On air: Can the internet make democracy work better?

We’ve invited Phil Noble, the leading expert in the States on politics and the internet, to take part in World Have Your Say on Friday. He believes that the internet will revolutionise democracy. Do you agree?

Voter apathy is a concern in many countries. Global voter turnout has fallen by almost 10% in the past decade. Can the web turn that around?

Phil has worked in 30 different countries advising on developing e-democracy, talking to governments, international bodies and individual politicians about how to engage and encourage citizens to join in the process.

Have you (like the 24% of Americans who have seen a speech, interview or debate online) looked for the Rev. Wrights speeches, or mashed-up campaign ads on YouTube?

Have you accessed your government’s websites, emailed suggestions to local politicians, logged-on to find information? Was it worth it or like Scubed were you disappointed? He feels India is too slow and thinks he’s “in for a pretty long wait” to see an improvement.

Perhaps you think politicians spend too much time engaging voters on the web, they forget those that don’t have access to the internet, are they creating a gulf between haves and have nots? Denying democracy rather than spreading it?

And is re-engaging citizens that important? Should politicians be concentrating on running the country, rather than polishing their “messages” on their blogs?

Below is an email Phil sent to us, this is what he’d like to talk about tomorrow.  Let us know what you think..do you have a question you’d like to ask him? More importantly..do you agree or disagree with him?

“The Internet and new communications technology is already revolutionizing democracy – in big ways and small – in countries all over the world. But, anti-democratic forces can use the tools just as pro-democratic forces…and often more effectively.

Through out history ‘new technologies’ has changed democracy. The printing press spread the Bible to ordinary people, beyond the clergy in Europe , and they overthrew the Catholic Church in the Reformation. Hitler understood the new power of movies as propaganda sooner than most any politician of his time. Churchill and Roosevelt talked thier nations thru depression and war with the personal communications of the radio in thier own real time voice. And John Kennedy understood the power of television to connect with people and move them in new ways no other media had. In many ways he defined the era of ‘television politics’.

Now with the Internet, the same is happening – and the changes are happening much faster – and all over the world and not just in developed countries. The Obama campaign’s success would not have happened without online fundraising; hundreds of thousands of people using the tools on his site to organize events and build support. In Korea, President Rho would probably not have been elected or sustained in office without the online activism and mobilization of his supporters. In Ukraine, when they first came to power, new technology help the Orange Revolution supporters document in real time to the international press community how thier opponents were stealing the election. The first pictures and messages about the recent oppression on monks in Burma was thru the FaceBook pages of a backpacker who on his own showed the world what was happening…and on and on it goes.

And others that are not supporters of democratic values are also highly skilled in using the new technology. In terms of effectiveness, al-Queda is arguably the most effective online organization in the world in thier ability to use the media to mobilize and connect thier supporters in co-ordinate actions all over the world. China is monitoring the web to crack down on pro democratic forces in attempts to avoid embarrassment during the Olympics, Cuba has so feared the power of the technology that citizens are just now getting access to thier own personal computers. In countless countries, mobile phone services are monitored, restricted or totally cut by repressive governments when thier regimes are threatened by the democratic forces…and on and on it goes.”

45 Responses to “On air: Can the internet make democracy work better?”

  1. 1 Roberto
    May 15, 2008 at 13:29

    He believes that the internet will revolutionise democracy.

    ——– Not much of a stretch to predict the obvious.

    However, that’s not the answer as to whether the internet can make democracy work better.

    Internet is just a tool which can be used for good or bad purpose like any tool.. The only thing that can make democracy better is better citizens electing better leaders who have better policies and vision.

    I ain’t holding my breath.

  2. May 15, 2008 at 13:30

    Sure. Given that democracy is about being heard and passing across one’s point of view, I think the internet has come to enable citizens to make authorities accountable to them whic is fair and good.

  3. 3 Nick in USA
    May 15, 2008 at 14:20

    Yes, the internet has played a vital role in my becoming involved with politics. Particularly, http://www.congress.org . This website allows you to contact your politicians about anything, and I almost always receive a response from someone in their office. A while ago I was concerned with the oversight committee wasting time on steroids and baseball, so I sent a letter to my sens. and reps., and they all responded. Even Mitch Mcconnell, who I disagree with on every issue, responds in a timely manner with pretty lengthy arguments. The site also has a feature you can sign up for called megavote, which sends you an update of all the votes in congress. People would be really surprised at the way some of their congressmen vote. So far Representative Ben Chandler has been the best at responding to any of my concerns, and he also has an excellent voting record.

