In The Myth of Digital Democracy, Matthew Hindman, an assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University, argues that the internet has not made political debate more inclusive in the United States. By looking at patterns of hyperlinks, web traffic and search engine usage, Hindman shows how the hierarchies of traditional media and politics are reproduced online. While anyone can publish a blog, Hindman's empirical data suggest that it is mostly white men from the educational elite who get read. Contrary to popular belief, the data show that the voices that participate in online political debates are those of the old elite in politics, media and business, rather than those of the formerly marginalized.
The book consists of seven chapters and an appendix. Excluding appendix and references, it spans 142 pages. In chapter 1, the research questions and the scholarly context of the book's main claims are set out. Chapter 2 is a case study of the internet's role in Howard Dean's campaign in the 2004 Democratic primary election. Here, in “the supply chain of politics” (p. 28), Hindman concludes that the internet has indeed transformed how campaign funds are raised and campaign volunteer workers recruited. In chapters 3 and 4, Hindman shows how patterns of hyperlinks and the way search engines rank web sites channel web traffic in unegalitarian ways. In chapter 5, he demonstrates that the concentration of media audiences around a few big news outlets is in fact more pronounced online than offline. Chapter 6 continues with a critique of the idea that blogs have democratized public debate. Hindman shows that the bloggers who are being read are generally part of the same media elite who are being read at the op-ed pages of traditional newspapers. In the final chapter, Hindman summarizes his findings and conclusions. The appendix contains more in-depth information about the data and methodology used to get the results reported in the book.
Hindman's main target in the book is "[t]he recurring suggestion [...] that the Internet is a 'narrowcasting' or 'pointcasting' medium that levels the playing field, eliminates traditional gatekeepers, and gives voice to marginalized or resource-poor groups." (p. 38) By appeal to a variety of data (survey data collected by various organizations, his own census data, analyses of hyperlink patterns, "clickstream" data etc.), Hindman demonstrates convincingly that those claiming that the internet is enlarging the political public sphere in the United States rest their cases on some dubious assumptions. First of all, researchers often infer that online communication is egalitarian just because the architecture of the internet is open and decentralized. To avoid this mistake, Hindman suggests that a broad conception of what constitutes the Internet's infrastructure should be adopted: the topology of hyperlinks, as well as the major search engines and their rankings of relevance to various search queries should be considered part of the backbone infrastructure. Given this conception, the internet is anything but just "broad and flat" (p. 91). Secondly, Hindman argues that even though there are few technical barriers for any random citizens to find a political site or start a blog, barriers do exists which ensures that the chances of actually being read on the internet is vanishingly small. In fact, Hindman presents data which shows that the internet exacerbates the economies of scale that exist in world of offline media. Traditional news organizations provide most of the news and political information even online, because content production is expensive. While the sort of opinion pieces posted at political blogs may be an exception to this, creating an frequently updated blog that attracts an audience requires good writing skills, knowledge of politics, and a flexible job which allows one to spend time blogging. It is difficult to disagree with Hindman when he points out that "[n]o one working a ten-hour shift at Wendy's would be able to update her blog on a smoke break." (p. 124)
Contrary to claims about there being a Long Tail effect in political communication, Hindman claims that patterns conform better to a "missing middle" model. Politically related web traffic is concentrated to a few big outlets, and while there is a very large number of web sites with tiny audiences, there are very few web sites with moderately sized readerships. According to Hindman, political communication online follows a winner-takes-it-all pattern: "It may be easy to speak in cyberspace, but it remains difficult to be heard." (p. 142)
Hindman does not deny, of course, that the internet has changed politics, nor that it has not been beneficial to some aspects of democracy. First of all, "large, loose coalitions of citizens are able to use the Internet and related technologies to organize themselves with breathtaking speed." (p. 10) He also recognizes, as already mentioned, that the internet has transformed the way both Democrats and Republicans in the United States organize fund-raising and galvanize campaign workers and political activists. Since Dean's campaign, politicians and political scientists think differently about fund-raising. Small contributions made through the internet by masses of ordinary citizens have grown in importance at the expense of larger contributions from the few and wealthy. However, this only shows that the "campaign for resources" has changed, not the "campaign for votes" according to Hindman (p. 37). When it comes to "direct political speech--the ability of ordinary citizens to have their views considered by their peers and political elites--", Hindman shows that the internet has not led to any significant changes, at least not in the United States.
This is a well written short book about one aspects of online politics, namely who gets read and heard when it comes to online political debate, which I recommend to any reader interested in the relation between the internet and democratic values. The book is well organized and most of content is accessible to a general readership (a few sections require some background in research methods and statistics). It exclusively discusses the Internet's role in national politics in the United States, and the author does not make any claim about whether his conclusions can be generalized to other political contexts. Comparisons with the effect of the internet on political debate in other countries, or at least some outlooks at online politics elsewhere, would have been interesting (say, the use of the Internet by the Pirate Party to get seats in the European Parliament). Hindman would then perhaps have been able to make some suggestion about how the Internet's (lack of) effect on people's ability to get their voices heard is (or is not) tied to the political system in the United States. One might come away from the book feeling that the patterns of online political communication that Hindman exposes are inevitable, but perhaps they depend heavily on the US social and political context. I also wonder if Hindman's focus on what he calls "the perspective of mass politics" (p. 118) gives a somewhat skewed picture of the democratic value of the Internet. What about the role of the Internet in more small-scale local politics? These are some of the questions that Hindman's book stimulates.
© 2009 Olle Blomberg
Olle Blomberg is a Ph.D. student in Philosophy at University of Edinburgh (UK) and a freelance journalist. He is interested in the philosophy of social and cognitive science, the philosophy of technology, as well as science and technology journalism. For information about his freelance writing, see http://www.olleblomberg.com/english.html. Information about his Ph.D. research can found on his University of Edinburgh web page [http://www.philosophy.ed.ac.uk/postgraduate/students/phd/OlleBlomberg.html].