Four criticisms about “Six models for the internet + Politics”

 

Since I read the paper “Six Models for the Internet + Politics” by Archon Fung, Hollie Russon Gilman E Jennifer Shkabatur, I wished to write some criticism about it. As is generally acknowledged, Fung has some notorious works in participatory and deliberative fields, because of his concepts of mini publics and empowered governance. So this criticism should not be seen as trying to degrade Fung et al text. First of all, it is very important that he shows now an interest in the relation between ICT and politics and I do believe that more authors of social sciences and political philosophy need to follow his path.

 

One has to admit that the paper has made several contributions for the field. Firstly, it presents a very good overview of the whole internet and politics. Secondly, the models could be very helpful for future analysis at least as starting points, since they really emphasize the main points of different political actions.  Thirdly Fung et al recognize the importance of the public sphere in almost all of theirs models, something that is not truly recognized in other accounts, even systemic ones (e.g. Mansbridge et al, 2012).

 

Nevertheless, some criticisms are necessary. In this text, I do not intend to deal with small criticism. One could, for instance, criticize each model, to say that there are more models available or that very specific parts are incorrect or whatsoever. I rather prefer to present four general criticisms on Fung et al view.

 

1) ICT? Which ones? My first point is that the authors use ICT to not stick only to the internet. However there is not a significant attempt to deal with this question. In every model one can see how ICT interacts with other parts of the system, but there is no substantial account in terms of the different platforms. If one substitutes “Internet” in the place of  “ICT”, one could not note a significant difference, as the specific features of the several platforms are not considered at all. Are social media better for a specific model? What about synchronous communication through Facebook, Gtalk or Skype? Is there still space for online forums in this account? Of course, again we need to consider that is general text about general potentials of ICT using archetypes models, but one should keep this in mind when writing about ICT and politics.

 

2) Media system: Fung et al give great importance to public sphere and public opinion, but they seem not to consider the mass media. One could argue that the mass media are inside each box of “public sphere and public opinion”, but this is still problematic. As I stated above, the internet is multifaceted. Some uses of internet are very massive (e.g. online news), some are less visible (e.g. blogging) and some are rather private (e.g. online talk through chats). Certain uses are (or can be in specific situations) very connected to mass media. In certain ways, one could say that the Internet is now part of media systems (e.g. Maia, 2012; Dahlgren, 2011).

And it is very important to consider its interplay (mass media and online ICT) in such general analysis. For instance, the news corporations have profiles in social networks websites and journalists usually have them as well. So these actors are paying attention to what happens in online environments and a “trending topic” can easily become an article in an online news website. If this happens, it will usually feedback the discussion in the online environment, which can by its turn generate more news as well. In the same way the online environment helps the circulation of mass media material through different platforms of internet. Thus the relation is complex and can change accordingly to each situation. For example, the mass media are still the centre of visibility in most countries; hence some online political actions WILL need media coverage to improve its impact. One example comes from the Egyptian “Facebook revolution”. Aouragh & Alexander (2011) show that face to face actions of different revolutionaries and Al Jazeera media coverage were probably more important for Mubarak resignation in a systemic approach. This does not mean that social media were not important though. Social media acted as sources for different media channels and journalists, what helped to increase international pressure over the Egyptian regime. The point is that the whole “media system” was used and was important for the final result. That may be the case in several occasions and even in most of Fung et al models.

 

3) Potentialities: however the main problem of the Fung et al’s text is the emphasis on “potentialities”. There is still a premise of “what can ICTs do for democracy?” and this is not the question of field anymore. For instance, Fung and colleagues claim that the last 3 models are more “likely to see ICT & governance transformations”, but I believe. e-democracy field has gone above that. We are not dealing only with potentials anymore, but instead with context, design, political cultures, interests, stakeholders etc. or yet with the conditions to enable these transformations. Then what has worked before? What were the main factors for success or failure in the different projects? How was specific context important for the final results? Why do people participate in certain occasions, but not in others? What sort of technologies suit better specific objectives of e-democracy projects? What are the political struggles involved in the design, use and final implementation of ICT in these processes?

