Political communication is an interactive process concerning the transmission of information among politicians, the news media, and the public. The process operates downward from governing institutions toward citizens, horizontally in linkages among political actors, and also upward from public opinion toward authorities.
- Production Processes
- Postwar Trends in Newspapers
- Trends in Broadcasting
- The Rise of the Internet
- The Consequences for Democracy and Democratization
Political communication has always been central to the electoral and policymaking process but since the early 1990s certain important developments have fundamentally altered this process, particularly postwar trends in the mass media moving from the traditional world of newspapers, radio, and television broadcasting toward the Internet. This article outlines alternative interpretations of the nature of these trends and reflects on their consequences for the process of socioeconomic and political development around the globe.
The literature in political communication can be subdivided into three major categories, using a simple systems model of the process illustrated in Figure 1 to distinguish between production, contents, and effects.
Figure 1 Systems model of political communication process.
Political Communication Production Processes
Work on the production process focuses on how messages are generated by political actors like parties and interest groups, and then transmitted via both direct channels like political advertisements and indirect channels including newspapers, radio, and television. Many studies have focused on the increased professionalization of political marketing campaigns in the postwar era, including the rise of the class of political consultants, pollsters, advertising executives, and their coterie, and the consequence of this process for strategic communications by political parties and interest groups. A large literature, particularly within Europe, has also studied the changing structure of the news industry, notably the economic basis of the newspaper industry and the legal structure regulating broadcasting and the press. Comparative studies have also commonly analyzed the news culture, especially the values that journalists, broadcasters, and editors employ as ‘gatekeepers’ in deciding ‘what’s news,’ as well as the organizational structure of newsrooms. Recent work within this area has generated a growing body of research on the rise of new communication and information technologies, and use of the Internet by parties, new social movements, and the news media.
One of the major challenges in this subfield is to widen the scope of comparative research on a systematic basis so that we move from studies of the structure of the political communication process within particular nations to conceptual typologies, broader theories, and empirical generalizations that can be tested across different types of societies. Much of this work has traditionally focused upon postindustrial nations, particularly the USA and Western Europe, although in the 1990s increased attention has been paid to new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia, as well as, to a lesser extent, to the role of the news media in authoritarian regimes like Burma, China, and Cuba where the role of the free press and opposition movements remain severely restricted.
Political Communication Contents
Another related mainstream research tradition has examined the content of the messages that are produced by this process, such as the amount and tone of political reporting presented in television news, the partisan balance in the press, the coverage of election campaigns and particular events, the agenda-setting reporting of policy issues, and the representation of social minorities in the news media. The most common forms of comparison are between different media, for example, differences in the messages conveyed during an election campaign in paid political advertisements, party press releases, newspaper columns, and TV news stories.
Other forms of comparison examine trends over time, such as the coverage of political scandals or social minorities in recent decades. More rarely, collaborative teams have attempted comparison across nations, for example, concerning a specific period or event in selected major newspapers. Work in this tradition has drawn largely upon systematic forms of content analysis of a representative random sample of stories among different media, although alternative qualitative techniques for deconstructing textual and visual messages are also common. Moving beyond systematic description, which is valuable but limited, the main challenges in this area are to relate the content of the messages to either the production process (to examine their possible causes) or to their potential impact (to understand their effects).
Political Communication Effects
Lastly perhaps the largest body of research, certainly in the USA, has focused at individual level on the study of the potential effects of exposure to different types of political communication messages. The most common method has been to draw upon cross-sectional or panel representative surveys or, more rarely, experimental methods. The key issues have focused upon analyzing the potential impact of exposure to different type of mediated messages (such as watching an advertisement or news story) upon either political knowledge and opinions (such as awareness about an issue, civic knowledge, or recognition of political leaders), political attitudes and values (such as support for a particular party or issue), and political behavior (such as voting turnout). Most work has focused upon the impact of the messages on the mass public or particular subgroups, like women or undecided voters, although some studies have also analyzed the effects upon middle-level elites involved in the policymaking process.
