The Internet: A Room of Our Own?

The Internet: A Room of Our Own?

THE DEBATE ABOUT the impact of the Internet on democracy is barely a decade old, but it has already sowed great confusion in the minds of academics and practitioners alike. It doesn’t help that both of these concepts represent complex, multilayered, and abstract ideas that do not lend themselves to easy or precise measurement. We have little choice but to reach for the best readily quantifiable proxy, which usually only obfuscates the relationship further.

The Internet part of the equation is relatively easy to grasp; the rate of Internet diffusion has been one reliable indicator. Other tangible proxies–the number of Internet or mobile phone users per capita or more complex indicators like the density of a national blogosphere–are also quite straightforward, if not conclusive. Measuring democracy, on the other hand, requires us to substitute something more tangible: human rights, freedom of expression, transparency and corruption, civic engagement, media concentration, and even more esoteric indicators such as the diversity of the public sphere (itself often requiring another host of proxies to be measured properly). Factor in the vast economic, technological, and political differences across countries in transition, dictatorships, and established democracies, and it’s clear why the study of the Internet’s impact on democracy won’t earn anyone the Nobel Peace Prize in the foreseeable future.

For all these reasons, the grand debate of the last decade has by now split into numerous nano-discourses that have acquired a life of their own: the role of mobile phones in economic development, the role of blogs in increasing media diversity, the role of social networking in political mobilization, and so forth. It’s easy to overestimate the obscurity of such seemingly arcane discussions; after all, it’s not the first time that academics or bloggers can’t make up their minds about a subject with dubious relevance to the real world. And yet, many of the assumptions underpinning our thinking about the impact of the Internet on democracy shape policymaking inside the world’s most powerful institutions preoccupied with promoting democracy, human rights, or an open society (my own host institution–the Open Society Institute–is on this list and is not innocent of relying on similar assumptions).

One could say that the Internet has acquired a cult following among such institutions. While the U.S. State Department wraps its own efforts to use the Internet to promote democracy around the globe in the dry rhetoric of “Public Diplomacy 2.0,” other agencies closely associated with and funded by the U.S. government–Internews and the National Endowment for Democracy being the two most visible–are actively recalibrating their toolkits to fit the age of new media. European governments and foundations are also not far behind, with the Dutch and Danish governments at the forefront of supporting ...