The Cyberspace Constituency

Many cyberspace enthusiasts believe hyperdemocracy can help empower voters and revitalize democracy. Others insist it could undermine democratic practices.

by / April 30, 1996 0
Hyperdemocracy -- online political decision-making and elections -- is more than an emerging technological possibility. The prevailing vision of 21st century society now includes a government situated in cyberspace.

Hyperdemocracy today conjures up images of e-mail voting, widespread electronic referenda, and lively online town meetings and debates. It is even reasonable to predict that elected representatives themselves may eventually govern through wired, cyberspatial assemblies, accessed by computer while they remain in their remote electoral regions.

Many cyberspace enthusiasts, including Vice President Al Gore, believe that developments such as these can help to both re-empower voters and revitalize democracy. Gore points out that the printing press made possible both the modern nation-state and representational democracy by giving citizens enough civic knowledge to participate in decision-making. And he predicts that the impact of interactive, multi-way computer networks on citizenship may be as profound.

Hyperdemocracy -- the theory goes -- will involve citizens more directly in political decision-making and, to quote Time magazine, reverse the "distorted top-to-bottom information cascade" and end "a half-century's buildup of lawyer-lobbyists who represented interest groups (including the media) more than they did voters."

No one pretends to know what the full impact of the Information Age will be on our democracy. But it is certain that the ramifications extend far beyond a simple adaptation of current election and governmental procedures to the new digital media.

Newt Gingrich's Progress & Freedom Foundation, for instance, under the grand title Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age, issued a statement representing "the cumulative wisdom and innovation" of dozens of people, including Esther Dyson, George Gilder, George Keyworth and Alvin Toffler.

This statement declared, "As humankind explores this new 'electronic frontier' of knowledge, it must confront again the most profound questions of how to organize itself for the common good. The meaning of freedom, structures of self-government, definition of property, nature of competition, conditions for cooperation, sense of community and nature of progress will each be redefined for the Knowledge Age -- just as they were redefined for a new age of industry some 250 years ago."

The optimistic vision is that hyperdemocracy might offer new hope to our democratic institutions now so besieged by social crises and rampant public mistrust. However, this optimism is far from universal.

PRO AND CON
As a "think-piece" on hyperdemocracy by Rand Corp.'s David Ronfeldt pointed out, "Despite initial hopes that 'electronic democracy' and 'teledemocracy' would increase popular participation and government responsiveness, mainstream analysts have continued to worry that the new technology may be used to undermine democratic practices."

Ronfeldt cites political scientist Richard Neustadt, who predicted in the early 1980s, "A wave of new technology will transform campaigning, political organizing, news coverage, lobbying and voting. Some of these changes may make campaigning less costly and bring decision-making closer to the people. But the greatest impact may be to fragment our politics, narrowing people's perspectives, shifting more power into special interest groups, and weakening the glue that holds our system together."

Election '96 is proving to be the campaign year where we take the first real steps toward a national hyperdemocracy. Web sites focusing on election issues have sprung up like wildfire. Politicians are flocking to the Web to erect campaign sites of their own. There is diversity aplenty and a sincere interest by many to use the Internet to bring new depths to the election process.

However, when it comes to information, content is the bottom line. And the harsh reality is that despite all the rhetoric about reinventing government for the 21st century, we may be actually starting to see all of Neustadt's predictions come true -- the good and the bad.

WEB COMMERCIALS 'R US
In a speech about revitalizing democracy in the Information Age given at Princeton University last year, FCC chairman Reed Hundt pointed out, "TV was supposed to revitalize democracy by bringing us all into the electronic forum for debates and discussion of the issues by candidates. Instead, numerous commentators have concluded that TV has enslaved politicians and degraded the electoral process."