  4. 4 steve
    May 15, 2008 at 14:28

    Too bad the internet won’t lead to direct democracy, then we could bypass the sickos that run for political office. Gee, I wonder why Edwards endorsed Obama at such a late moment? gee, could it be because Obama is likely going to get the nomination and Edwards wants to be his VP?

  5. May 15, 2008 at 14:37

    If you can get people to stop gambling, getting their fortunes read, and surfing porn, I bet i could do some good. Good luck with that one.

  6. 6 NG
    May 15, 2008 at 14:43

    The internet is a great tool for democratization. It allows anyone with access to express their personal opinions just like I am doing right now.
    There is an infinite amount of diversity and information about anything you can imagine on the internet. So many people across the world are able to have a voice over the internet.
    Though, in many regions of that world the internet voice is stifled or non-existant, the internet is still doing a great amount of good in terms of giving people the right to speak up.

  7. May 15, 2008 at 15:57

    The internet can perhaps also be used to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. If we were to give all the Afghans access to the internet then they could build their democratic institutions partially online.

    Afghanistan is sparsely populated. In remote villages the Taliban can force their will on the local population using intimidation even if they are a small minority. It is very dificult for the people there to complain about that to the police. The nearest police station may be very far away and if you go there then everyone in the village will know about that.

    It would be better if they could just visit their local police station online and file their complaint that way. Officials can then also hold meetings online thereby avoiding being a target for militants.

    This would mean that we would have to set up a comprehensive UMTS network in Afghanistan. The costs of that could well be far less than trying to defeat the Taliban using military means.

  8. 8 Peter Gizzi UK
    May 15, 2008 at 16:47

    Yes definitely though only where The Internet is readily available at a price people can afford.

    In The UK I get an email from 10 downing Street that helps me keep in touch and allows me “to have my say”. Whether anybody listens is another matter. We have a site where The British People can post petitions or sign those already posted. Our Government then seems to take great delight in totally ignoring them!

  9. May 15, 2008 at 17:19

    I just returned from a trip to South Korea and China. Some of the people I spoke with there were asking the question “What is a model for democracy?”

    The idea that being able to take part in the election of someone who then does whatever he or she wants to rule the nation is seen as different from providing any form of meaningful concept of democracy.

    The illusion that the U.S. provided a model for democracy had been shattered among a number of people. They were wondering if there is democracy functioning anywhere.

    We even spoke about the difference in concept between the notion of the citizen and the concept of the people. According to a helpful definition by Habermas, the citizen is the expression of “Nous sommes le roi.” (We are the king). In this concept of the citizen, sovereignty lies with the citizens of a nation, as opposed to the notion of the “people” who are the subjects of the rule of a nation. In the concept of the people sovereignty is with someone else, not with the people.

    The concept of “netizen” includes the notion of the online user who participates in the Net and in contributing to the Net, and hence ought also to be able to participate in the decisions that are made.

    The idea of the netizen, of the online user who contributes to the development of the Net, is a notion that the Internet does provide a means for developing and implementing a more meaningful concept of democracy than the concept that limits the citizen’s participation to some form of electoral politics. The notion of the netizen is a notion that includes an ability to be part of the process of exercising sovereignty. Some of this lies in the ability of the netizen to oversee those in positions of power and to be part of the process of watchdogging over them so as to exercise control over the abuse of power.

    The book “Netizens:On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet” offers some perspective on both how the process of building the Internet was a more democratic process and how netizenship is a way of conceptualizing what it means to be part of a more democratic world. The book is online at

  10. 10 Syed Hasan Turab
    May 15, 2008 at 17:45

    Not only Democracy all prevailing Governments of the world, as internet culture is growing beyond the reach & influence of any Govt.
    Sooner or later this will be most powerfull media of the world as we represant the world & support to each & every humanbeing without discrimination.

