Books and Arts

Nature 458, 409-410 (26 March 2009) | doi:10.1038/458409a; Published online 25 March 2009

New technologies, same old politics

Richard Allan

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Election campaigns are increasingly being staged online, but digital innovation has brought few new voices into the political debate, explains former parliamentarian Richard Allan.

BOOK REVIEWEDThe Myth of Digital Democracy

by Matthew Hindman

Princeton University Press: 2008. 198 pp. $22.95, £16.50

New technologies, same old politics

J. MOORE/GETTY

The Internet opens up avenues for campaigning, but traditional media sources dominate.

Both utopian and dystopian interpretations have been made of the Internet's influence on many spheres of life — and democracy is no exception. Commentators have credited the technology with the power to do everything from destroying representative democracy as we know it, to ushering in a golden age of citizen engagement. Absent from much of this debate is evidence-based analysis of the effects of the Internet on the business of politics. Many theories have been built on nothing more than anecdote, inference and assertion.

In The Myth of Digital Democracy, political scientist Matthew Hindman fills important gaps in the evidence base, and does so accessibly. The title might suggest that he argues that the Internet has little influence on politics, but his analysis is much richer than a simple contradiction of the utopian end of the spectrum. Hindman addresses two key questions about digital democracy: what does the Internet do to the day-to-day business of politics, and how does it affect the distribution of powerful political voices?

Digital technologies are changing the business of politics by opening up new avenues for fundraising and communications, and thus altering the infrastructure of political campaigns. Websites allow money to be raised from a broader support base; e-mail and social-networking techniques can be used to organize people around campaign activities. Hindman draws his evidence largely from Howard Dean's high-profile use of the Internet in his attempt to secure the US Democratic Party's nomination for presidential candidate in 2004. Analysis of Barack Obama's recent campaign is included, although the campaign was just getting under way when the book was being written.

Today, digital campaigning is considered effective and essential for any political party's success. This is a far cry from the early 'brochureware' days, when a candidate would derive more electoral value from the traditional media coverage of their website launch than from anything they did online. Although political campaigns still depend on the 'high-street' model of traditional media and local infrastructure, evidence confirms that digital technology is useful in supporting this.

Hindman observes, from both the Dean and Obama campaigns, that online activities may be even more significant in a US presidential election than in others because of the primary system. During the early stages of a primary battle, the candidates do not have access to the party's high-street infrastructure and so depend more on digital techniques. Online fundraising, endorsement videos and social-media supporter networks can create a sense of momentum that will in turn be reported in more traditional media.

Most of Hindman's book is directed towards the second, more significant, question of whether digital technologies change the balance of powerful political voices. There is much interest in whether the Internet can empower groups, such as younger people, who are seen as disengaged from the traditional political process. Hindman's answer is in line with the 'myth' of his book title: political voices remain heavily filtered and concentrated on the Internet.

Using data from automated tools that analyse links between websites, Hindman demonstrates that search engines have a powerful effect in concentrating the sites that people visit to find political information. This is because a small number of sites consistently rise to the top of search lists because they have many links from other sites, and incoming links are used to assign priority by search algorithms. Political influence will be strongest in this handful of heavily linked websites, many of which belong to traditional media organizations. These will therefore continue to be of most interest to politicians.

Website traffic analysis by the company Hitwise reveals that few people visit specialized political sites, indicating that these are less significant than mainstream news sites. Hindman then looks at blogs, showing that a small number of new players with influential political voices have entered the media space. But these are very few; the majority of bloggers have little influence and the successful ones are less diverse than might be assumed.

The book does not address all the potential democratic applications for digital technology, such as viral e-mail marketing and social networking, which are being looked at by other scholars. In each case we need to avoid being dazzled by digital 'magic' and analyse, as Hindman does, whether innovation is really leading to qualitative changes in the political process.

The Internet has already become embedded in politics in a number of countries: in Estonia, for instance, there is a major online component to the whole democratic process, including voting. Many smaller political organizations, including some on the extremist fringes, are innovating with digital technologies to build campaigns quickly and cheaply. Yet presidential elections in the United States continue to be major landmarks in this area because of their vast campaign budgets, global media attention and the availability of cutting-edge expertise donated by employees of the major US-based Internet companies.

Political parties everywhere have great interest in digital campaigns, especially on the back of Obama's success; it is now recognized that online activity has moved from an optional extra to an essential element of campaigning. These campaigns may bring different supporters, donors and activists into the political process. We would be right, however, to follow the considered approach of this book in not assuming that enhanced automation of campaigns will effect significant changes in political power. Based on current evidence, any claims that we are reaching a digitally powered democratic Utopia are indeed more myth than reality.

  1. Richard Allan is director of global policy and government affairs at Cisco Europe, 9–11 New Square, Bedfont Lakes, Feltham, Middlesex TW14 8HA, UK, and was the Member of Parliament for Sheffield Hallam, UK, from 1997 to 2005.
    Email: ricallan@cisco.com