Democracy can be defined simply as a system of governance in which citizens are vested with the power to choose their leaders through a democratic process. The rule of the majority is a dominant characteristic of a democracy. Citizens require information in order to make better decisions. The internet is one of the many sources of information available to individuals. The internet has been gaining prominence as a source of information due to its size, reach and usability (Joint, 2005). On face value, democracy and the internet seem to complement each other. This paper will examine this relationship and establish whether this observation realistic or overly simplistic.
Nisbet (2012) argues that the internet has great potential for dissemination of information. The technology allows users across the globe to share information on a wide range of issues. The social media which is a relatively new phenomenon has created a new platform on which subscribers express personal views on various social issues. Politics is one of the popular subjects on social media. Debates are often emotive and uninhibited. The political class has now included the internet and social media in their campaign strategy (Byars, 2010).
The information super highway promotes true democracy by eliminating prejudice on the basis of class, race or sex (Joint, 2005). This is because most opinions are presented in a text format. The online setting is also free of the control of censorship present with other media such as television, radio and newspapers. Since government has minimal control over the content or the level of access to its citizens, freedom of speech is possible. All political ideology is presented for both the targeted electorate and the rest of the world to see and form an opinion. Freedom of speech and expression are some of the freedoms vital to a healthy democracy. The internet allows freedom of speech to thrive.
Technology is empowering to those who wield control over it. In the past, those who could control broadcast and print media always influenced the electorate to vote for them. The biggest challenge of this media was the cost implications (Grill, 2011). Only the best-heeled politicians could afford to pay for hours of airtime and advertisements. The internet provides similar benefits but at a lower cost. This equalizes the political field further by leveling the playing field for less wealthy political parties.
More people are now able to access the internet since unlike in the past when only computers could be used, mobile devices are now enabled. The advent of smart phones has opened up a whole new world of high performance hand held devices. Blogs, political chat rooms and the social media are now pivotal in shaping the opinion of the electorate. Aspirants are using carefully designed campaign websites to communicate with their supporters, present their manifesto and refute opponent propaganda.
Online political portals such as Issues2000.com, USAdemocracy.com and vote-smart.org are available to discerning voters to update themselves on current political debates. These sites feature unbiased and non-partisan up to date issues and allows citizens to lend their voices to the ongoing debates. New technologies such as selectsmart.com tally voter opinion on key candidates’ opinions. These results can be used to make voting decisions.
A closer examination of the benefits of the internet reveals that its benefits to democracy are largely borrowed to its general benefits (Joint, 2005). Free access to information and freedom of speech are all possible on the internet. These freedoms are however created within self-selecting groups within the internet and especially in content specific forums. These groups often have little diversity and variety of opinions. This essentially limits democracy by propagating the same ideologies with the pretense of promoting freedom of speech. These forums curtail constructive dialogue by presenting existing viewpoints within static groupings.
The internet lacks the checks and balances that are very critical to a healthy democracy. The internet has created customized democracies in which individuals have created self-segregating opinions. These groupings just like the infamous Ku Klux Klan are capable of spreading a radically divisive ideology without government having the power to shut them down. This is because the World Wide Web is still taking shape. The web is barely a decade old. Most countries are in the process of creating laws to regulate it.
There is increasing concern that the internet has become a new market place. Marketers are making millions out of internet advertising and marketing (Nisbet, 2012). Popular sites are the cash cow of this new breed of business moguls. It is therefore possible that ambitious marketers could stir unnecessary controversy on the web just to increase user traffic. The heated debates witnessed on many political sites could easily be staged for business purposes. This is an unfortunate reality that needs to be prevented.
Democracy thrives in an environment that promotes freedom of speech and free dissemination of information. It also requires careful regulation to prevent the spread of inflammatory messages. The internet is a new medium of communication with immense potential. It promotes democracy by creating a global platform for sharing a wide range of opinions. Unfortunately, the internet has also been turned into a commercial venture with minimal legal regulation. For the internet have a positive influence on democracy, there needs to be more regulation on the content and the use of the World Wide Web.
Byars, N. (2010). The Prospect of Internet Democracy. Journalism and Mass
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Grill, H. (2011). Does Social Media Technology Promote Democracy? New Presence:
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Joint, N. (2005). Democracy, e-Literacy, and the internet. Library Review, 54(2): 80 – 85
Retrieved from http://www.emeraldinsight.com/journals.htm?articleid=1463494&
Nisbet, A. (2012). Internet Use and Democratic Demands: A Multinational, Multilevel
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