The primary challenges are threefold: (1) to expand generalizations beyond the USA, to see how far they continue to hold up within very different contexts; (2) to move beyond cross-sectional surveys, which cannot determine issues of causality, toward more dynamic designs such as panel surveys and pre–post experimental designs; and (3) to link studies of the individual-level analysis of effects to both what we know about the structure of the news industry and the contents of the messages, generating multilevel and multinational research designs. This work has made considerable progress as the study of political communications has moved increasingly into the mainstream within political science since the 1980s, but nevertheless the subfield remains predominantly US and European, and the process of internationalization in what is increasingly a global society is only starting to produce more systematic cross-national and multilevel research.
Political communication has, therefore, always been central to the electoral and policymaking process but since the 1990s certain important structural developments have fundamentally altered this process, particularly postwar trends in the mass media moving from the traditional world of newspapers, radio, and television broadcasting toward the Internet. The rest of this article outlines alternative interpretations of the nature of these trends and reflects on their consequences for the process of socioeconomic and political development around the globe.
Postwar Trends in Newspapers
Concern about traditional standards of journalism has been fueled by major changes in the newspaper industry during the postwar era. In the USA the daily press has experienced dwindling readership and sales, especially among the younger generation, a loss of advertising market share to the electronic media, and growing concentration of ownership in larger multiple newspaper chains or a few multimedia conglomerates (McManus, 1994; Baker and Dessart, 1998). All these developments have had a major impact upon the profitability and economic viability of the print sector in the USA, particularly for smaller outlets (De Bens and Ostbye, 1998).
Yet although the demise of newspapers has been widely predicted for decades, we should not underestimate their continued popularity and technological adaptation to new forms of production and distribution. If we compare postwar trends in circulation, controlling for population growth, the evidence shows that sales of the daily press in most postindustrial societies has not been affected by the growing availability of electronic media. The long-term trend in newspaper sales in OECD countries, per 1000 population, has proved fairly stable. Average circulation in all OECD states was 271 newspapers per 1,000 population in 1950, rising modestly in 1980, before subsiding slightly to 263 per 1000 in 1996 (UNESCO). In postindustrial societies, despite the massive surge in the availability of television since the 1950s, about one quarter of the population continues to buy a daily newspaper, and readership figures are even higher. The electronic media have therefore increased the choice and diversity of news outlets and formats, but at the same time they have not killed sales of the printed press. Given growing educational levels and affluence characteristic of postindustrial societies, consumption of news has not proved a zero sum game.
Moreover, there are considerable variations among societies in use of the traditional mass media. Figure 2 illustrates the penetration of newspapers and TV sets per 1,000 population worldwide. The pattern confirms how far newspaper and TV penetration levels are associated with basic patterns of socioeconomic development; use of the mass media is related to a more affluent and educated population with greater leisure time. Postindustrial societies tend to be the heaviest consumers of the mass media; nevertheless, the pattern also shows considerable variations among these nations. Some outliers like the USA and Canada prove far more television-oriented than average (along with Southern Mediterranean Europe and much of Latin America), while others nations like Norway and Sweden (along with much of Northern, Central, and Eastern Europe) remain more newspaper-oriented.
Figure 2 Worldwide distribution of newspapers and TV sets, mid-1990s. (Sources: Newspapers: UNESCO Statistical Yearbook 1997; TV sets: World Bank, 2000. World Development Indicators 2000. https://data.worldbank.org/. Type of democracy: Based on the Freedom House classification of political rights and civil liberties.)
It remains unclear whether systematic trends in the newspaper industry have changed traditional journalism, producing an increased focus on crime, sex, and entertainment, as is assumed by some critics. What seems equally plausible across OECD countries is an expansion of both lowbrow and highbrow news media in recent decades, representing a diversification of the market. A recent review of the comparative literature by Kees Brants concluded that the few available content analysis studies provide an ambiguous and sometimes contradictory picture of the growth of ‘infotainment’ news in different countries, rather than showing a uniform pattern: ‘Where for the European countries as a whole we might see a slight tendency towards the popularization of news, there is little evidence that politicians and politics are more dramatically personalized and sensationalized than before’ (Brants, 1998).
