, it presents a challenge to authority, a challenge to governing forces and a shifting in the balance of control of information. Therefore, these same forces will act to protect and ensure that this flow remains within their control. Information, as far as the governing are concerned, should primarily flow in one direction – upwards.

There certainly is a two-way process of communication between the governed and the governing, however the governed do not have an active role in this process. They are to be passive consumers of the data pumped out by the government and a veritable bank of information to be collected by the state. There is no revolution here, the relationship has barely changed, all that has changed is the method by which this relationship is managed. The governing still control the flow of information, in both directions (the recent revelations about Israel underline how social media and the internet is seen as a powerful tool of propaganda – the third main strategy employed by Western, liberal democracies).

Both the internet and social media have the potential to radically alter the nature of our democracy. The truth is that this potential has not (yet?) been realised. Where social media has been hailed as a powerful tool in over-throwing repressive regimes, it merely played a supportive role in strengthening existing revolutionary movements. It helped to challenge the existing relationship between the governed and the governing, but it was an aid not the driving force. Likewise, in Western democracies social media and the internet has not radically changed the relationship between governing and governed. Indeed, it hasn’t changed it at all. Despite the potential for new technology to radically change the dynamic, creating a more open, democratic and participative environment, it has merely been used as a tool to reinforce pre-existing structures. Of course, the potential is still there for the internet to significantly recalibrate our democratic structures. I hope that, for now, this is just an opportunity missed but I fear, as the extent to which the state is prepared to control the flow of information becomes ever clearer, it might well be an opportunity lost.

* I would have liked to have explored all three strategies in greater detail, but I was conscious of the fact I was already running way over a word count that one would reasonably expect people to endure.