The effect of the Internet on Politics

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The content for this post has largely come from an earlier essay I wrote for ANTH2128 (for more information about the course, look at About the Project).

The best case study I have for the way in which the internet affects politics is the recent 2010 Australian Federal Election. It is the best example because it is very recent, it only happened a couple of months ago and, as an Australian, I was in Australia at the time. I think that what this case shows is that it can actually assist the workings of democracy and neoliberalism. But, as I will explain, only to a point.

In my original essay, I argued that the internet creates different kinds of relationships in that, we can interact with people that we would have otherwise never have been able to interact with. We can join discussion groups with or follow blogs or twitter pages of complete strangers. Alternatively, we can follow people who are quite important and famous and interact with them on Twitter. For instance, one of the people I follow on Twitter is ABC journalist, Leigh Sales! In Australia, the Greens party has been particularly responsive to twittering – they actually use the form quite actively. Additionally, in the lead up to the 2010 Australian election, the voting public were able to comment on political debates a

s they happened. Television networks aired Twitter comments regarding debates at the bottom of the screen, as the debates happened. Ordinary people were able to forge relationships with television networks to share their opinion and directly comment on policy in a public manner that demands the attention of politicians and their policy makers. Even those Twitter comments which were not aired were still accessible to the general public, meaning that individuals could form conversations from people around the country, and to some extent, the world.

As the election was happening, I was a very active twitterer. On TV Kerry O’Brien and other ABC journalists were telling me all the latest results and I was instantaneously commenting on them. Same thing happens with television political debates (in TV shows such as ABC’s Q&A or SBS’s Insight). I don’t have an

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assured newspaper column or television or radio editorial everyday, but if I wanted to, I could spend my whole day writing about politics on the internet and they’d be out there for everyone to see. This is true freedom of speech and true democracy at work!

But, there are limits to this. I have about 4 followers on Twitter. I think some of them are spam bots. There isn’t much

following going on for me. My opinions are not widely read. So, even on the internet, a free form, there are hierarchies. Not everyone is equal here, not every opinion will be read. So, it can hardly be said to be a perfect democracy, can it? Still, it may be fairly neoliberal, assuming that the best opinions are the ones most widely read (or, more cynically, the opinions with the most money backing them are the most widely read).

It’s difficult to tell how much internet and its presence in the lead up to the election actually played on the results. However, the results were certainly quite different to normal. I’m not one to speculate on this issue, especially since I know that the kinds of blogs I read are biased towards political opinions I already have. I think dissatisfaction with the two major parties, leading to a hung parliament may well be a separate issue to the place of the internet in politics, even though this dissatisfaction was clearly highlighted by a number of people. Assuming that it isn’t though (a poor assumption, I think), a higher vote for the Greens seems to suggest a turn away from neoliberal policies and toward greater amounts of social progression and government intervention in the market.

If you are interested, some of the papers I read to understand the internet and its social effects were:

Phillip E Agre (2002) “Real-Time Politics” in The Information Society, Samuel M. Wilson & Leighton C. Peterson (2002) “The Anthropology of Online Communities” in Annual Review of Anthropology and Paul DiMaggio, Eszter Hargittai, W. Russell Neuman & John P. Robinson (2001) “Social Implications of the Internet” in Annual Review of Sociology.

3 Responses

  1. […] there is relatively little government intervention, a perfect market is very important to achieve) it also helps political debates and makes it so more people can be a part of them. Lastly, it clearly and obviously supports the […]

  2. You suggested that the discrepancy in number of followers could be due to them being better writers (democratic) or have more money behind them (cynic/capitalist?).

    I would suggest a third option – these people (often journalists, politicians and people ‘in the know’) could have more followers based on some sort of reputation. It’s not that their comments are necessarily better or they have more funding, but perhaps they are just more trusted than some faceless and often nameless Tweeter (what is the correct term for a person who uses Twitter?).

  3. That’s a good point, Lindon. I’m sure there are many great commentators out there who don’t have many followers, just because their face (or name) isn’t already well known or doesn’t have corporate/political/media backing.

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