 

Scott Wright (2012), for example, has written an excellent text about this. He criticises the revolution vs. normalization approaches. In Wright’s opinion, both views can hinder the analysis, because they are either expecting too much from the Internet or dismissing some smaller (but important) changes. I think this is the case in Fung at al approach. As Peter Dahlgren has affirmed, the internet IS part of our social and cultural environments and it shapes our civic culture. Thereby we should not use and enact ICT for democratic use because of the potentials that internet, web 2.0 or whatsoever may ‘offer’. We should do it because they are part of everyday life already. So my point is to not consider the ICT as a revolution or even as an ‘alternative’ (in the sense of potentialities), but as part of our reality, as something “natural”. One important thing is: the addition of ICT to any political process will not hinder or improve it by itself, but will make it more complex in different ways. Thus this addition will come with new solutions and new problems at the same time (Dahlgren also has some words on this). For example, an e-democracy project could reach more people, but now the digital divide is an issue; the participation can be made easier, but it could be less meaningful etc. The objectives of each political action will of course make a great difference as the different interests involved. So there is no easy wayout of this.

 

4) Systemic approach: considering that professor Archon Fung is one of authors of “A systemic approach to deliberative democracy” (Mansbridge et al, 2012),  a systemic approach  was missed in this text. In my opinion this is truly one of main problems of Internet and Politics fields. Usually researchers consider the internet in complete isolation from other media, from other parts of political system and even from the different stakeholders. Fung et al recognize that “these models are by no means exclusive or fully comprehensive. In fact, some of them even complement each other”, but I would emphasize this. The models, as I stated before, are clearly useful to illuminate some parts of different political processes, but it is exactly the interplay of the different models that could be applied to real life situations. The systemic approach could show, for instance, how the ICT can be less empowered in parts of the process and very important or even vital in others, even if one is talking about the same process, as could be the case of Egypt.

 

Nevertheless, these four criticisms are not exclusive to Fung et al text, but to the majority of e-democracy texts (mine included, I must say). A more complex and systemic approach would be welcomed to the field, not regarding the potentialities or alternatives of the internet, but one that tries to understand how (context, conditions etc.) the ICT coud be designed to create, foster or correct democratic goods, but also acknowledging the fact that there are not “easy pathways”. Problems and drawbacks will also come in the package as it would happen with any other participation technology. The final point, as Mansbridge et al (2012), Smith (2009) and Coleman & Blumler (2009) have said before, is to recognize that a single event/institution/tool/program cannot achieve all democratic/deliberative values at once. We need to consider that each part [of the system] is not fully democratic by itself, but it can be very important to achieve specific tasks that will be vital for the whole system in the long run.

 

References

AOURAGH, Miriyam; ALEXANDER, Anne. (2011). The Egyptian Experience:  Sense and Nonsense of the Internet Revolution. International Journal of Communication 5.

 

COLEMAN, Stephen, COLEMAN, Stephen; BRUMLER, Jay G. The internet and democratic citizenship: theory, practice and policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

DAHLGREN, Peter (2011) ‘Parameters of online participation: conceptualising civic contingencies’. CM: Communication Management. Quarterly, no. 21, Winter pp., 87-110.

 

MANSBRIDGE, J.; BOHMAN, J.; CHAMBERS, S.; CHRISTIANO, T.; FUNG, A.; PARKINSON, J.; THOMPSON, D.; WARREN, M. In:PARKINSON, John; MANSBRIDGE, Jane (Orgs.). (2012). Deliberative Systems: Deliberative Democracy at the Large Scale.

 

MAIA, Rousiley. (2012). Deliberation, The Media and Political Talk (International Association for Media and Communication Research).

 

SMITH, Graham. Democratic Innovations: Designing Institutions for Citizen Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

 

WRIGHT, Scott. (2012). Politics as usual? Revolution, normalization and a new agenda for online deliberation. New Media Society, 14(2) 244–261.