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The internet has had a deep impact on various spheres of life of individuals. For example, it enables us to communicate in real time (Barber, 2003). In essence, the internet has reduced the world into a global village whereby you can reach someone on another continent in a matter of seconds.
The internet has played a significant role in ensuring that the cries of the oppressed are heard. For example, for the better part of 2011, we have witnessed massive protests in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, and Libya, to name but a few countries, whereby the power of the internet has been used positively to educate and empower citizens against abuse of their human rights.
Consequently, we have seen hitherto powerful regimes brought to their knees thanks to the power of the internet. On the other hand, the emergence of the internet as a global tool of communication may have come at a price. One question that we need to ask ourselves is whether technology supports democracy?
Right from the very beginning, telecommunications technology has been seen by many as the engine that drives democracy (Carry, Cross & Young, 2001; Hurrell & Longford, 2006). In recent years, internet technology has been a central pillar in driving globalization by enabling us to grind down the narrow-minded limits that separate various national enemies and at the same time, helping us to make frontiers porous.
On the other hand, even as internet technology has been instrumental in the quest for globalization, it may also play a crucial role in undermining democracy. The current essay is an endeavor to examine the issue of democracy and power in the online world. In this case, the essay shall endeavour to assess how online technology has impacted on democracy and the balance of power.
Does global technology support political democracy?
In this day and age, participatory democracy appears to be on the decline. The emergence of the internet seems to have played a significant role in helping to enhance this breakdown (Howard, 2005; Mezirow, 2009). The fact that the internet calls for intellectual and financial investment has also played a role in the decline of democracy.
This, along with lack of centralised control means that an internet user has a lot of freedom at his/her disposal, and this may compromise democracy because there are not many restrictions facing an internet user (Turkle, 2004). On the other hand, many political leaders have gained fame and popularity thanks to the internet and as such, the internet has played the pivotal role of a medium for the attainment of true democracy.
Class and prejudice have no place in the online environment. When we consider such an interactive setting as an online chat for example, we realise that information exchange occurs in the form of text exchanges, meaning that there is no identification of sex, race, and colour (Malina, 2003).
Consequently, it is very hard to contaminate the exchange of ideas that takes place freely. In addition, we need to take into account the fact that internet users have historically been opposed to control or censorship of information dissemination online.
That is why the decision by the Chinese government to censure that internet has been met with a global outcry, with media activists and democratic governments voicing their concern about the undemoctratic and unconstitutional acts taken by the Chinese government. In addition, we also need to consider the fact that an individual may partake in democratic practice and processes using the internet devoid of any commercial partiality or government filtering.
However, the idea of participatory democracy that has been popularized by the internet has its own problems and these needs to be addressed. For example, we have a number of boundaries to participation that many advocates of the new media appear to have disregarded.
To start with, the internet seems to be defined in terms of hardware. For instance, the cyberspace has been defined by many scholars as several computers that have been joined together in order to form “a network of networks” (Longford & Patten, 2007). In the end, the definition of the internet does not entail human terms.
Therefore, participation in the online world entails the use of a series of computers that have been linked up together, effectively forming a network, as opposed to human interaction using the same hardware. However, we also need to take into account the fact that the input of humans is required in order to ensure that networking occurs.
Nonetheless, the internet itself has more to do with the phenomenon of linkage, and less to do with the people involved. As such, suggesting that we can be able to achieve democracy through the internet as a medium of communication is to a certain extent, an overstatement (Las, 2002) because when talking about the internet, we are essentially interested in the infrastructure, as opposed to the concepts involved.
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On the other hand, one of the privileges that the internet allows us to enjoy is democracy. The internet connects individuals from various locations of the world, regardless of their cultural differences or geographical location (Jenkins & Thorburn, 2003). However, we seem to have ignored the fact that in order for this interconnectivity to take place, it is important to have the machines first so that internet communication can be facilitated (Wenger, 1998).
This means that we must first invest in the necessary hardware so that we can enjoy the power of the internet and by extension, the democracy that is purported to accompany this technology (Turkle, 1996). Therefore, we need to confine participation in this form of technology to those individual who can access the necessary funds to buy the needed equipment, as well as the literacy levels of the individuals who are involved in the internet information exchange process (Castells, 2010).
