The Promise and Peril of Internet Democracy

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Tikkun on 1 January 2004

There’s perhaps nothing more irksome to progressive-minded Americans than the current administration’s contention that it represents a revival of our nation’s populist civic tradition–especially when the nght-wing’s popularity seems more orchestrated by radio hosts armed with talking points supplied by Republican thmk tanks than energized by any genuine groundswell of public opinion. Yet the Left’s exploitation of the Internet and other apparently more citizen-driven media networks may prove no more authentic, and–in the wake of Howard Dean’s waning candidacy–entirely less effective than we previously had hoped.

Still, the promise of a properly orchestrated bottom-up media campaign is so tremendous, and the downside of its mishandling so very perilous for the future of participatory democracy, that it behooves us to take an honest look at the current state of Internet-enabled democracy.

Until very recently, Internet democracy meant worthless email petitions or thinly veiled polling operations like Dick Morris’s Reducing the democratic process to binary consumer choice (Should the US support Israel? Click Yes or No!), these early efforts seemed to prove that the Internet would push decision-making even further down toward mindless, impulsive reactions. Rather than soliciting opinions or, better, creating forums for the development of new ideas, affiliations, and activism, the creators of these sites used them to help their paying clients glean the same sorts of information they were getting from telephone polls and quantitative analysis.

Under the guise of promoting democracy, most early “electronic democracy” sites were actively thwarting it. By early 2000, and thanks, in part, to the misuse of the Internet, the transformation of the informed citizen to mindless consumer seemed nearly complete, as marketing and public relations replaced the feedback mechanisms that founding fathers built into representative democracy.

But over the last couple of years, a new sort of Internet seemed to be emerging from beneath the ashes of the bust. Unable to get their voices heard or even find their sensibilities represented in the mainstream media, many, mostly younger, media-savvy people from around the world began to use the Internet in the manner for which it was intended: to share ideas and to network across formerly impenetrable boundaries. Activists publishing their own daily political commentary on websites called “blogs” forced issues that the mainstream media refused to pursue, such as Trent Lott’s racist gaffs, or the government’s obscenely misrepresented environmental policies. WTO protestors also started using the Internet to organize across ideological barriers that confounded the mainstream media. In an effort to bring some of this Internet enthusiasm into the real world, a site called “” was launched that allowed people with common interests to schedule meetings in their neighborhoods.

By simply inviting the disenfranchised majority of America to participate directly in his campaign through the Internet and Meetup gatherings, Dean gave his supporters a terrific gift: one another. Within a month, there were thousands of self-organized groups meeting around the country to talk about what kind of president they wanted, and how to get the man they presumed to be this candidate elected.

But therein lies the rub: the bottom-up gatherings around the country may have had more to do with our need, as members of a purportedly democratic society, to self-organize than they did with Howard Dean.

As far as his Internet organizers were concerned, Dean was a relatively blank screen onto whom they could project their collective agenda. But as he began to dominate the mainstream press, he proved to be a different man: pro-NAFTA, pro-gun, fiscally conservative, and somewhat bull-headed. His Internet activist constituency remained faithful, but it was becoming clear that, to their candidate, they were simply a means to an end.

The Dean campaign may ultimately disillusion yet another generation of potential activists about the power of interactive media, and confirm the futility of trying to make a difference. But this would be a shame. For the Dean campaign did reveal our appetite and aptitude for organizing online, meeting up in real life, and taking the political process into our own hands. In order to be successful, however, this process should generate new leaders of its own–leaders who are the culmination of movements, rather than those who simply take advantage of them.