  11. 11 John in Salem
    May 15, 2008 at 17:50

    I’ve said it here before ~ The first requirement of any successful democracy is participation and anything that promotes that is a good thing.
    Forums like this are changing the way we think and interact more profoundly than we can imagine. There are people from all over the world here and on thousands of other forums sharing thoughts and opinions who would never have been heard beyond their neighborhoods a generation ago.
    And people who know they are being heard PARTICIPATE.

  12. 12 Will Rhodes
    May 15, 2008 at 18:10

    If the internet evolves into direct democracy I am all for it – with the relevant safeguards put in place. And certainly not using Windows Operating systems!

    I am an advocate that the internet should be free, that is of cost and content and we have, to a certain degree, freedom of thought and speech on the net. What we are finding is that [now] governments are seeing the power of the internet they are steadily trying to control it – which was obvious that they would do.

    Blogs like this one are moderated, and that is the choice of those who run it – but there are millions of blogs now – a typical explosion that governments cannot keep up with – hence their immature populist stance on many things.

    There has never been one invention that has reduced the size of this world like the internet. Instant communications from Australia to Britain in a nanosecond. Its power is unbelievably awesome.

    Will it be good for democracy – I am not sure what Phil Noble means by that, but direct activism will flourish, as yet, there is no stopping it.

  13. 13 Dennis
    May 15, 2008 at 19:28

    I hope that the internet will make democracy better…

  14. 14 David
    May 15, 2008 at 23:43


    What democracy and for whom?

  15. May 16, 2008 at 13:44

    A democracy requires everybody in their collective to have their say. That requires everybody in the collective to understand how important it is to say it. The internet is more reflective of the U.S. version of democracy then most would like to admit. The majority of it’s citizens are more concerned with buying pretty things for themselves. They have no idea how the internet operates or who is in control or how it is operated. My favorite call as an IT tech was, “the internet is down.” to which I would respond, “The whole internet? Well I would love to help you, but I am going to pull all of my money out of the bank before it is too late!” And I wondered why users hated us IT people. The internet is represented by people who are wealthy enough to own a vehicle to get online and just smart enough to turn the key to get that vehicle running. there are billions of under privileged and under educated people who have no representation in the net.

    So as a model of democracy the Internet doesn’t work. Can it make us more aware of people who are repressed and in need of support that might ultimately lead to creating a democracy where there is none. Yes. But the internet is just one element.

  16. 16 John Smith - Jamaica
    May 16, 2008 at 14:11

    The internet has been great for communication, it has been great for buying and selling, it has even given a voice to the “oppressed.” However one needs to remember that this is a tool of capitalism and is only effective for capitalistic purposes. It a closed society practices capitalism, then the internet will have no effect on its politics…(case in point China, Vietnam, Russia)

  17. 17 John Smith - Jamaica
    May 16, 2008 at 14:17

    We have become so preoccupied with democracy, we have neglected the plight of the destitute in those democratic societies which continue to push their political views on others. Instead of worrying about the internet making democracy work better, these persons way of life need to be improved so that they can make a more meaningful contribution to the democratic running of their country.

  18. 18 Nick in USA
    May 16, 2008 at 14:19

    Will Rhodes:

    “hence their immature populist stance on many things.”

    Nice jab at populists there Will. Care to explain?

  19. May 16, 2008 at 14:30

    I completely agree with Will on this one. Well said, sir!

  20. 20 nicholas kariuki muthaara
    May 16, 2008 at 15:29

    internet is a dream for most african.i uses my phone internet because i know nothing abt computers.maybe use of radio can help because its accessible to many peoples .

  21. 21 thelegendali
    May 16, 2008 at 16:51

    Partially I will agree but not totally. Dictators will go to the extent of even blocking political websites if that is required to perpetuate their stay in power.

  22. 22 Jessica-NY
    May 16, 2008 at 17:25

    “Internet will revolutionize democracy.” Hasn’t it already revolutionized everything? But how what is the measure of a better democracy?

    As a minor example, I live in the US and I have written my elected officials many times of important issues to me. Not once have a received a response that assures me the politicians has read my request. Instead I get something along the lines of, “Due to the large volume of correspondence, we cannot reply to your letter directly. Thank you for your support.”. Moreover, I have worked in for politicians and I’m not sure the internet has done anything to make democracy more inefficient as it relates directly to it’s constituents–isn’t this a measure of “better”? I do love that the internet has forced government to be more transparent, and information is at my finger tips.