Brants found that the available content analysis shows a mixed picture of the growth of ‘infotainment’ news in different European countries, rather than a uniform trend. Frank Esser concluded that there were marked contrasts between Germany, the UK, and the USA in the popularity of tabloid news, and that the nature and degree of competition in a particular media market is the decisive factor explaining the degree of tabloidization (Esser, 1999). Moreover, systematic research on long-term trends in British newspapers from 1952–97 found that the amount of political coverage in the tabloid sector had not declined over time, as many critics assume. Instead, the tabloid press in the UK has expanded its coverage of entertainment but also maintained its political news over this period (McLachlan and Golding, 1999; McLachlan, 1999).
Therefore, across all postindustrial societies newspaper circulation levels have remained largely stable during the postwar era, yet at the same time the range of papers published in these states has contracted. The number of daily newspapers published in OECD nations fell on average by 15% during the postwar era, from 160 per country in 1960 to 130 in 1996, producing greater concentration of readership in fewer outlets. Many countries have introduced measures to maintain press diversity, on the assumption that we need diverse outlets for an effective civic forum. Antitrust regulations have attempted to insure competition in the ownership of the press, for example, limiting the proportion of cross-media ownership by a single company, administered by fair trade bodies like the British Monopolies and Merger Commission or the German Federal Cartel Office. Other societies like Sweden and Norway have used press subsidies as a policy instrument to protect the financial viability of the more vulnerable sectors of the press (McQuail and Siune, 1998). Countries with provincial and localized newspaper markets like the USA and Germany proved particularly prone to media mergers and acquisitions, reducing pluralism and competition in many cities. Papers in smaller countries like Austria and Belgium also often experienced takeovers or closure because of a limited domestic market and imports from neighboring states with a shared common language.
Concentration of ownership in the hands of a few multinational corporations with multimedia empires has become increasingly common, notably Rupert Murdoch’s News International, and the vast holdings of Bertelsmann in Germany, or Fininvest in Italy (Tunstall and Palmer, 1991; Smith, 1991; Sanchez-Tabernero, 1993). Hence Rupert Murdoch, who started with two small Australian newspapers, built an empire in News Corp. that includes 20th Century Fox films, the Fox TV network, a number of US stations, 50% ownership of Sky TV, a majority interest in the STAR Asian satellite, ownership of The Sun and The Times in the UK, additional television stations in Latin America, and the book publisher HarperCollins, as well as investments in Internet companies. In the USA, Time Warner’s purchase of Turner Broadcasting Systems Inc (including CNN) in 1996 created the largest media firm in the world with strong print, cable, and programming divisions. Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC Inc for $19 billion in 1995 created the second largest media conglomerate with movie, television, cable, and Internet interests, although the purchase proved costly since ABC’s profitability moved sharply into the red four years after acquisition. Conrad Black’s acquisition of Southam in Canada in 1996 gave his company, Hollinger Inc, control of two-thirds of the newspapers in that country.
What will be the consequences of these developments? Many commentators like Ben Bagdikian (1997, see also Bogart, 1995) fear that media mergers have concentrated excessive control in the hands of a few multinational corporations, who remain unaccountable to the public, and that only greater economic competition can change this situation. Recognition of this problem has arisen from the understanding that economic controls can constrain the media just as significantly as political controls. There is nothing new about this concern, which was often expressed during the interwar era of the press barons when proprietors like Beaverbrook and Rothermere actively intervened to further their political ambitions. Yet others like Robert Picard (1988, 1998) remain more sanguine about recent developments, arguing that we need to distinguish between concentration defined by considering the number ofmedia outlets held by dominant firms and concentration defined by dominance in a clear geographical market. It is the latter – which can harm consumers by producing fewer choices, poorer services, and higher prices – which is important for the availability of alternative sources of political information in a democracy.
Monopolies in the local market for ideas can be harmful for pluralism. Nevertheless, it must be recognized that we need to look beyond any single media sector to establish the harmful political effects of concentration, since consumers use and have access to multiple sources of news and information, from newspapers to radio, television, and the Internet. Moreover, the trends toward greater concentration are not universal, as some OECD countries have seen a significant expansion in the circulation and range of daily newspapers being published in the postwar era, particularly states like Mexico and Greece where educational and literacy rates have been rising sharply, as well as more modest growth evident in newer democracies like Hungary, the Czech Republic, and South Korea.
