Quick round up of The Myth of Digital Democracy

This post is a Dave Briggs appreciation post for two reasons – one is that I promised him I would read and blog about this book and I am a woman of my word and the other is that its thanks to him that I read it on my shiny new Kindle. I am a self-confessed gadget fiend but was hesitating about the Kindle as I am hoping Father Christmas brings me an iPad and having both seemed profligate even for the most techno lust driven individual. However Dave was quite right when he told me that the two things hold different places in your life and that the Kindle is brilliant for the kind of ‘deep reading’ the PHD is requiring where I am trying not to be distracted by the myriad possibilities of the internet. After 2 years using the Sony eReader the best thing is the excellence of the notes and highlights feature as well as the software interface – though the ease of purchase with the Amazon integration has meant this is in the same category as eBay and twitter in terms of best avoided after a couple of glasses of wine (this was valuable learning after I nearly ended up owning a canoe – but that’s another story). So – Dave – right as ever – thank you – and does anyone want a second hand Sony eReader??

But back to the book – The Myth of Digital Democracy by Mathew Hindman – published in 2008.

The myth in question which is central to idea of the internet as a tool for democratic renewal:

“Most talk about Internet-fueled democratization has been quite specific about the political changes that the Internet ostensibly promotes. In these accounts, the Internet is redistributing political influence; it is broadening the public sphere, increasing political participation, involving citizens in political activities that were previously closed to them, and challenging the monopoly of traditional elites. This second definition of democratization presumes first and foremost that the technology will amplify the political voice of ordinary citizens.”

Hindman is looking to examine this underpinning belief that the internet is of necessity a democratising force in the world. He goes on to talk about the fact that this belief is also connected to an evolution of our democracy from a representative to a deliberative one.

“Political philosophers have also worked in recent years to expand the notion of political voice, with a torrent of scholarship on what has come to be called deliberative democracy. Much of the initial credit for refocusing scholarly attention goes to Jurgen Habermas (1981, 1996); yet what John Dryzek (2(X)2) terms the “deliberative turn” in political thought now includes numerous prominent scholars (Rawls 1995; Cohen 1989; Nino 1998)”

Going on to say:

“Despite their differences, these deliberative democrats all agree that democracy should be more than just a process for bargaining and the aggregation of preferences. All suggest that true participation requires citizens to engage in direct discussion with other citizens. The Internet’s political impacts have often been viewed through the lens that deliberative democrats have provided. The hope has been that the Internet would expand the public sphere, broadening both the range of ideas discussed and the number of citizens allowed to participate.”

So the specific claim here is that the Internet is increasing the volume of citizens talking to each other – which is a vital democratic activity (particularly if they are talking to the people they disagree with). However the myth busting starts here with the thought that:

“Using longitudinal data, M. Kent Jennings and Vicki Zeitner (2003) found that Internet use had little effect on civic engagement. Pippa Norris argued that the Internet “probably has had the least impact on changing the motivational basis for political activism” (2(x)1, 22). Markus Prior (2007) found divergent effects depending on one’s political engagement: Internet use increased political knowledge among citizens already interested in politics, but had the opposite effect among the previously apathetic. Bruce Bimber similarly concludes that despite some organizational innovations, “it does not appear, at least so far, that new technology leads to higher aggregate levels of political participation” (2003a, 5)”

However this was all a bit of a smokescreen as what Hindman really wants to pursue is not whether the internet is achieving a new form of democratic utopia but whether it is competing effectively with pre-existing media forms. And this is where I first disagree with him – I think this is an attempt to find a solid place to stand in a constantly shifting environment – which is fair enough – but I don’t think you can talk about the media without also talking about the pressures that the network society puts upon the media – for example look at Castells analysis of media ownership and the effect on political discourse.

“But as Yochai Benkler observes, “We need to consider the attractiveness of the networked public sphere not from the perspective of the mid-1990s utopianism, but from the perspective of how it compares to the actual media that have dominated the public sphere in all modern democracies” (2006, 260)”

And this is where Hindman gets to the meat of his argument which is an examination of how political activists, in particular bloggers, interact online through a thorough examination of the links and influence of these people – and his conclusion is that the internet is an amplifying rather than expansive environment and that “The link topology of the Web suggests that the online public sphere is less open than many have hoped or feared.” – he is talking about the emergence of a new elite.

“For political scientists, the demographics of Web users have seemed consistent with a familiar and disturbing pattern. In Voice and Equality, for example, Verba, Schlozman, and Brady (1995) argue that differences in political resources result in a systematic distortion in the perceived preferences of the public, and that this distortion favors traditionally privileged groups and those with conservative views. If the Internet is itself an important political resource-a powerful tool for political organizing, fund-raising, and information gathering-placing the new medium disproportionately in the hands of advantaged groups might perpetuate or even exacerbate a conservative bias in U.S. politics. Yet survey data seem to tell dominate the audience for politics online.”