    For people in say Cuba and China, the internet has done little for their “democracy” when the government controls the information highway.

  23. May 16, 2008 at 18:35

    Hi Ros, Akbar here in Tehran
    The Internet can act as a very effective force in politics,and it is being wielded very successfully by yourself.
    But the main stumbling block may be communication and language skills.
    Politicians are so very sensitive to criticism, and must be constantly put to the test.

  24. 24 Anthony
    May 16, 2008 at 18:38

    YES! I LOVE the internet in politics! We can get so many different views, and look up facts for ourselves. I think people will be able to find the truth much better this way.

    -Anthony, LA, CA

  25. 25 Fred
    May 16, 2008 at 18:39

    Definitely! the internet has made it easier to research candidates and issues and helps me form a more educatied opinion. I remember reading one candidate’s personal biography on his web-site, and thinking “Wow, what a privileged, clueless, moron” I’ll vote for the other guy.

  26. 26 Thea Winter - Indianapolis
    May 16, 2008 at 18:44

    I agree with what one of your guest stated. The politicians want your money but if you try to contact them via Internet they get upset. I have found out more about the bills coming up in the US congress. I then have used the Internet to email my opinion. Because this has become so successful, in the US there was a bill that would limit political activist web sits that give links to the representatives. I believe they wanted this comunitcation to stop. The bill did not pass.

  27. 27 Kevin in Portland, OR, USA
    May 16, 2008 at 18:50

    The change doesn’t happen overnight, but most definitely, the internet will continue to improve the timely flow of information, particularly from citizen to government. In a representative form of government, any legitimate public servant would highly value this improved communication with their constituency.

  28. 28 John in Salem
    May 16, 2008 at 18:51

    The guests on the show who say that the internet isn’t revolutionizing democracy are incredibly short-sighted. The internet as we know it hasn’t existed for more than a couple of decades at best – what do you want? Twenty years after Gutenberg published the Bible the world still looked the same – would you have argued then that it was going to have no effect?
    Look at the horizon, guys. The sun is going to come up whether you see it now or not.

  29. 29 Randall Quinn
    May 16, 2008 at 18:51

    Please don’t glance over the fact that a majority of people living in developing countries, where these democratic reforms are most desperately needed, have no access to electricity, computers, and the internet. Having lived in West Africa for the past two years, I applaud the fact that the BBC broadcasts throughout the region, and see it’s open discussions as playing a large part in fostering democracy. The PROBLEM, is that there is a lack of unbiased news programming and forums broadcast in local languages. The number of people that understand English is such a small subset in these populations that such broadcasting has little possibility of reaching the masses.

  30. 30 gary
    May 16, 2008 at 18:54

    I believe increased communication, as provided bty the internet or any othermeans means possible, is “up.” I define up as progress toward a social structure that seeks to minimize human death by unnatural causes (war, famine, etc.). Whether democracy is an obligatory step in the “up” direction is unclear to me.

  31. 31 Deirdre - Chicago
    May 16, 2008 at 18:55

    I have to absolutely agree that phones and email have entirely revolutionized the political approach. Politicians have MySpace and Facebook. Political blogs are everywhere you look. (My humorous favorite: http://www.thingsyoungerthanmccain.com) Barack Obama’s emails buzz to my blackberry every time he responds to large news issues, theres no way to deny that the way that politicians are campagning and the information available to voters to make a decision is astounding. If voters so choose, its so much more easy to gain a broad perspective on a politician. You can, rather than be influenced on a reporter’s take on a speech, you can pull it up on YouTube and decide your own response. Its so much easier to get unbiased information on the whole.

  32. May 16, 2008 at 19:00

    I think that people are building up this mountain out of a mole hill here. How will the internet encourage a oppressed people to stand up to the guns and bombs of their oppressors. Anybody could have went online, found timelines, the Joseph Wilson OpEd piece, and/ or gained just a little understanding of what is required to build a nuclear bomb. They would have asked the simple question when the Bush Admin pushed the threat of nuclear weapons in Saddam’s hands. How is it possible? No not even with that wealth of information in their hands, they didn’t. Not even our legislators did that.