Trends in Broadcasting
Just as there are serious concerns about the future of newspapers, so many believe that in recent decades traditional standards of television news and public affairs have come under threat from technological and economic developments. The critical factors transforming broadcasting include the proliferation of channels on terrestrial, cable, satellite, digital, and now broadband services, fragmenting the mass audience; the crisis of identity and funding facing public service television, which once enjoyed a monopoly throughout most of Europe, following the rise of myriad commercial competitors; and lastly the more recent technological convergence with the digitization and compression of images, sounds, and data which has produced a new multimedia environment breaking down the traditional boundaries between telecommunications, the audiovisual industries, and computers.
These trends have affected all OECD countries to different degrees although their impact and timing has been strongly mediated by the existing communications landscape. In the Thatcherite 1980s, deregulation and privatization had the most profound influence on public service broadcasters throughout Western Europe (Achille and Ibanez Bueno, 1994). Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the transition to democracy in the early 1990s produced an even more radical jolt to public television in Central and Eastern Europe (O’Neill, 1998). Meanwhile in the USA the long-standing rule of the three major networks experienced an equivalent coup d’etat, cut down in the 1980s by myriad competitors on cable and satellite (Kimball, 1994). Despite the long-standing contrasts between the commercially dominant major networks in the USA and public television in Europe, in recent years both have faced a strikingly similar multiplication of outlets and fragmentation of television audiences, raising new concerns about the standards of programming.
Despite the deluge of commercial alternatives, the public channels remain popular; on average across all OECD states public channels maintain a 42% share of the television audience. This varies substantially, however, by country. Public television RAI1 and TVE1 remain market leaders in Italy and Spain, while NRK in Norway and SVT in Sweden had most of the best-rated shows in their countries. In contrast public TV has a far smaller share in some other societies such as PBS (3%) in the United States and NHK (18%) in Japan (Mediametrie, 1999). OECD states can be classified into three major types: those that remain predominately public systems (based on an audience share of public channels of 60% and above), mixed systems (with a public share of 40–59%) and predominately private systems (with a public share of less than 40%). Where there is comparable data, only three OECD nations can be categorized as predominately public (Austria, Denmark and Hungary), 11 represent mixed systems, while 10 can be classified as predominately private systems. Therefore, although there has been growing transatlantic convergence over the years, nevertheless broadcasting systems continue to bear the distinct imprint of their origins with radio in the 1920s, and public television continues to remain popular in many countries, rather than being swamped by commercial services.
Political Communication and The Rise of the Internet
Since the early 1990s the most important change to the political communication process has occurred through the rise of the Internet, particularly in postindustrial societies that are at the forefront of the information society such as the USA, Australia, and Sweden. Networked computing and computer-mediated email have existed for the scientific elite since the early 1960s but the number of users was too small to monitor through mass surveys. The key historic development transforming the Internet into the world’s favorite virtual reference library, post office, and shopping mall was a series of rapid innovations: the birth of the World Wide Web (in 1990) and the launch of popular browsers to access materials including those by Mosaic (1993), Netscape Navigator (1994), and Microsoft Internet Explorer (1995) (see Berners-Lee, 2000). Subsequent technological applications, like the easy transfer of .mp3 music files and video formats, and WAP-enabled digital telephony, while representing important innovations, cannot yet claim to have had an impact equal to the basic invention of point-and-click browsers.
As yet no official government statistics on the online population are collected by international agencies like UNESCO and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), although many indirect measures of technological diffusion are available, including investment in scientific Research and Development, the spread of computer hardware, and the rate of telephone density. The most comprehensive worldwide guide estimating the size of the online population is provided by NUA. This organization regularly monitors and collates survey results conducted by different market research companies in each nation. The surveys ask a representative sample of the public in each country about use of the Internet from home, work, or elsewhere during the previous 3 months. NUA’s database ‘How Many Online’ (http://www.nua.ie) currently collects data from 179 countries, covering 5.7 billion people.
