An Internet & Democracy Framework: Information > Deliberation > Participation

One of our tasks at the Internet and Democracy Project is to develop an intellectual framework which will aid us in studying the effect of the Internet on democracy. We are beginning by doing background research on the scholarship of democracy: Juan Linz, Seymour Martin Lipset, Terry Lynn Karl, Joseph Schumpeter, Robert Dahl, Larry Diamond. This has been very useful in placing our own research within the context of previous democracy research. Our next step is to do an overview of previous theories of democracy and the Internet, which fellow Corinna di Gennaro is spear-heading.

I am really glad that we are laying a thorough foundation for our framework, which I hope will not be embedded in current institutions and normative practices (rule of law, elections), but rather in more fundamental aspects of what democracy is. One way to define democracy is as a political system which arises when power flows down the pyramid from elites to citizens. The institutions that arise in a democracy, like separation of powers, civil rights, and the political equality of citizens, are just expression of underlying changing in this power dynamic. Democratic institutions safeguard the power of citizens against the usurpation by the powerful. But what causes this shift in the balance of power from elites to ordinary citizens? How do you get to democracy? And, more germane to our purposes, how can the Internet facilitate this power shift?

Below is a framework which attends to the effect that the Internet could have on the power shift from elites to citizens. This is a first draft and I may be completely off track, so I am eager to receive comments and critique. According to this tentative framework, the Internet facilitates the three steps of power acquisition by citizens:
1. Information
2. Deliberation
3. Participation

1. Information

This is the first step in a citizen accruing political power. A citizen must first have accurate information about the political situation in their polity and in order to determine the political outcome which would best preserve their own self-interest. The need for information is behind the need for freedom of information, as well as Diamond’s emphasis on the importance of alternative sources of information. With regard to previous theories about the effect of the Internet on democracy mentioned at the Berkman Center, Victoria Stodden’s emphasis on the Internet as a conduit for alternative information and democratic values is encapsulated in the information category, as well as Yochai Benkler’s pipeline and accountability pathways, which posit that the Internet aids people in evading censorship (removing blocks to information) and in increasing transparency (facilitating the flow of information about the government). The information category thus provides four testable hypotheses about the Internet’s effect on democracy: a conduit for alternative information, a conduit for democratic values, a means of evading censorship, and a means of improving government transparency. All four hypothetical effects of the Internet would increase citizen power and thus strengthen democracy.

2. Deliberation

The Internet not only allows citizens to access information, It also allows citizens to deliberate over this information and develop political option that coincide with their interests. A testable hypothesis which might arise from this category is that the Internet, a low-cost communication network, has greatly facilitated communication and group deliberation in may ways, including e-mail, forums, and blogs, which has increased the ability of citizens to advocate in their own self-interest.

Within deliberation exists the idea of coordination and group-forming, whereby citizens form organization that represent their interests in a public forum. Often these organizations become NGOs, although more informal networks also hold sway. A hypothesis from the organization element of the deliberation category might be that The Internet facilitates the creation and continuation of citizen organizations by allowing frequent and reinforcing communication, as well as promotion of these groups through low-cost high-visibility web sites.

The deliberation function is encapsulated in Diamond’s emphasis of the importance of multiple channels for self-expression and freedom of opinion and belief in a democracy. It also incorporates Benkler’s public sphere and political organizing pathways.

3. Participation

In the end, power is expressed through participation in the political sphere, as citizens bring pressure on leaders to make policies that attend to the interests of citizens. There are many forms of participation which show the political power of citizens, among them political protest, which exists outside of formal institutions, and voting, which occurs within the institutions of a democratic political system. A possible hypothesis might be that the Internet can facilitate both extra-institutional and intra-institutional expressions of political power. It can be both a means of organizing citizen action outside institutions (online political movements) and facilitating institutionalized participation (e-voting and elections).

The vast body of Diamond’s ten characteristics of democracy can be described as institutions that protect the citizen’s ability to participate in the political process (elections, protection of minority rights, rule of law, a constrained executive, political equality). This category also encapsulates Stodden’s description of the Internet as a tool in democratic processes (for instance, e-voting) and well as Benkler’s rule-making and political organizing pathways. (Political organizing includes a deliberative phase which precedes participation.)

(cross-posted in Zapboom)

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  1. An Internet & Democracy Framework : Institute for the Networked Future (INF) Says:

    […] an intellectual framework which will aid in studying the effect of the Internet on democracy, reports project participant Mary C. […]