    Even our own democracy has not been improved. We have seen a president with the lowest popularity rating ever get re-elected and seemingly continue to make policies in opposition to the majority of the people. It seems to have made people less politically aware here in the states. When I was growing up, when the president was on TV, that was pretty much all you had to do. Now you can turn the station or turn on the internet and gamble.

  33. May 16, 2008 at 19:05

    Clio in US

    One of the common mistakes is to assume that the internet will be used for positive purposes. But remember the viral quality can be also used by campaigns to hijack the trajectory of an election. For example I think the Obama campaign has used the viral quality to completely spread stories and also to influence the standard media, (television, radio and journalism). Please, remember the internet is a medium that can be used to create a false truth as well. Be very careful.

  34. May 16, 2008 at 19:06

    Bywell in Malawi

    In conclusion,internet may remove some of the old barriers in public participation as a result, making democracy work better.

  35. May 16, 2008 at 19:06

    Joel in the US

    The conversation about the internet’s effect on politics is a fascinating one, but people are talking about all sorts of things that are only related because they involve a silicon chip. I feel like some folks think the question is “will communications technologies solve all of our social problems.” Spoken out loud, that sounds absurd. I do, however, believe that improved vertical and horizontal communication will help us to make better decisions and to make those decisions based on actual issues instead of the distractions and red herrings that politics as usual seem to offer.

  36. 36 Dennis
    May 16, 2008 at 19:37

    Yes, i think that the internet can make democracy work better….

    Dennis>Madrid, U.S.A.

  37. May 16, 2008 at 22:10

    Interesting discussion. I take Akbar’s and other’s point about the language issue and that most Africans don’t even have access to the internet. I’m hearing a lot of talk about the powerful impact of Web 2.0 but is this simply a Western luxury or can it really be a tool that will eventually be deployed in all parts of the world? What’s the reality?

    My other question is: how can INGOs and civil society groups with limited resoures that work with a global audiences, particularly in developing countries, best use blogs/forums? How can these international organisations ‘decentralise’ in order to communicate effectively with this audience of diverse local languages, and get them communicating with each other (via forums and blogs)?

    Does anyone have good examples of organisations doing great work in this area?

  38. 38 Pangolin
    May 17, 2008 at 10:17

    The internet is simply a tool to expand the existent potentials of people. It’s like a knife. It can be a stamped blank of metal with little functionality. It can be a dull knife with little functionality but some danger of misuse. It can be a sharp knife with good functionality with great danger of misuse.

    Like a knife the internet offers the opportunity to sharpen skills and act efficiently. I learned that I could make a boat on the internet and built two dories. I get recipes. I research my health problems and global climate change. I’ve even had conversations on the nature of eroticism although I started searching for porn.

    Using the internet’s ability to communicate with others I have learned to shape and sharpen my arguments to achieve goals and win a wider audience. Frequently this has involved reading the criticisms of my earlier arguments carefully. I can get almost instant feedback on my writing skills that is unequaled in any university in the world.

    Where else but the internet can you see the same essay both praised and ripped to shreds within five minutes of publication? By Ph.D’s in economics and engineering no less and me without my bachelor’s degree.

    To the extent the internet allows the free exchange of the maximum range of information it will be useful to democracy. Where the internet is censored or throttled or access denied it becomes like a knife with a chipped blade. You never know when it will ruin your work or jump and cut you. Ignorance can be dangerous especially when you don’t even know what you are ignorant of. Ask a chemist.

  39. 39 Ahmad Hammad
    May 19, 2008 at 01:17

    Dear Ros:

    Whenever we talk of the scientific advancements/inventions/discoveries taking place in a society, I can’t help thinking of Russell’s idea of a Scientific Society whose focal point is Democracy i.e. freedom of expression.

    Static websites of the political parties in general and the dynamic ones in particular are playing a vital role in carving up the democratic mindset of the our society.

    In Pakistan, opinion polls asking about the recent moves and decisions made by different political parties are offered at their websites. People surf and vote. From where, the parties guage the mood and redress themselves if necessary or vice versa.

    For example, at the website of the PML-N, we find a poll asking if the PML-N’s efficiency had been satisfying after the general elections or not.