The NUA evidence highlights the dramatic rise in popularity of the Internet in recent years: between 1995 and 2000 the total number of Internet users surged from about 26 to 377 million worldwide, an explosive jump within the space of a few years. The Internet became a truly global phenomenon as more and more users came online from around the world and the proportion of Americans in the online community dropped from 70 to 40% in 1995–2000. Despite this remarkable expansion, about one in 20 of the world’s population was online in 2000, with highly uneven diffusion globally.
According to NUA estimates, in Spring 2000 Scandinavia and North America led the world in rates of Internet penetration, with one-third or more of the population online, followed by Western Europe, with about one in 10 online. Central and Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and South America fall below the world average, all with less than one in 20 online, while minimal diffusion is evident in Sub-Saharan Africa, with only 36 users per 1000 people. In terms of levels of human development, there are stark contrasts between rich and poor nations. Most of the world’s online community (87%) lives in highly developed nations, as measured by the UNDP index (see UNDP, 1999). In comparison, the 35 societies classified by the UNDP with low levels of human development, like Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Uganda, contained only 5% of the online population, although home to half a billion people.
A finer-grained comparison of countries ranked by the online population reveals a pattern of widespread adoption in four clusters of societies:
- Throughout the smaller Nordic social democratic welfare states, especially Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Finland;
- In larger Anglo-American and English-speaking nations including the USA, Canada, Australia, and the UK;
- In the Asian ‘tiger’ economies of Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, as well as Japan; and lastly,
- In a few smaller European nations with above-average Internet use such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Slovenia, and Estonia.
At the bottom of the national rankings, with less that 0.5% of the population online, few Internet users are found throughout most of the poorer countries of sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of South Africa), as well as in many states in central Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America.
Yet at the same time if technological diffusion can be achieved in poorer societies, and it is a big ‘if,’ then many observers hope that the Internet will provide multiple opportunities for socioeconomic and democratic development. Digital networks have the potential to broaden and enhance access to information and communications for remote rural areas and poorer neighborhoods, to strengthen the process of democratization under transitional regimes, and to ameliorate the endemic problems of poverty in the developing world. With connectivity as the umbilical cord, enthusiasts hope that the Internet will eventually serve multiple functions as the world’s favorite public library, school classroom, and medical database; post office and telephone; marketplace and shopping mall; channel for entertainment, culture, and music; daily news resource for headlines, stocks, and weather; and heterogeneous global public sphere. In the heady words of the G-8 Okinawa Charter:
Our vision of an information society is one that better enables people to fulfill their potential and realize their aspirations. To this end we must ensure that IT serves the mutually supportive goals of creating sustainable economic growth, enhancing the public welfare, and fostering social cohesion, and work to fully realize its potential to strengthen democracy, increase transparency and accountability in governance, promote human rights, enhance cultural diversity, and to foster international peace and stability.
G-8 Okinawa Charter on Global Information Society 23 July 2000.
The Internet may allow societies to leapfrog stages of technological and industrial development. On the production side, if Bangalore companies can write software code for IBM or Microsoft, and if Costa Rica can manufacture chips for Intel, then potentially entrepreneurs can offer similar services from Malaysia, Brazil, and South Africa. The Internet encourages market globalization: small craft industries and the tourism industry in Bali or the Maldives can deal directly with customers and holidaymakers in New York and London, irrespective of distance, the costs of advertising, and the intermediate distribution chains of travel agents and retail businesses (International Telecommunications Union, 1999: p. 7; Dugger, 2000).
The Internet also offers promise for the delivery of basic social services like education and health information across the globe, a function that may be particularly important for middle-level professionals serving their broader community (Hayward, 1995; Wresch, 1996). Potentially, local teachers or community officials connected to the digital world in Lagos, Beijing, or Calcutta can access the same electronic journals, books, and databases as students at the Sorbonne, Oxford, or Harvard. Distance learning can widen access to training and education, via open universities in India, Africa, and Thailand, and language websites for schools (Arunachalam, 1999). Networks of hospitals and healthcare professionals in the Ukraine, Mozambique, and Stockholm can pool expertise and knowledge about the latest research on AIDS. Peasant farmers using village community centers can learn about storm warnings and market prices for their crops, along with employment opportunities in local towns. Where peripheral regions lack access to the traditional media, the convergence of communication technologies mean that potentially the Internet can deliver virtual local newspapers, streaming radio and television video, as well as other services.