He takes this link analysis and comes up with the fabulously named theory of ‘googlearchy’

“Taken together, the insights in this chapter add up to a new theory that my collaborators and I call Googlearchy: the rule of the most heavily linked. Building on previous research and the data referenced above, this theory offers several claims. First, Googlearchy suggests that the number of links pointing to a site is the most important determinant of site visibility. Sites with lots of inbound links should be easy to find; sites with few inlinks should require more time and more skill to discover. All else being equal, sites with more links should receive more traffic. Second, Googlearchy indicates that niche dominance should be a general rule of online life. For every clearly defined group of Web sites, a small portion of the group should receive most of the links and most of the traffic. Communities, subcommunities, and sub-subcommunities may differ in their levels of concentration; yet overall, online communities should display a Russian-nesting-doll structure, dominated at every level by winners-take-all patterns. Third, Googlearchy suggests that this dependence on links should make niche dominance self-perpetuating. Heavily linked sites should continue to attract more links, more eyeballs, and more resources with which to improve the site content, while sites with few links remain ignored.”

He really sums this up by saying:

“Yes, almost anyone can put up a political Web site, but this fact matters little if few political sites receive many visitors. In the areas this chapter examines, putting up a political Web site is usually equivalent to hosting a talk show on public access television at 3:30 in the morning.”

Now I have some concerns with the idea that link analysis gives a good analysis of influence – but that’s another matter. The real issue is that once again he is embedded in the idea that the potential of the internet is its potential to challenge traditional media – he is putting an old world analysis on the new world order. And here is more of it:

“Discussions of the online public sphere have imagined that political blogs, advocacy organizations, and other noncommercial outlets would challenge the monopoly that commercial media have had on public discourse. Judging by traffic, this challenge does not seem to be especially strong. News and media sites still receive thirty times as many visits as political Web sites do. That level of readership is large by the standards of traditional opinion journals, such as the Nation, the New Republic, or the National Review, all of which are minor print publications. Yet political sites remain a small niche amid the larger Web.”

My fundamental objection to what he is putting forward is his narrow definition of political and the lack of inclusion of civic participation – the kind of hyperlocal activism which happens below the radar of the mainstream media in many cases but has the potential to have far greater impact on our political landscape – his is an analysis which is really describing the conditions of democratic defict – which is useful – but does not look beyond a political analysis to bring a social analysis to bear.

However its extremely useful to look at his analysis in terms of the digital divide and where new forms of activisim are rubbing up against the old elites:

“Yet perhaps the most striking characteristic of this group is its educational attainment. Of the top ten blogs, eight are run by people who have attended an elite institution of higher education-either an Ivy League school, or a school of similar caliber like Caltech, Stanford University, or the University of Chicago. Seven of the top ten are run by someone with a JD or a PhD-and one of the exceptions, Cox, did graduate work at Berkeley and worked as an editor at the Chronicle of’Higher Education. At least three of the ten bloggers-Marshall, Reynolds, and Drum-are the children of academics. All of this raises the question, How different are bloggers from what many bloggers derisively term the “elite media””

“The culture of blogging may somewhat ameliorate the elitism inherent in having blog readership focused on a few bloggers who are unrepresentative of the general public. Still, there are limits to what the openness of blogging culture can accomplish. The top bloggers may read more blogs than the average citizen, but their reading habits are likely also skewed toward popular blogs. It is one thing if the top ten bloggers, who serve as filters for the rest of the blogosphere, come from relatively elite backgrounds. But what of the second- and third-tier bloggers? If we are to take seriously the trickle up theory of online debate, we need to know who these ideas are trickling up from. We need systematic knowledge about a broader swath of the blogging community.”

And this is pithy reminder of Virginia Woolf’s point about a room of ones own:

“In the blogosphere, as in the Athenian agora, those who devote themselves to public debates are those with social autonomy.”

and he is spot on when he says:

“These findings raise the question of what, exactly, the phrase elite media means. These top bloggers have educational backgrounds that exceed those of professional columnists. The readership of the top blogs rivals the nation’s top op-ed pages. Moreover, the blogosphere has succeeded in re-creating some of the traditional punditocracy’s most worrisome elitist characteristics. One of these is a dearth of gender and ethnic diversity.”

I think my concern is that his argument is skewed towards the idea that politcal blogs are the point of entry for greater democratic participation online and I just don’t think this is the case – I think people are becoming civically engaged before they are becoming politically engaged and that that’s the big change here – hence my desire to catagorise and measure this in the PHD. Hindman talking about a ‘missing middle’ of the public sphere – I think that can be found in hyperlocal or campaign focused civic activism.