    People in Pakistan are generally happy with what Nawaz Sharif has been doing for the judges instatement since the last general elections.

    And this opinion is well-reflected through that poll. This means, the poll on the web is a reliable source to guage the mood of the people.

    Let me share a personal experience with you. I noted down a few telephone numbers of some politicians and contacted them. (They could be reached and told about whatever I want to tell now. Contacting a sitting minister for a commoner was never possible before the inception of the Internet.)

    When PML-N decided to quit the ministeries once they couldn’t get the judges issue resolved within the time-frame, I sent SMSs to some of the prominent leaders of the PML-N to express my feelings.

    To my surprise, the Chief Minister of the Punjab Mr Dost Muhammad Khosa and the Federal Minister for Petroleum (who has resigned now) Mr Khawaj Muhammad Asif responded to my text in a very positive manner….

    Internet has provided the public with an easy access to their rulers. And thus the very public becomes directly involved in ruling even after casting her vote. Isn’t there the truest form democracy emerging?

    I very firmly believe that the internet is fast changing, rather improving our behaviours, thougts and systems even.
    And democracy isn’t an exception…..

  40. 40 gabiq
    May 19, 2008 at 23:26

    Ya sure the internet does allow all voices be heard, which though is the essence of democracy, might not be the best thing for societal progress.

    I understand that it’s sacrilege to not worship democracy in the west but the fact is that short-run interest is always a zero-sum game. Any society that allows powerful lobby groups to manipulate their long-rum policy directions would only end up with myopic vision.

    Internet does indeed benefit all people in a micro level since all bickering would be resolved, if not at least be heard. However with regards to national policies it’d always take a leader to sacrifice someone to make us all better in the long run. No one wants be that someone but there has to be someone if the west does not want to be left behind.

    And yes i apologize for digressing.

  41. May 22, 2008 at 08:34

    Your having a laugh are’nt you,? our politicians do not listen to us on the street, never mind on the web,They have a one track mind,ROBOTS that only have the intention to think of more stupid ideas, and more ways to tax and license our nessecities,We are not given a choice of using, or not using these commodities to improve our enjoyment in living,we are charged for the purpose of them being there whether we use them or not,this is not a fair system,Has for will the net improve Democracy?,until corruption, greed and deceipt are removed from the systems, nothing will change,’What’s in your wallet’.I do believe Australian people have more freedom than the American people,or do they not get mentioned because they are South and not West,?

  42. May 22, 2008 at 19:58

    The internet has revolutionized democracy in the USA. Now Libertarians and Greens can easily get their message across.

  43. May 24, 2008 at 13:15

    The Internet of course has the potential to revolutionize democracy. It’s not there yet. There are still some major huddles yet to be overcome.

    I think adapting Robert’s Rules to the Internet would help overcome one of the biggest obstacles — how can I say this? — that of bringing the voice of the masses heard on the Internet on any given subject into some sort of deliberative focus to take advantage of the “Wisdom of the Crowd” aspect of democracy.

    Once the “Wisdom of the Crowd” has been successfully harnessed, democracy will never be the same.

    In short, I don’t think deliberative groupware has been developed to a degree where the Internet can significantly impact democracy yet. But it definitely has the potential.

    ex animo

  44. May 25, 2008 at 19:27

    Internet can only revolutionalize democracy when it is supplemented with the will from all stakeholders especially those leaders in power. In Africa for instance, if a seating president realizes that the new technology deprives him a chance to rig elections, it it will definitely face full resistance, however efficient and effective it might be!

  45. 45 parthguragain
    June 11, 2008 at 12:25

    Yes i think that internet can help in spreading democracy.in future what will we see is that due to internet crime commited in any part of world will be known very fast.Governments can’t hide any act of brutality very easily.During the time of democratic movement in nepal government stoped service of mobile.it was throigh internet news of nepal spread all over the world.With the time internet is becoming very strong tool to spread message of any opression done by government.like 4 example people have been talking lately about mugabe.withj the internet becoming more powerful there are so many people around world who don’t have any knowledge of computers and doesn’t have any acess to internet .So what must be the priroty of rich countries is that one child one laptop policy should be started in underdeveloped countries.By taking these steps we can see how international the coming generation will become.

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