Numerous examples can be cited to show the potential of digital technologies for fostering new opportunities for development in societies around the world (World Economic Forum, 2000). Many South East Asian nations seek to emulate the Japanese model of development in the postwar era of reconstruction, and the knowledge-based economy in Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. In Malaysia, for example, the Multimedia Super Corridor has been developed to bring investment from telecommunications, multimedia, and electronics companies, and the production of silicon wafers and software. The corridor has attracted major players such as Microsoft, Sun Systems, and NTT (Japanese telecom). Under the ‘Vision 2020’ plan, Malaysia now boasts cellular telephone penetration rates of one in every 10 people, more and more wired schools, and 21 Internet hosts per 1,000 people. Revenue generated by the production of information and communication technology goods, like office equipment, telecommunications, and consumer audiovisuals, shows that the USA leads the world but many Asian countries are close rivals, including Japan (second), Korea (third), Singapore (fourth), Taiwan (seventh) and Malaysia (eighth) (OECD, 2000: p. 24, Table 2).
Southern India is most often cited as an important area of software development, producing an estimated $3.8 billion in revenues, with this figure doubling in the last years of the 1990s. Over one-half of India’s software services are exported to the USA (OECD, 2000). The Bangalore area has attracted inward investment from many major corporations, not least from the diaspora of the Asian dot.com entrepreneurs thriving in California’s Silicon Valley and Cambridge’s Technology Park (for a discussion see Yourdon, 1996). In rural Bangladesh many isolated communities lack landline telephones. An innovative program by Grameen Telecom supplies cellular mobile phones to village women, who rent calls in their community to repay the loan and sustain thriving micro enterprises. (By Spring 2000, over 1000 phones had been provided, serving 65000 people, and the eventual target is 40000 phones. See Richardson, 2000). With this service, local communities benefit by direct links to job, weather, and health information, as well as more efficient markets for their produce. Village telecom centers are being developed with email and fax services, along with computer literacy projects in selected schools.
In Central and Eastern Europe, Slovenia, Estonia, and Slovakia have made great strides in moving their populations online, moving well ahead of Portugal, Greece, and Austria in levels of connectivity. Hungary’s ambitious Schoolnet program has allowed students in two-thirds of all secondary schools to browse the Web from their classrooms, with extensive teaching resources, interactive discussion forums, events, and competitions. In the Baltic, the Estonian government has provided public access points for the Internet throughout the country, using schools, post offices, community centers, libraries, police stations, and health clinics. The program has been highly successful; today more than one in 10 Estonians is online, with personal computer ownership well above average for Central and Eastern Europe (UNDP, 1999: p. 64).
Progress has been slower in Africa, but nevertheless plans have been announced by Global Crossing, Lucent Technologies, and Africa One for an ambitious $1.9 billion project to link up the whole continent by 2002 through a high-speed underwater fiber optic cable, with interior countries connected through terrestrial cables, microwave, or satellite facilities, overcoming many of the current problems of the inadequate telephony infrastructure (Wired News, 2000). Given a high-speed backbone, and market liberalization of telecommunication services, African nations may also be able to ‘leapfrog’ stages of industrialization through new technology by investing in fully digitized telecommunications networks rather than outdated analog-based systems. Cellular telephony is rapidly expanding as an alternative to conventional network services; the number of subscribers in the OECD region reached almost one-quarter of the population in 1998 (OECD, 2000: p. 81). This growth has had even greater impact in the developing world. In postindustrial economies there were 20 times as many mobile phones in 1998 as there were in 1990, and in developing economies there were 160 times as many, an astonishing rise (World Bank 2000, p. 299). Over a third of all telephone subscribers in Cote d’Ivoire, Cambodia, and Paraguay, for instance, are now connected via mobiles, a far higher proportion than in the USA (International Telecommunications Union, 1999).
