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New research highlights Internet’s ability to build social capital and counter political alienation
New research highlights Internet’s ability to build social capital and counter political alienationNovember 04, 2002Nicci Brownnicbrown@syr.edu
New research by political and media experts at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs bodes well for political underdogs and insurgent candidates – but only those who choose to engage and include voters. Professors Steve Davis, Larry Elin and Grant Reeher argue that the Internet’s role in the 2000 election has set the stage for political community-building in the future, providing a cyber-forum for civic action. “The Internet gives voice to the unheard, a kind of power to ordinary people,” Elin says. “As the Internet becomes more ubiquitous – as the digital divide closes – it could shift the current power structure.”
Davis, Elin and Reeher present their findings in “Click on Democracy: The Internet’s Power to Change Political Apathy into Civic Action” (Westview Press, October 2002). The book argues that the Internet’s most profound political impact is mostly being overlooked, and highlights the Internet’s ability to build political communities, help regenerate social capital, and reinvigorate democracy. “The traditional ways of thinking about the Internet – as a more efficient, and cheaper, way of reaching potential voters misconstrues its real value,” Reeher says. “The real value is when governments, parties, campaigns and media outlets creatively use the Internet to foster citizen to citizen relations. To the degree that they can recognize this, candidates and parties can do good works in the political world by generating ‘community’- and help themselves in the process.”
“Click on Democracy” examines the 2000 presidential election – the first major U.S. election to be able to fully utilize the power of the Internet. In writing the book, the authors and contributors (who include Newhouse professors Hub Brown, Amy Falkner, Barbara Fought and Peter Moller; adjuncts Katy Benson and Chris Bolt, and alumna Liz Skewes) spoke with scores of “ordinary” people doing “extraordinary” things on the Web. These were the people who truly understood the value of the Internet to create meaningful relationships between like-minded individuals. The authors contend that this – the Internet’s most profound political impact – was missed or underestimated, because the difference made was more social than purely electoral. “The Internet provides a venue for people to overcome present-day forces that make it harder for them to connect,” Reeher says. “It’s a facilitator of human connection, in a political context.”
The book, which was just over a year in the making, uses case studies to show how during the 2000 election, people came together to talk about politics again; not necessarily at the local town meeting or coffee shop, but online and in the “chatrooms” of cyberspace. Meanwhile, large political operations engaged in their usual online efforts of mass broadcast and fundraising. “The Internet is already a big part of government,” Davis says. “Our book is about how ‘regular citizens’ used the Internet to empower themselves. This will continue to happen and it will continue to happen more.” Not only that, Davis, Elin and Reeher believe large political institutions need to take note of how the Internet is building social capital – and respond appropriately before they are left behind.