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Politics on the Internet

Has the Internet had a significant and positive impact on the political involvement and understanding of those who are exposed to it?


As the Internet permeates society to a greater and greater extent, and as Internet use becomes increasingly prevalent amongst individuals across the globe, important questions arise with regards to how people use the Internet both to proliferate their political beliefs and also learn about or argue against alternate political ideologies. The Internet allows unilateral access to political debate and by its nature could be said to decentralise political discourse away from traditional centres of political of power.

Truly democratic forums for political debate (democracy meaning ‘rule by the people’ or ‘power in the hands of the people’) have never existed before and even the Ancient Greek system of participatory democracy, to which modern democracy owes a great deal, heavily restricted who was allowed to participate. Whilst Internet activism and online communities concerned with politics generally do not have any direct access to policy making or government activities, it is certainly providing a means for in-depth discussion of political issues as well as providing a platform for less mainstream political viewpoints to reach a wider audience. It could be argued that the Internet is indirectly affecting political realities by allowing individuals to learn and make more informed decisions about which political ideas are right or true, and which are not.

However, the very fact that any and all political perspectives are given the freedom to have a platform to espouse their ideas on the Internet means that there could be a danger presented by increasing influence of extreme and negative ideologies such as Nazism, religious fundamentalism and Marxism. Although these political positions are almost completely absent from mainstream political discourse, highly visible, active, sizeable and determined communities dedicated to the support and promotion of these ideas can be found on the Internet. These communities are adept at drawing naive young people into supporting their cause via their websites and discussion boards.

This essay will examine the emerging political landscape on the Internet, analyzing the potential the medium has for reducing political apathy, which is reflected in election turn outs reaching all time lows (BBC News, 2003) prior to a more recent up-turn. It will look at how the Internet is being used by politicians and their respective parties to promote themselves and reach the Internet user demographic (Woodward, 2006) and also determine whether the Internet is providing a much more open-ended and varied political discourse which was previously simply not possible. The aim is to identify the positive and negative aspects of the Internet's effects on the political ideas of those who use it, and on the political system at large, and evaluate the potential the Internet has to shape the future of politics.

What Makes the Internet Different

The Internet is markedly different from previous communications media technologies for one reason in particular. This difference involves the relationship between the content makers and the audience: Previous forms of media were restricted to a one-to-one relationship (for example, the telephone) or a one-to-many relationship (such as radio, newspapers and television). Before the Internet, the mass-audience technologies mentioned above restricted the information flow into a very top-down model where only a select few had access to the means of distributing content. This is somewhat less true for digital television which provides a very large number of channels and types of content; however the average person certainly never has access to television or radio as a means of relaying their particular views, creations or ideas to others.

The Internet is the first medium which offers a many-to-many relationship, allowing any individual to create content and see it reach a global audience. This is not to say that access to the Internet is universal or that the one-to-many model is absent from the Internet – far from it; however the potential is certainly there. Christian Crumlish (2004. p.9) argued that weblogs, as one of the tools used to express personal views on the Internet, are “disseminating the mass-broadcast middleman that has dominated global communication in the previous century and supplementing (if not replacing) it with people-to-people communications.”

Marxist (or neo-Marxist) theory, which is extremely cynical of the mass-media (at least in its previous forms), sees things such as television and radio as tools, described as ‘ideological state apparatuses’ by the Marxist thinker Louis Althusser (1989), used by the ruling class (bourgeoisie) to transmit a ‘dominant ideology’ (often revolving around ‘consumer capitalism’) to the masses, in order to keep them from rebelling against the status-quo and against the rulers themselves. This is closely related to the traditional Marxist view of bourgeois ownership of the means of production in terms of physical resources and facilities such as factories or raw materials; the difference being that the ‘commodity’ involved is information. Whilst Neo-Marxism is at the very least questionable (a topic outside the scope of this essay), it does raise a valid criticism of previous incarnations of mass-media; that their content was extremely restricted as it was defined by a tiny number of people relative to the population, whereas this is not true of the Internet.

Jürgen Habermas is also well known for his theories of the media, and his views were largely influenced by Marxist thinkers of the Frankfurt School. He posited the idea of the “public sphere” which he regarded as an abstract region between state and populous where ideas and social norms arise through discourse. He, like Althusser and others influenced by Marxist ideas, saw that the mass-media could be a tool used to manipulate people’s ideas, but he also saw its potential as a generator of discussion and critical thinking. In this way, the Internet could be argued to be a perfect reflection of his idea of the “public sphere” as it should be – where the content is not dominated by an elite class. The above points are in no way an endorsement of Marxism, but rather are just to give examples of ideas which have been put forward concerning the mass-media and how it has previoulsy been structured.

