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RSS 2.0

The Internet and democracy

By Trevor Cook - posted Friday, 18 September 2009

The impact of the Internet on democracy is still in its infancy, and while we have seen some remarkable developments, some more difficult challenges have also come into view.

The Internet, as a popular phenomenon, is still a little less than 15-years-old. Microsoft bundled Internet Explorer 1.0 with the Windows 95 Plus pack, which it released in August 1995. The Cluetrain Manifesto, much beloved by web 2.0 champions, was published in 1999.

Blogging emerged in the IT and college worlds in the last few years of the 1990s, and moved into the media and political world in the years after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.


By the time Silicon Valley veteran Joe Trippi took Howard Dean from an obscure liberal, anti-war former Vermont governor to Democrat presidential nominee race front-runner in 2004, the political potential of the Internet was established.

Trippi realised that the Internet was a campaign fund-raising tool with unprecedented power. By using the reach and engagement potential of the web “outsider” candidates could match, and even exceed, the fundraising capacity of the political establishment through mustering millions of small donations.

Four years later, another outsider candidate, Barack Obama, used the web to enormous effect. He raised so much money that he refused public funding and he used the new social-networking tools, like Twitter and Facebook, with enormous impact. Obama blended social media with more traditional campaign approaches and made it an essential part of an overall communications strategy.

Although the Internet is much more prevalent in the West, as well as Japan and South Korea, it is increasingly becoming an important media and political tool around the world; as we have seen most recently in the wake of the Iranian election.

Meanwhile, mainstream media, which may or may not be dying, has become a major driver in the uptake of the new media. Just about every major media outlet in Australia uses one or more of the popular web 2.0 tools such as blogs, RSS feeds, twitter, facebook, podcasts and vodcasts.

Although there continues to be a lot of hype about the impact of new or social media, it is clear that mainstream media is well-positioned to use the Internet in just about every way imaginable except to make profits.


In the meantime, the new diversity and competition from online start-ups, themselves cash-strapped, is reducing the budgets of commercial media. A growing inability for anyone but public broadcasters to fund the training of the next generation of journalists has serious implications for the shape and culture of the profession and, by extension, for our democracy.

Whatever the overall future of the media, it is clear that none can survive without a strong online presence. The growing ubiquity of internet-linked mobile devices, and the continued emergence of broadband will only increase advantages that the Internet enjoys over other media, particularly print.

In December 2008, the Pew Research Center reported that for young people the Internet now rivals television as a main source of national and international news. Nearly six-in-ten Americans younger than 30 (59 per cent) say they get most of their national and international news online.

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About the Author

Trevor Cook is currently a Phd student in politics at the University of Sydney. He blogs at Trevor Cook.

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