The Democratic Power Shift on the Internet

Moving Beyond Anecdote

When discussing the effect on the Internet on democracy we seem to be trapped in anecdote. We’ve seen examples of how low-cost digital tools like Facebook, Youtube, and blogs have been used to unite people globally around a cause, increase awareness of civil rights abuse, and share information about social justice campaigns.

But how do we move beyond the anecdotal examples of the Facebook group which organized to support the monks in Burma, the video of Zimbabwean union members being beaten by police, and the blog-based campaign to release the blogger Abdel-Monem Mahmoud? What does all this activity mean about the effects of the Internet on democracy?

The Internet and Political Power

One way to go about answering this question is to go back to first principles, to look at the network structure of the Internet and see what about it might constitute a democratizing force. In using the term “democratizing force,” I am not referring to institutional change, to a government becoming more responsive to citizens. I am referring to a more literal definition of democracy: “the people rule” (demos kratia). “Democratizing forces” increase the power of citizens. So when I say that the Internet might constitute a “democratizing force,” (and I belive it does), I mean that the Internet increases the political power of the people that use it.

How does the Internet increase the political power of its users? The effect is not primarily institutional. The institutions of democratic government by and large have not moved onto the Internet. Online e-voting is still uncommon and binding hearings and caucuses rarely occur in cyber-space. This makes the task of showing that the Internet increases political power more difficult, because the lack of institutional presence on the Internet implies that the Internet increases power informally rather than institutionally.

Democratic institutions exist to decentralize power from the executive. The judicial branch, legislative branch, universal suffrage, and the like all serve this purpose. However, decentralization of power is a central tenet of democracy even outside the institutional context. When institutions are removed, democracy is still all about the idea that the authority to make decision that effect the public are not decided only by a head of state or small group of elites but, to the greatest extent possible, by the people affected by that decision.

Types of Political Power

Important as it is to democratic process, the power to make decisions is only the first and most visible expression of power, and the Internet’s influence on power touches on its more subtle expressions as well. I am referring to the “three faces of power,” well articulated by Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz, among others. The three faces are as follows:

  1. evident influence of A forces B to take a certain decision
  2. hidden influence of A on the set of decisions available B limits the decisions which B can make
  3. ideological construction of what issues are considered within the realm of public decision-making controls which issues B views as topics for decision-making

Yet this theory ignores the actual mechanism of power. How does A force B to take a decision (evident influence)? How does A control what options are open to B in public debate (hidden influence)? How does A influence the cognition/awareness of B to the extent that B perceives her own interests in a way which is beneficial to A (ideological construction)?

Resource Need: the Mechanism of Power

The question of mechanism is answered by Richard M. Emerson, who states that power is defined by resource need. If A needs B’s resources more than B needs A’s resources, then B has the power over A. If B needs A’s resources more than A needs B’s resources, then A has power over B. In short, she who has greater need has less power. While it is easiest to think of resources as money, the category is in fact much more diverse. Legitimacy, time, votes, attention, and other intangible resources are also important, particularly when speaking about the power of governments and politicians.

The Internet affects all three faces of power by facilitating the coalescence of resources around new political poles thereby changing the topography of culture and allowing citizens to place themselves and define their interests within this new larger space.

Changing the Topography of Interests

In the end, the Internet’s effect on power all comes down to ideological construction. The Internet problematizes issues that were previously uncontroversial. The Internet proposes new ideas which were not part of mainstream discourse. The Internet attacks the credibility of leaders who thought they had control over all means of dissent.

It is from this reinterpretation of interests that new groups emerge. Groups of individuals become aware of a problem through the Internet and use the Internet to identify like-minded people. Each individual has a small amount of tangible and intangible resources. In groups, these people people have a larger amount of resources which can be deployed to achieve a given public outcome. The presence of these new Internet-enabled interest groups changes the political topology because they form new centers of political power.

New Resource Groups and the Power Shift

I stated previously that the mechanism of power is resource need, that she who has the greater need has less power. Resource need is also the link between the Internet and the democratic power shift. The Internet allows increased awareness of alternative interpretations of public issues and also allows people who agree with this interpretation to identify each other and create groups in which they can pool their resources, which include not only money but also skills.

These new resource groups create a power shift because there are now new resource-intensive groups which political leaders become beholden to. Each individual has a certain small amount of resources. When these individuals come together they form new Internet-enabled interest groups which have the sum total of the resources of all the members. These new resource-rich groups are able to challenge other high-resource entities in society. If the group is large enough, the political leader may need the financial support and legitimacy of the group more than the group needs the leader. A democratic power shift has occurred.