From a political point of view, the emergence of digital technology has totally transformed global politics. The internet enables members of the public to easily access government documents and as a result, they are in a position to keep track of how their tax is being utilized and the areas of development that the government appears keen to prioritise (Jenkins & Thorburn, 2004).
In addition, the public can also keep track of the content and tactics of political campaigns, as well as reports on the behaviours of aspiring leaders seeking political office. For example, many a political candidate has been forced to shelf his/her desire to take political office following reports that they have been involved in corruption or sex scandals.
Normally, most of these allegations have been propagated by the internet and specifically, such social media sites as Facebook and twitter. This goes to show us that the internet has been a very powerful tool in helping to root out corrupt individuals and government.
In addition, the internet has also helped to shape the behavior of politicians because any prospective candidate knows that they cannot afford to behave in a manner that is contrary to the expectations of the society as such behaviours will always be brought to light and this is likely to dash their political dreams (Galston, 2003). The internet also helps us to understand the behaviors of voters, and the manner in which certain topics enter the public discourse.
The growth of the internet has brought with it a revival of the civic sphere. In addition, it has also been very instrumental in extending community life by way of providing diverse and broad forums for discussion (Deibert, 2003). These are important tools in helping to bring democracy to the people in the community.
The internet has also facilitated online deliberation, consultation, political debate, administration, scrutiny, and decision-making. In addition, it has also facilitated online organising, mobilization, protesting, and petitioning. Recently, we have witnessed the fall from grace of Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president for more than 30 years.
The same case also befell his Tunisian counterpart, Ben Ali. Other leaders that have fallen victim to the recent global political protests that have been perpetuated by the internet and specifically the social media include the Yemeni president. The citizens from these regions have had to bear with bad governance and oppression for far too long and their quest for redemption has failed up until now, because their respective governments have been able to control the political machinations that would have allowed them to air their grievances.
For example, some of these regimes have been accused of media gagging. However, it has not been easy for them to gag internet communication. From this context, we realise that the internet is a powerful tool in the fight for democracy among marginalised citizens.
The internet has also made election, polling, and plebiscites comparatively accessible and cheaper. The voice of the masses can conceivably be expressed loudly and regularly using the internet thereby helping to enhance popular decision-making and in the process (Dahlberg, 2005), ensure that the gap between members of the public and their political leaders has been closed.
Although the internet has supported democracy, nevertheless, we need to be concerned with the issue of the real discussions that takes place online (Howard, 2005). Sometimes, an internet user will be required to just say whether they are in agreement with a certain statement, or not, with just a click of a button.
Thanks to the internet, it is now possible to sign and garner petitions. However, we have to take issue with the approach of coercing our politicians to stay in touch with the issues that they are supposed to attend to , and if there is any democracy at all in this approach. We should also be concerned about how legitimate the results of an internet petitions can be because many people are less likely to use their real names anyway. In the later 2000s, the emergence of online social networking has led to a rise in the integration of internet petitions.
This has led to an increase in the number of criticisms directed at politicians who have failed to deliver in the current democratic dispensation. However, one wonders if this approach leads to an integration of democracy because those accused of wrongdoing may not be called upon to participate in such debates that ends up crucifying them.
The internet has been both a blessing and a curse in as far as the issues of democracy and power are concerned. To start with, the internet has allowed individuals to vet their leaders who do not honour the constitution. This ensures that they remain on guard that they should not misuse their powers in office. In addition, the internet has allowed society to take an inclusive and participatory role in the fight for democracy.
For example the social media sites, twitter and facebook, have played a pivotal role in the overthrowing of many of the regimes in recent years. In addition, wikileaks has enlightened members of the public on corrupt dealings and scandals that are being perpetrated by politicians and leaders behind the scenes. Internet petitions have been used to deliver a vote of no confidence on unpopular leaders. As to the question of whether global technology supports democracy, this is still debatable.
For instance, some critics have argued that some of the leaders who have been accused of opposing democracy do not have a chance to have their side of the story heard. On the one hand, the internet has helped to enhance global democracy by enabling people to air their political views and opinions on the issues that affects them.
Also, the legitimacy of internet petitions for example, has been put to question. Nonetheless, the role of the internet in creating awareness to the public about heir rights and what they may expect from their leaders has been instrumental.
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