The Internet Boosts Political Participation.
Define it. The Internet has certainly created new avenues for exchanging opinions and ideas, but we don't yet know whether this will boost the global appeal and practice of democracy. Where some see a renewal of civic engagement, others see "slacktivism," the new favorite pejorative for the shallow, peripheral, and fluid political campaigning that seems to thrive on the Internet -- sometimes at the expense of more effective real-world campaigning. And where some applaud new online campaigns purportedly aimed at increasing civic participation, such as Estonia's planned 2011 launch of voting via text-messaging, others, myself included, doubt whether the hassle of showing up at a polling place once every two or four years is really what makes disengaged citizens avoid the political process.
The debate over the Internet's impact on participation echoes a much earlier controversy about the ambiguous social and political effects of cable television. Long before blogs were invented, scholars and pundits were arguing over whether the boob tube was turning voters into passive, apolitical entertainment maniacs who, when given greater choice, favored James Bond flicks and Happy Days reruns over nightly news broadcasts -- or whether it was turning them into hyperactive, obsessive citizens who watch C-SPAN nonstop. The argument then, and now, was that American-style democracy was turning into niche markets for politics, with the entertainment-obsessed masses opting out, on TV and at the polling booth, and news junkies looking for ever-quicker fixes in the sped-up news cycle. The Internet is cable television on steroids; both tuning in and tuning out of political discourse have never been easier.
Another danger is that even the news we read will come increasingly from selective sources, such as our Facebook friends, which might decrease the range of views to which we're exposed. Three-quarters of Americans who consume their news online say they receive at least some of it through forwarded emails or posts on social networking sites, according to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. Presently, less than 10 percent of Americans report relying on just one media platform. But that could easily change as traditional news sources lose market share to the Web.