How can people use digital technology to change politics? Starting from within political institutions and moving outward, people can use technology to change politics in the following four ways:
This is e-government – people inside government using technology to change government, usually to make it more efficient, but occasionally to make it more accountable and democratic. On the efficiency side you have e-filing of income taxes and clearinghouse sites like USA.gov. On the accountability and democracy side you have Recovery.gov and Data.gov, efforts to give people the information they need to hold government to account.
An interesting sub-group of insiders are those who use digital technology not only as a means of government reform, but as a model for how government should function. This is the idea of “government as a platform” or Government 2.0. As a recent post on O’Reilly Radar put it, “Gov 2.0 is about a transformation process involving innovation for transparency, collaboration, and/or participation,” it “does not exist in a government vacuum…. To the extent that it serves or interacts with citizens, those citizens serve as an operating environment for government.”
The country that is trying this Government 2.0 approach most seriously is Great Britain, where thePrime Minister David Cameron’sBig Society program is cutting back on social services and asking citizens to step in and co-create British society. Practically, this means collaborative budgeting and unfunded local initiatives like people building a bike path in their village. A recent New Yorker article said of the Big Society, “This is Wikipedia government, collectively created by the impassioned, the invested, and the bored.” Without money (the country isin adebt crisis), access toinformation is the currency of this new endeavor. “Transparency is the Cameronian fetish; government is meant to be a ‘co-production’ of citizen and state.”
Political institution can be changed not only by people already in government, but by helpingnew types of people enter government who previously would have been doomed to failure by their outsider status. The prime example here is without question the 2008 election of Barack Obama, where thousands of online micro-donations allowed the campaign tofund itselfwithout relying on the traditional big donors and PACs and for supporters to communicate with one another and self-mobilize without the direction of the campaign through social media tools like MyBarackObama.
Two other prominent examples of digital technology helping outsiders into office by reaching out directly to self-organizing supporters arePresidentRoh Moo Hyun in South Korea in, whose supporters mobilized online and via text messaging in 2002, and President Victor Yushchenko of Ukraine, whom the Orange Revolution brought to power, through the help of mobile technology and online citizen journalism in 2004.
The post-election atmosphere into which these candidate step is rarely peaceful. President Obama is brutally attacked from the conservative right and disappointed left. Yushchenko oversaw various government crises, including two dissolutions of Parliament, before losing the election of 2010. Roh’s story is surely the saddest. After a dramatic fall from grace he committed suicide in 2009. The difficulty these outsider candidates face once they enter formal political institutions is less a mark of personal failure than an indication of how truly threatened the old guard feel by these new insiders and how viciously they will fight to thwart them.
The third group, pursuaders, seek to influence political institutions from the outside. This group refers not only to the digital activists that are the common theme of this blog, but also more traditional nonprofits and, perhaps most forcefully of all, business interests. In the persuader (or advocate or lobbyist) role, these groups have no interest in being members of the government, but seek to convince those in government to act and legislate according to their interests.
There are many types of pursuader individuals, from paid lobbyists to nonprofit employees to passionate volunteers. However, it is the least well-connected that are most likely to rely heavily on technology to make their voices heard and to mobilize supporters to take action on their behalf. To a corporate lobbyist with the Senator’s home phone on speed dial, creating an active Facebook group or trying to raise awareness of an issue through creating a hashtag on Twittermay seem not worth the effort. However, as the rise of astro-turfing has made clear, even the well-connected sometimes need a popular front to reinforce the legitimacy of their claims.
Even though digital activists are often seen as radical, and are jailed and harassed in repressive countries, they are actually operating within the existing political environment. They access the basic institutions of government and, even when they seek a leadership change, go about it through the proper institutional channels of elections. In the case of issue advocacy they are even less radical, asking only that those already in power side with them on a particular issue. Digital activists are not the radicals of this spectrum.
The true radicals here are the usurpers, those who use technology in their attempts to take political power, usually through violence. Though this site does not address violent activism often, its role in changing politics cannot be ignored.The Mumbai terrorists used encrypted Blackberry phonesto coordinate with one another during the 2008 attacks and seek information about the progress of the attacks, which has caused a backlash against encrypted mobile data not only in India but also in the Middle East.
In Somalia, the Islamist insurgency group Al-Shabaab uses their web forum, Al Quimmah, tocommunicate with the Western media and recruit fighters internationally. Their desire for power is serious, and they have been successful. According to Wikipedia, as of summer 2010 the group controls most of the southern and central parts of the country, including significant portions of the capital, Mogadishu. Where it controls territory it changes political institutions by Islamacizing them, enforcing the harsher tenets of Sharia law.
Once in power, these usurpers become insiders, butwithout the benefit of popular legitimation through elections. This insecurity causes them to use technology repressively to maintain control, as the once-revolutionary Communist Party does in China and the once-revolutionary mullahs do in Iran. Though in many cases usurpers limit technology use by their citizens rather than use it proactively to assert their power, the more creative governments use digital technology and social media offensively, such as China’s 50 Cent Party, Iran’s online identification of protesters, and Hugo Chavez’s heavy use of social media to maintain his popularity in Venezuela.
For those interested in exploring the intersection of politics and technology, it is important to understand the full spectrum. From the most conservative bureaucrat automating some of his tasks to the most radical terrorist using the Internet to legitimize himself internationally, digital technology is at play at all political levels, from the institutional center to the revolutionary edge. We will only understand how technology affects politics if we understand the interplay of its diverse manifestations.
image: ceBIT Australia