Another way in which the Internet differs from previous forms of mass-media relates to the idea of the “long-tail” (Anderson, 2004) which is a model that describes how the Internet rids producers of the restriction of having to cater to the widest possible audience – or as some regard it, the lowest common denominator. The previous forms of mass-media described above placed such demands on the content creators, since single channels on both radio and TV were expensive to operate – and limited in number, therefore making it essential to make the most of a single channel by appealing to the largest number of people in order to generate the funds necessary to stay in business. The implication of the long-tail is that creators of content can cater to any size audience, anywhere from a small group of friends to entire countries or populations, without having to consider the fiscal feasibility / commerciality of a given piece of content, a consideration which previously would have made niche-content almost completely out of the question. The Internet not only enables the creation of content for relatively niche audiences, but it thereby also creates the possibility for niche ideas and products to become the mainstream by being viewed and re-distributed by the users themselves; for example via linking to the content or bookmarking it.

Many-to-Many Politics

With the above in mind, it is clear that there are implications for political ideas. Politics has always been a largely restricted field: In democratic countries individuals have the power of the vote, however beyond that there is little interaction or debate on the part of the public and political decision-making is left to the government; in the UK this specifically means Parliament and the Prime Minister.

The Internet is a medium perfectly suited for political discourse (as well as all types of debate and discussion which involves large numbers of participants), and it also provides a (semi) permanent archive of accumulated arguments, ideas and theories. This level of universal interactivity creates an environment extremely conducive of the spread of previously unnoticeable socio-political perspectives, as well as the critical analysis of old ones. This is achieved primarily through the creation of communities which focus on particular viewpoints involving the use of message boards, blogs and mailing lists, and more recently video blogs and social-networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube.

A contemporary example of relatively niche-ideas reaching a much wider audience than ever before is the Ron Paul presidency campaign in the United States. Ron Paul, whilst being a Republican, has political views which are very dissimilar to those held by the majority of the Republican Party. Far from being a Conservative, Ron Paul holds ideas which are in many respects closer to Libertarianism, a perspective which advocates the complete separation of politics and economics, including the total privatisation of almost all public sector institutions including schools, health care and banks, and also the abolition of the Federal Reserve. The Libertarian Party itself, whilst being the third largest political party, is far from being in a position to challenge the Republics and Democrats. However, supporters of Ron Paul (and Libertarianism in general) used the Internet as a platform for Ron Paul’s campaign. Websites and blogs sprang up in support of his candidacy and there was a determination on the part of the campaigners never seen before in any presidential election campaign. YouTube in particular became a staging ground for Ron Paul supporters to voice their opinions and try to persuade others to join their cause. In online polls, Ron Paul’s popularity was far higher than in polls conducted elsewhere which consistently showed him as one of the less prominent candidates. In their New York Times article, Seeyle and Wayne (2007) commented “How much the Paul campaign had snowballed on the Internet became evident last week when supporters independent of the campaign raised $4 million online and an additional $200,000 over the phone in a single day, a record among this year’s Republican candidates.”

No doubt realising the potential the Internet has for the promotion of political ideas and/or politicians themselves, David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party in the UK, set up his own video blog called “WebCameron”. Whilst his intentions cannot be deduced by the assumptions of others, some saw this merely as attempting to appeal to a younger, more tech-savvy audience, rather than to actually convey any substantial political message. Whilst this may be an accurate presumption, it clearly shows that even those in the highest positions of power acknowledge the great potential the Internet has for politics in general (Woodward, 2006).

As a platform, the Internet has a visibly huge potential for garnering support for political candidates, and so it could definitely have a positive impact on political participation and election turnouts. Similarly, the Internet also has a great potential for spreading political ideas themselves, thus directly affecting the nature of the aggregated political views of whole groups, countries and the world.

Internet Extremism

Whilst much of the political views expressed by people on the Internet at least resemble mainstream views, there has been a noticeable increase in ‘extreme’ political opinion. ‘Extreme’ in this case is referring to views which conflict with generally accepted socio-political ideas, and which could even be classified as evil or destructive. There are two particularly noticeable examples of this, the first being neo-Nazism and/or racial supremacy and the second being communism and/or socialism. Often these are classified as being extreme right-wing and extreme left-wing ideas respectively; however the one-dimensional political spectrum of left vs. right could be regarded as too simplistic when considering such complex ideological systems.