But he does highlight one big danger of political activism online being dominated by the highly articulate and educated bloggers:

“But if online debate has not achieved “true” deliberation, it has given new urgency to the fears of deliberative democracy’s skeptics. Lynn Sanders argues that deliberative democracy fails because “some citizens are better than others at articulating their views in rational, reasonable terms”, those whose voices go unheard “are likely to be those who are already underrepresented in formal political institutions and who are systematically materially disadvantaged, namely women; racial minorities, especially Blacks; and poorer people” (1997; 348, 349) Peter Berkowitz (1996) concludes that deliberation empowers an even narrower set of citizens: Since it shifts power from the people to the best deliberators among them, deliberative democracy… appears to be in effect an aristocracy of intellectuals. In practice, power is likely to flow to the deans and directors, the professors and pundits, and all those who, by virtue of advanced education, quickness of thought, and fluency of speech can persuade others of their prowess in the high deliberative arts. Something very much like Berkowitz’s vision has already taken hold online. The online public sphere is already a de facto aristocracy dominated by those skilled in the high deliberative arts.”


This is a really useful piece of work in that its a serious examination of one important element of political engagement online and it has some really useful facts on the dangers of elitism and a strengthening of the problems and weaknesses of our current democratic environment – the one that has delivered us a massive democratic deficit.

However – by failing to expand the scope to look at other forms of participation beyond blogging and by keeping such a narrow definition of political activism to exclude campaigning and civic involvement the book ultimately falls down for me in its analysis of the potential of digital democracy.

  1. Ella

    November 12, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    Plus the Internet can increase less participative enablers for democracy like transparency…

    • curiouscatherine

      November 12, 2010 at 3:03 pm

      Exactly – the whole focus of the book is just too narrow – though at least it was a detailed analysis


  2. Paul Johnston

    November 12, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    Hard to keep up with all your writing! I agree with you that this book gives itself too easy a target. My non-evidence-based view is that there is huge potential for the Internet getting lots more people politically and civically involved and some great illustrations of how this might happen, but it is too soon to say that people are dramatically more involved than they were in, say, the 1970’s. However, it would certainly be interesting to see data that tried to calibrate any change that has already happened.

    • curiouscatherine

      November 12, 2010 at 3:02 pm

      Its all right – we’re off home today and back to work on monday so normal pace of writing will resume with weekly posts!!

      And I agree with you – it is too soon but the speed of change means we are getting bad at capturing learning on the way – at least this analysis was a proper look at one thing – so in some ways I think I have judged it harshly – but the fact is that I just don’t see how you can run this kind of analysis without looking at Network society issues


  3. Peter Cruickshank

    November 13, 2010 at 11:18 am

    A well timed post – it’s inspiring me as I take part in today’s political innovation sessions surrounded by a lot of, male, middle class, professional bloggers.

    And I’d love to hear more about your Kindle experiences – are you finding that the books you want to read are availble? Or are you using it as a PDF reader?

    • curiouscatherine

      November 14, 2010 at 6:16 pm

      Hi Peter – glad you liked it!

      Am using the kindle for books & PDFs. Fiction availability is excellent but the more academic stuff is still patchy – though the notetaking / highlighting functionality makes it really useful when you can get the books. PDFs are mainly good – and I like the way you can email them to yourself so its really easy to add content. There are some formating issues which mean that its doesn’t deal well with PDFs that are in a two column format for example.

      Other issue for the PDFs is that you don’t get neat notes from them – instead to get a scrappy RTF that you need to sort out to use – but still quicker than retyping them! Am assuming that this will be improved at some point.

      All in all – am delighted!!


      PS Just got the wifi version – didn’t see the point of 3G for me

  4. Andy Williamson

    November 16, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    Yep, nicely summarised. I came to much the same conclusion. The book is useful but his argument is weakened by some (in my opinion) poor assumptions. I was particularly struck by the point you highlight – who said that blogs are a tool for democratic participation? Helllooooo? Not really are they…. they are self-evidenced elitist attempts by people on the political outside to position themselves to become people on the political inside (do I need to run through a UK list?!?). The audience is clear! There’s a clear chasm too between the political classes and the real world, a massive gap that won’t be filled by blogs and blogging but that doesn’t then mean that the internet isn’t a tool for demcoratic re-engagement… it just means that blogs aren’t the tool for it. I knew that.

    Anyway… thanks for finding the time to put these thoughts up 😉 Andy

  5. Tom Phillips

    November 16, 2010 at 9:06 pm

    Echo the comment about running to keep up with you, Catherine!

    One thing strikes me, and that is that almost any book about the internet, and any demographics connected with it, are out of date the moment they are despatched to the printers. I think, just from personal and anecdotal experience, that this becoming more true at an exponential rate. Thus, I’m a bit wary of comments about poor penetration of electronic engagement etc taken from studies as long ago as 2003, though it sounds strange saying it!

    My belief is that in an otherwise stable world, views would be different now, with rampant use of social media etc, just for starters. However, I also see some more subtle changes, not so much for the better. These include a growing interest in “consultation” as a tool rather more for support than for illumination (a la drunk and lamppost old joke), and a tendency to divorce engagement from consultation.

    I am also still stuggling to understand why blogging from inside the political stockade is so slow to take off? Lack of empowerement of backbenchers? Too many fears of being seen as “off message”? Unwillingness to stick head up above parapet?

    Btw, recent v long blog was a tour de force. Still absorbing.

    Tom (from my iPad, which i love dearly)


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