Can The Internet Strengthen Democracy? by Stephen Coleman

The Blurb On The Back:

From its inception as a public communication network, the Internet was regarded by many people as a potential means of escaping from the stranglehold of top-down, stage-managed politics.  If hundreds of millions of people could be the producers as well as the receivers of political messages, could that invigorate democracy?  If political elites fail to respond to such energy, where will it leave them?

In this book, renowned scholar of political communication Stephen Coleman argues that the best way to strengthen democracy is to reinvent it for the twenty-first century.  Governments and global institutions have failed to seize the opportunity to democratize their ways of operating, but online citizens are ahead of them, developing practices that could revolutionize the exercise of political power. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Stephen Coleman is a Professor of Political Communication at Leeds University and in this essay he examines the role that the Internet should play in democracy by reducing barriers to increase public understanding and participation and improve collective action without falling into the populism trap.  In doing this he examines attempts made by the British Parliament to open up proceedings and the need for digital representation and the use of the Internet to coordinate political protest and makes the interesting point that while the Internet may bring people together it doesn’t necessarily translate into policy outputs and usually arises as a result of a crisis or event needing a radical reaction.

The strongest chapter analyses what’s gone wrong with democracy and the disconnect between the political elite and the ordinary voters, which provides a useful and comprehensive summary of how ordinary people feel disenfranchised from the political system such that a top-down political system dominated by party politics is becoming unsustainable.  Also interesting is the section drawing comparisons between the Internet and the introduction and rise of television and the way in which it affected the political process to turn the media into an inquisitor rather than a passive audience.

Coleman concludes by offering up four areas where democratic capability can be built up with a view to making people consider what people need in order to participate more effectively in the political system:

  1. being able to makes sense of the political world – this is accomplished by slowing down the speed of information distributed so as to give people time to consider and react to it;
  2. being open to argumentative exchange – this involves exposing people to cross-cutting public discussion in order to come to a more informed opinion;
  3. being recognised as someone who counts – this is posited as involving direct representation and reconfiguring politics into incorporating local issues and competing values and experiences;
  4. being able to make a difference – this is tied in with the disenfranchisement that lead many people to vote for populist politicians as a rejection of conventional representative democracy.

Coleman makes many interesting points in this book and draws on a variety of sources but he writes in a heavily academic way that uses a lot of political jargon and I found that difficult to follow at times while I also don’t think he takes on board the extent to which people use the Internet to reinforce their own opinions or the ability of political interest groups to manipulate social media to persuade people to support their views.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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