Television's role in reducing many complex issues down to 8-second sound bites that fit nicely into 30-second image commercials has certainly contributed to increased public cynicism for the electoral process. A national survey by The Washington Post, Harvard University and the Kaiser Family Foundation published earlier this year found that only one in four Americans now really trusts the federal government, and that a growing disgust for politicians in general -- and the prevalent opinion that all government is a symbol of ineffectiveness -- has deeply corroded the nation's social and political life.

Given all the talk about hyperdemocracy, one might reasonably presume that in this election year, politicians would be rushing to harness the Internet to relate to voters in a different way. But after browsing through numerous Web pages, it becomes clear that this isn't happening.

Election Web pages are easy to find using the various Internet search engines and by following the numerous cross-links between pages. At first glance there's a lot there -- certainly more than enough information to set the overload circuits buzzing.

Bob Dole's Web page showed the most innovation early on, with lots of "net-hip" gimmicks, including downloadable sound bites and film clips. This trend was soon followed by a few similar efforts to invoke at least a spirit of interactivity. But for the most part, official election sites have done little to provide more than the standard election fodder.

Kim Gregson, a graduate student at Indiana University who erected the Campaign 96 site -- one of the more comprehensive Web pages giving links to virtually all the notable election sites -- commented, "The politicians seem to be treating Internet as a standard advertising medium instead of looking at the feedback potential and the polling potential. It's the same standard stuff that goes out -- their press releases and their speeches. Very few of them, for example, even have a site where you can send back e-mail."

Clearly, at least some Internet enthusiasts expected that in this election, politicians who spend millions of dollars on their campaigns would seek to utilize the special dynamics of a multi-way network. And e-mail, for net-citizens, is pretty much rock bottom when it comes to interactive involvement.

Chris Casey, who put Sen. Edward Kennedy onto the Internet several years ago, and then became technical advisor to the Senate Democratic Technology and Communications Committee, pointed out that politicians are actually wary of a public e-mail address because they are inviting a deluge of e-mail. "Members of Congress are quicker to appreciate the potential of setting up a home page where they can promote themselves and talk about the wonderful things they do than they are to think about the second important part -- making it two-way, having an e-mail address and getting feedback on what they are posting," Casey said.

The same seems to be true of campaigning politicians and their staff. Sheryl Losser -- an experienced political consultant in Washington whose company, Losser & Associates, manages another clearinghouse Web site, Campaign Central -- noted, "On the Internet, you are dealing not just with people who are more likely to vote, but also with the more sophisticated voter, people who tend to be a little more aware of the issues. Therefore, you have to be more issue oriented than you do through TV or other media.

"The politicians haven't yet learned how to use this new medium," she added. "As someone who now works to put up Web sites for them, it is frustrating that they really don't understand the technology. In the long run, I think cyberspace will, in some ways, be a throwback to the pre-TV era. Candidates will need to know and work their precincts the way they did in the old days -- on foot so to speak -- only without kissing babies and eating ethnic food."

A number of political consulting and Web design firms are seeking to help politicians utilize the World Wide Web more effectively. One of the more interesting is Votelink, an organization which offers continuous online election polling through its own Web page, as well as the technical ability to organize town meetings and polls for campaigning politicians, elected officials or government departments.

"There is a growing disenchantment with empty promises and campaign slogans as opposed to real issues," said Alexia Parks, president of Votelink. "What Internet and the Web specifically offer to those seeking public office is a cost-effective way of reaching out to at least some of the growing number of independent and alienated members of the general public."

But that certainly is not happening in any significant fashion. Losser said that many of the candidates she has talked to want a Web site simply to say they have one. "What they hear is that if you are a candidate, you have to have a Web site. And they are starting to believe that. But rarely are they thinking in terms of how to utilize the Web as a campaign tool."

If hyperdemocracy is supposed to be breathing new life into our democratic processes, most campaigning politicians have yet to get with the program.

GRASS ROOTS INNOVATIONS
If there is a significant and hopeful trend starting to emerge in this election year, it is found in the large number of unofficial and independent Web sites that far outnumber the official ones -- sites that seek to provide more in-depth political analysis, delve into past records or scandalous behavior of politicians, or sometimes simply mock or parody particular candidates in the long-standing tradition of political satire.