By far the most prominent example of racist ideology being perpetuated on a large-scale is Stormfront.org, a large discussion board with a thriving community of over 130,000 members who have made a total of almost 5 million posts at the time of writing. Whilst the site’s proprietors attempt to conceal their beliefs behind less offensive slogans such as “white pride” or “white nationalism”, a brief read-through of some of the posts made by users reveal ideas much more similar to racial supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Third Reich, including open distaste (or outright hatred) of non-white racial groups, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial. Because Internet law in general does not include any prohibition of views such as these, sites such as Stormfront are allowed to prosper and attract an ever growing number of people to support their cause. Carol M. Swain in her book The New White Nationalism in America (2002) pointed out that “In 1995 there was only one website associated with white supremacy, Don Black’s Stormfront. By 1999, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, there were over 1,800 associated with white supremacy groups and individuals espousing various racist and other hate-filled messages.” Swain also examines the motivations of those behind the site, arguing that they are essentially re-packaging old white supremacist ideas to have a more respectable image whilst having the same underlying values and beliefs. The nature of the Internet makes this kind of activity easy as there is no official monitoring of such websites.

The socialist/communist equivalents are less centralised in one place. Many large communities do exist however, one example being RevLeft.com (formerly Che-Lives.com) which attracts all manner of followers of Karl Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and Che Guevara. Whilst the socialists/communists are not explicitly spreading messages of hate and animosity, they are nevertheless promoting the support of political systems responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people in the U.S.S.R, China, Cambodia and elsewhere where the great communist experiments of the 20th Century took place.

The disturbing issue in both of the above cases is the way in which the participants in these communities use all manner of rationalisations for their ideologies in order to make them appear to have merit and virtue. As the Internet has an audience which potentially includes very young children who are not yet capable of fully understanding or finding fault in these ideas and since parental guidance of youngsters who use the Internet is far from universal, there is a danger that young people will be indoctrinated into holding these beliefs.

The sense of community and belonging has been identified as something which people yearn for (Crumlish, 2004) and this is certainly part of why these sites are so successful in terms of attracting users to both participate and believe in the ideas presented with considerable zeal. Also, these sites are an expression of real political concerns and should not be taken as simply the deranged product of hate-filled sociopaths as they are so commonly painted as being. White Nationalism for example is broadly a reaction to government policies of multiculturalism or immigration, which some white people perceive as a threat to so-called ‘white culture’. Their concerns are clearly misdirected, but they are not entirely emotionally driven and devoid of reason (at least in many cases, some are certainly just examples of hatred).

Whilst it is disturbing that such deplorable ideologies still generate support via the Internet, supporters of free-speech would (rightly) argue that it is an inalienable right to voice any opinions or views no matter how offensive or incorrect they may be (particularly in the United States since it is part of the constitution). It could also be suggested that it is better for these communities to be visible rather than developing and expanding in secret. Only through open and publicly available debate can these ideas be effectively and thoroughly debunked. So perhaps extremism can be combated through rational discourse via the same tools which have enabled the extremism to become so well established on the Internet, but either way the existence of these groups is a situation which should not be ignored and treated as an anomaly; as this will only allow support for them to continue to grow.


The Internet as a medium of communication has brought political discourse to a new level where the participants can be from any country, age group, cultural background and ideological persuasion. There are no longer barriers which restrict political discussion to classrooms or the House of Commons, and this may prove to be an extremely positive thing as it could allow the average person a far deeper and more involved understanding of political issues.

Political debates between capitalists and communists, anarchists and statists, nationalists and multiculturalists, conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats and countless other positions are a mere click away from anyone, anywhere at any time; and with the ever increasing levels of access to the Internet the number involved in such interactions will doubtlessly continue to rise.

The determination and authority with which political debates take place on the Internet could very well, given time, give way to real shifts in politics in the ‘offline world’. From communists and socialists exclaiming “workers unite!” to White Nationalists and their xenophobic rhetoric to Libertarians calling for a vast reduction in the powers of the government – it is clear that strong political beliefs or ideas are not as absent from the general population as election turnouts may seem to indicate, but rather it is perhaps just that ‘real world’ politics have never been open or varied enough to cater to the ideas of those who are simply not satisfied with the narrowness of mainstream politics. Whilst arguably detrimental ideas exist on the Internet, they are still the minority, and the Internet provides a stage for the debate and critique of these ideas which is essential to a more enlightened political landscape.


Althusser, L. (1989). Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays, pp.170–86. London: New Left Books.

Anderson, C. (2006). The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. New York: Hyperion.

BBC News (2003). New Voting Methods 'Increase Turnout' [online]. Available from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/2988307.stm [Accessed: 18/04/08]

Crumlish, C. (2004). The Power of Many: How the Living Web is Transforming Politics, Business and Everyday Life. San Francisco: Sybex.

Habermas, J. (1962). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge: Polity.

Seelye, K. Q. and Wayne, L. (2007). The Web Takes Ron Paul for a Ride. New York Times [online]. Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/11/us/politics/11paul.html?hp [Accessed: 19/04/08]

Swain, C. M. (2002). The New White Nationalism in America: It's Challenge to Integration. USA: Cambridge University Press.

Woodward, W. (2006). Tories Unveil Their Secret Weapon: 'Webcameron'. The Guardian [online]. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2006/sep/30/uk.media [Accessed: 19/04/08]