By Philip N. Howard
Philip N. Howard is associate professor in the Department of Communication and affiliate professor, Jackson School of International Studies, at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. He is the author of New Media Campaigns and the Managed Citizen (2006) and The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, which will be published in 2010 by Oxford University Press.
Digital media and social networking supply citizens and civil society institutions with tools for communication and mobilization. They provide arenas where individuals can offer opinions and express dissent and thus strengthen trends toward political democracy.
New information technologies are profoundly reshaping political culture. Twenty-first–century civil society relies upon the Internet and other communication devices for its infrastructure, and for a digital “safe harbor” in which civic conversations can incubate. This is especially true in countries where the national print and broadcast media are heavily censored. In short, technology has empowered new and vital means of political communication and acclimated citizens to democratic thought and action.
Civil society is often defined as the self-generating and self-supporting community of people who share core values and voluntarily organize political, economic, or cultural activities independent of the state. Civil society groups come in many sizes, from Amnesty International to neighborhood bowling leagues in the United States and the online communities around the world.
Civic groups are especially important during election season because they represent diverse perspectives and disseminate them widely through communications media. The breadth of expressed views assures citizens that in a democracy no one group can claim to represent all of society. Instead, a multitude of groups contributes to the defining of national goals and the shaping of policies.
Creating Virtual Communities
Civil society groups use the Internet as a logistical tool for organization and communication. The Web affords them an information infrastructure independent of the state, one in which social movements can grow. For example, Tunisian citizens monitoring state corruption organized themselves to create YouTube videos of the Tunisian president’s wife using the state plane for shopping trips to Milan and Paris. The Internet thus has altered the dynamics of political communication in many countries. There, cyberspace is the forum where civil society challenges the state. In some nations, it is where secularism and Islamism compete, in others the forum for political disputes of every stripe.
After an election, the virtual communities that have taken root are almost always independent of state control, though they can be monitored and sometimes manipulated by the state. While political elites do start some virtual communities in an effort to control online conversation, these typically are not successful. In countries like Australia, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, these are sometimes called “Astroturf” movements. They are artificial, rarely take root, and tend not to last long after voting day.
What do last are the more genuine ties forged between a nation’s civic groups, and between international nongovernmental organizations and like-minded in-country associations. These virtual communities are particularly prominent in countries where state and social elites harshly police offline communities. In nations where covert political opposition is restricted, cyberspace emerges as a substitute forum. Even online bulletin boards and chat rooms dedicated to shopping for brand-name watches become sites that practice free speech and where the defense of free speech supplants timepieces as a topic of conversation. The Internet allows opposition movements based outside an authoritarian-ruled country to reach into and become part of the political communication system. Banning political parties simply means that formal political opposition is organized online, from outside the country. It also means that civil society leaders turn to the other organizational forms that network technologies afford.
Aiding Civic Engagement
Malaysia, Indonesia, and Turkey all recently held elections and, according to most observers, the elections went well. Digital media played a role in political campaigning, and democracy seems stronger for it. Despite these countries’ diverse histories, political culture across all three has taken on similar features:
• Citizens have increased international content in their news diets.
• Family and friends employ Twitter, Facebook, and Orkut networks in their communications, independent of direct state control.
• Civil society actors have flourished online — even when the state has cracked down domestically.
• Women are drawn into cyberspace discourse in ways not always available in “real” space.
Identity politics — particularly for cohorts of urban, technologically savvy youth — are digitally mediated. From Palestinians to Greeks, Armenians to Hmong, young Internet users learn much about their culture and politics in their diaspora. These new forms of political communication contributed to largely positive election campaigns. Even rigorously Islamist parties needed to moderate their message and employ new information technologies to attract and motivate voters.
Twitter, blogs, or YouTube do not cause social unrest. But today, it is difficult to imagine successful social movement organizing and civic engagement without them, even in countries like Iran and Egypt. Many people in these countries have no Internet or mobile phone access. But those who do — urban dwellers, educated elites, and the young — are precisely the population that enables regime change or tacitly supports an electoral outcome. These are the citizens who support or defect from authoritarian rule, and these are the people whose connections to family and friends have demonstrably changed with the diffusion of new communications technologies.
When an election is over, new media habits remain. Elections have become sensitive moments in which student leaders, journalists, and civil society groups experiment with digital technologies. Even if their preferred candidates are not elected, the process of experimentation is important because, by using digital media, citizens construct an information infrastructure that is largely independent of the state. Digital media leave a lasting imprint on civil society, one that continues after elections. The Internet allows youth to learn, for instance, about life in countries where faith and freedom coexist. Over time, more citizens are learning to use the Internet, developing their online search skills, and becoming more sophisticated in how they obtain, evaluate, and use information.
Strengthening Civil Society
Pundits are right to point out that the Internet also is used to support terrorist networks. They note that some ruling elites seek — by censoring new media — to achieve more sophisticated means of social control. But there is more to the story than what is sometimes called “e-jihad,” “terrorism online,” “cyberwar,” and “digital fatwas.” Over time, social media’s role in strengthening civil society will likely prove its most lasting contribution to political culture.
During politically sensitive moments like elections or political or military crises, tools such as mobile phones and the Internet enhance political communication in three ways:
• First, technology users display unusually strong norms of trust and reciprocity in times of crisis. They are likely to share images, help each other stay in touch with family and friends, and help outsiders by supplying information on the ground.
• Second, civil society groups often copy each other’s digital campaign strategies. In part this is because democratic activists will travel from country to country and help local groups during elections. But elections also are an opportunity for groups to learn about each other’s strategies for getting ideas out to the public.
• Third, elections are opportunities to debate all kinds of public issues, including the role of new communication technologies. Questions about technology standards — such as public spectrum allocation, government censorship, and digital access — become topics of discussion. The public may insist that political candidates explain their plans for promoting technology use and for closing the digital divide between technology haves and have-nots.
Statistical modeling of Malaysia’s recent legislative elections shows that challenger candidates who blogged were more likely to defeat incumbents who did not. And opposition party candidates who blogged were more likely to defeat government candidates who did not. Today, it is hard for a political candidate to seem “modern” without a digital campaign strategy.
Information infrastructure is politics. In many nations, it also is far more participatory than the prevailing traditional political culture. As a result, the new technology-based politics democratizes the old, elite-driven arrangements. Every time a citizen documents a human rights abuse with her mobile phone, uses a shared spreadsheet to track state expenditures, or pools information about official corruption, she strengthens civil society and strikes a blow for democracy. Digital media’s most lasting impact may be that it acclimates citizens both to consuming and to producing political content.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. government.