Example: MoveOn and the Exercise of Power Online

The online progressive lobbying group MoveOn is an example of this resource shift. In 2006, the 3 million member online group was able to push several incumbent Congresspeople out of office. Although the Congresspeople had significant personal and institutional resources, the combined resources of the members of MoveOn was greater. The incumbents needed the electoral support of the members of MoveOn more than Moveon needed the resources of the incumbents. Thus, MoveOn had the greater power.

How does the MoveOn example map onto the three faces of power? First, MoveOn used the Internet and TV ads (funded by online donations) to label previously popular incumbents as corrupt collaborators with the evil Bush administration (ideological construction). By impuning the fitness of these incumbents, MoveOn put a new decision option into the public arena – vote against the incumbent (hidden influence). Finally, through more ads and in-person protests, MoveOn pushed citizens to vote in accordance with the electoral option they had promoted – voting against the incumbent (evident influence).

In this example, the role of the Internet is easy to overlook. Since MoveOn is a 3-million-member organization, it would be easy to think that the Internet was at most incidental to its increase in political power. Also, as huge organization it seems a poor example of of how the Internet increases the power of the individual.

But MoveOn began in 1998 as two individuals – Joan Blades and Wes Boyd – who circulated an online petition, signed by 500,000 people, asking Congress to censure President Clinton following the Monica Lewinsky scandal and “move on” with governing the country. They used the Internet to accrue resources and redefine interests to the extent that by 2006 MoveOn was such a powerful political player than they had a huge influence on the shift of Congress from Republican to Democratic control.

The Intrinsic Democratizing Features of the Internet

The MoveOn example is a useful illustration of the points I have made about the three faces of power and the importance of resources in the power balance, but I fear that we are moving back into the realm of anecdote.

What are the intrinsic characteristics of Internet which make it a medium for people to construct ideology on a massive scale to the extent that these new definitions of self-interest can serve as poles for a new topography of political power? There are 3 main characteristics which make the Internet a democratizing force:

1. The Internet makes one-to-many communication accessible to people with low levels of personal resources.

Mass communication was once the purview of high-resource individuals and groups like corporations and the government. Through mass communication these organizations constructed ideology by shaping cultural priorities. We all saw the same news programs and sitcoms and these programs shaped our reality. The sources of the norms transmitted through these programs was limited to a resource-rich elite.

Now, because of the Internet, low-resource individuals (ie, middle class people around the world), are able to disseminate their own norms through blogs and other user-generated content platforms. Not all user-generated content catches on and has a mass effect, but some does. Culture can now be created from the bottom of the pyramid almost as easily as from the top. This redefinition of culture is the basis for the changes in interests which lead to the new political topography. It is a redefinition of ideological construct.

2. The Internet allows people to identify and collaborate with others who have similar political interests, allowing for the formations of powerful new interest groups.

If the first attribute of the Internet explains the Internet facilitates the ideological construction of power, this attribute speaks to the result of that ideological shift. Through low-cost web-based communication methods like e-mail, listservs, and social networks, people with similar interests can form themselves into groups which which can take action around issues important to the group.

3. The Internet allows interest groups to more easily deploy resources for the purpose of exercising group power.

The reason why these new interest groups are powerful is because they represent the collected resources of the group’s members. Resources in this context refer not only to money, despite the importance of the new phenomenon of online micro-donations. It also refers to skills – the ability to design a web site, translate a news article, edit a video, connect the group to other networks. All these skills help the organization to promote its cause and gain more members and resources.

Moreover, the Internet allows not only the movement of ideas, which leads to the formation of these interest groups, but also the movement of resources themselves. Money can travel across oceans in seconds. A man in Alabama can build a web site which focuses on injustice in Kenya. The Internet not allows people to come together as never before. It allows resources to come together as never before, which further empowers the group.


The Internet allows people to communicate their interests to a broad audience and, as a result of that communication, to form interest groups that pool resources which allow the individuals in those groups to exert power on political decision-makers.

Many of the cases of how the Internet has influenced democracy – MoveOn in 2006, the campaign to pass a Flier’s Bill of Rights, to worldwide protests that that led to the pardoning of Fouad Mourtada in Morocco – these are all results of the formation of new interest groups which subsequently exercise power through the pooling of resources.

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