The Consequences for Democracy and Democratization
What will be the political consequences of changes in the traditional news media and the subsequent rise of the Internet? In many ways it remains far too early to say (for a detailed discussion, see Norris, 2001). The Internet has generated deeply contested alternative visions about the future. Luddites fear for the worse, but technophiles hope for the better.
The most positive perspective is held by cyber-optimists who emphasize the Panglossian possibilities of the Internet for the involvement of ordinary citizens in direct democracy. In its more utopian manifestations, this view has been dubbed ‘technoromanticism’ (Coyne, 1999), expressed in earlier eras in response to Samuel Morse’s electric telegraph, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, and Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless radio (see, e.g., Rhodes, 1999; Pursell, 1995; Lubar, 1993). In this account, digital technologies hold promise as a mechanism facilitating alternative channels of civic engagement such as political chatrooms, electronic voting in general elections and for referenda issues, and the mobilization of virtual communities, revitalizing levels of mass participation in public affairs (see Barber, 1998). The use of the Internet by groups and social movements is often believed to exemplify digital politics.
The more utopian visions of the Internet suggest a future society in which virtually unlimited qualities of information become available, civic society flourishes, government decision making becomes more open and transparent, and nation-state borders are eroded as people build virtual communities for work, learning, and leisure spanning traditional boundaries of time and place. Although still in its adolescence, the core transformative capacities of the Internet include its potential for radically shrinking communications and information costs, maximizing speed, broadening reach, and eradicating distance. Compared with radio, television, and newspapers, controlled by editors and broadcasters, the World Wide Web facilitates a virtually unlimited choice of information and communication one-to-one (e.g., via email), one-to-many (e.g., via a personal home page or electronic conference), many-to-one (e.g., via an electronic poll) and, perhaps most importantly, many-to-many (e.g., an online chatroom), with a minimal role for gatekeepers or government censors (see, e.g., Shapiro, 1999; Weare, 2000). Internet messages have the capacity to flow further, faster, and with fewer intermediaries.
As a result, many hope that recent developments, especially the spread of new information and communication technologies, will serve to undermine authoritarian regimes, creating a ‘dictators’ dilemma’ in countries like Burma, China, and Cuba (Drake et al.). Leaders in these nations want to facilitate economic development through the Internet and yet at the same time they seek to restrict political access. It is also believed that the Internet will have major consequences for electoral democracies, countries like Russia, Taiwan, and Mexico that are seeking to consolidate democratic political institutions.
Yet as the Internet evolves, a darker vision has been articulated among cyber-pessimists, who regard digital technology as a Pandora’s box unleashing new inequalities of power and wealth, reinforcing deeper divisions between the information rich and poor, the tuned-in and the tuned-out, the activists and the disengaged. This account stresses that the global and social divides already discussed mean that Internet politics will disproportionately benefit the elite (see, e.g., Golding, 1996, 1998, 2000). In this perspective, despite the potential for technological innovations, traditional interests and established authorities have the capacity to reassert their control in the virtual political sphere, just as traditional multinational corporations have the ability to reestablish their predominance in the world of e-commerce (see, e.g., McChesney, 1999: pp. 182–5). In this view, so far the potential of the Internet has failed to have a dramatic impact on the practical reality of ‘politics as usual,’ for good or ill, even in countries at the forefront of digital technologies (Margolis and Resnick, 2000). There are fears that continued inequalities in the spread of new technologies will exacerbate the traditional North–South divide evident in access to the traditional news media like newspapers, radio, and television. As such, while some developing countries may manage to leapfrog earlier technologies in the race towards the information society, other poorer societies may drop even further behind.
The debate between the cyber-optimists and pessimists continues and as the Internet continues to evolve over the first decade of the twenty-first century, then the impact of new technologies will become evident, whether for good (as some hope) or ill (as others fear). What is certainly clear is that political communications via the old world of newspapers and television is in the process of fundamental change and this process holds both threats and promises for the future of socioeconomic and political development.
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