Many of the big news organizations are utilizing the Web to provide greater depth of reporting and more up-to-the-minute coverage of election events. CNN, USA Today, ABC News, Time Warner's Pathfinder and C-SPAN are just some of the many news organizations making election material available through their Web pages.

Vote Smart, a nonprofit organization that doesn't lobby, doesn't endorse candidates and doesn't lend its name to any cause, has erected what is probably one of the most useful of the nonpartisan sites. Using the help of volunteers, Vote Smart puts together details of where candidates stand on dozens of issues and, through their Web page, allows Internet users to take the same questionnaire to automatically find out which candidate most closely aligns with their personal views.

Vote Smart was launched by former politician Richard Kimball, who said he felt "unclean" after playing the election game of trying to manipulate voters, tailoring his image to what people wanted, and running television ads attacking his opponents. So he set out to raise the level of politics in America.

"We provide access to independent information about candidates and elected officials so people can elect their representatives based on some knowledge that is useful about them, where they stand on issues, and how they are going to do the job if they are hired," explained Adelaide Elm, director of public information for Vote Smart.

"What the Web does is allow the citizen to get access to a lot more unfiltered information that is independent from the candidates and their campaigns. A lot of people, a lot of other groups, have information on the candidates, but aren't able to afford the kind of news coverage and publicity that the candidates can generate."

If this election is any indication, the drive to harness the revitalizing power of hyperdemocracy may come, not just from the top down, but also from the grass roots, from small organizations like Vote Smart. Politicians may be forced to respond in different ways simply to counter or explain independent information which circulates through the Internet.

Yet a proliferation of Web sites doesn't necessarily mean that voters will be getting better information to make more informed choices. For one thing, voters have to actively seek out the information.

"And I think it's important to remember that information is still only as good as its source," added Elm. "The one thing about the Web is that it's sometimes hard to track the source of information because it allows you to transfer from link to link almost without realizing you've gone into someone else's site. You just can't take it all in as fact because lots of it is garbage, just like lots of what we see on TV is garbage and lots of what we read is garbage."

As more organizations and individuals put up election-related Web pages, the worst fears about hyperdemocracy loom large -- increasing political fragmentation, narrowing perspectives and even more power to special interest groups. Not to mention the darkest side, the most serious danger, of the information revolution -- the potential for new methods of information manipulation and control that could undermine democratic processes completely. For as Rand's David Ronfeldt pointed out, there is no assurance that the information revolution will favor democracy in the long run.

All these concerns certainly remain with us as we watch hyperdemocracy begin to stir on the Internet. For one thing, the gullibility of some Internet users is almost frightening at times. Mark Pace, one of those involved in erecting some of the political satire Web sites, noted, "Unfortunately, I think that Internet has only proven that Americans really don't pay much attention to the elections or the issues. I've gotten far more letters taking these pages seriously than not. It's a scary situation when you can put swastikas as a background on a satire home page of a presidential candidate and still get people sending you many letters of praise."

Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, whose financial contributions, assets and Congressional trips database is accessible through Mother Jones' election Web pages, is even more skeptical of hyperdemocracy's promise. "I don't think Internet is the solution to declining civic participation or the growing public cynicism in the democratic process," she said.

For one thing, Miller believes that the Internet can be very isolating at times, with people staying in front of their computers for many hours at a stretch. "But then again," she added, "for those who are interested in politics, it is a way to rapidly get more objective information."

This is not to suggest that the information revolution will not transform our culture and our politics as profoundly as did the Industrial Revolution. But, as has often been pointed out, having vast quantities of information at one's fingertips ensures neither clarity of vision nor understanding. In fact, the reverse is the rule. Floods of raw and frequently misleading information serves more to obscure than to enlighten. And as such, hyperdemocracy may prove in the long run to be far from a panacea for the many ills of our democratic processes.


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