On this blog we've seen several posts on the merits of new media in governance - I'm specifically referring to posts from my colleague Fumiko Nagano, from Silvio Waisboard, and from Kristina Klinkforth. All three authors are very careful, or outright dismissive, when it comes to the abilities of new information technology, specifically social networking sites, to aid the empowerment of citizens and to support democracy. Based on research, common sense (and my own addiction to Facebook) I want to challenge my colleagues by saying: On the web, it's all about efficacy and voice.
Years ago The New Yorker printed a now famous cartoon of a dog sitting in front of a computer with the headline "On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog." This line stands for the unique feature of the Internet that on the web, anyone can be (almost) anything. That includes that anyone can be a citizen, a speaker for human rights, and a champion of democracy. This is not only a matter of anonymity, but also of voice, of its reach, its magnification, and its echo.
As in most research fields, academia's answer to the question of whether ICT is good or bad for democracy is "both" or "depends on the circumstances." ICT skeptics have always been as outspoken as ICT optimists, and both sides tend to exaggerate the potential effects of technology. An early study by McKennagh and Bargh (1998) on minority behavior on the Internet convinces in terms of study design and argument. The gist: marginalized social groups are able to build their own identity on the web without fear of social isolation because it provides them with a channel to reach like-minded and to communicate with them, thereby feeling less isolated. It increases the efficacy of marginalized groups - and that is my main argument. The web is probably not the solution to all problems of democracy and development. But it does effectively improve efficacy, it gives citizens a voice, it provides them with a forum and a channel to practice democracy.
Habermas' ideal of the public sphere is, in essence, very similar to the World Wide Web. An open space, in principle accessible without regard to class (in principle, not in practice), where communication flows are largely free of distortion through power (again, in principle). In fact, I would dare claim that the web as it stands today is closer to the Habermasian ideal than any national democracy. Where else can citizens voice their opinions at any time on any topic and have a good chance to be heard? Where else can marginalized voices speak up - and have a good chance to be heard? So often we hear stories these days about bloggers that brought up politically sensitive topics that then got taken up by the mainstream media. Major news channels have special program segments devoted to watching the blogosphere. We've seen more than one repressed country recently where citizens were able to mobilize high-level international support for their plights through ICT.
Again, ICT are not the solution to everything that is wrong with participation, governance, accountability etc. But I suggest that these technologies give us a chance, a channel for democracy that we would otherwise not have. On the web, it's all about efficacy and voice - in particular if you're a dog.
Cartoon credit: Peter Steiner, reproduced from page 61 of the July 5, 1993 issue of The New Yorker (Vol.69 (LXIX) no. 20)