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Dr. Olga Guedes Liverpool John Moores University UK

New Technologies, Democracy and Social Movement


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New Technologies, Democracy and Social Movement Dr. Olga Guedes


As the use of the Internet and world wide web by citizens has increased, a number of scholars have been debating the web as a means to increased democratic participation and strengthened political community. (Berber, 1984; Arterton, 1987; Boncheck 1995; Grossman, 1995; Bimber 1996; Ward 1996). The discussion, especially among academics, of the political impact of the new digital communication technologies has emphasized its potential to offer opportunities for renewing democracy, fostering innovation, economic development, and providing populations in both the advanced industrial nations and the developing world with resources and opportunities previously out of their reach. As the argument goes, the list of benefits is enormous: citizens could be empowered by easier access to government services and virtual libraries; political parties and non-governmental organizations could improve their political profile by interacting with the public, and so forth. However, we should not be over-enthusiastic about the political potential of the Internet; at best, the new media can be said to have a susceptible potential to improve democracy. We should not forget that, while new information and communication technologies might provide a utopian ideal, offering new possibilities for decentralised participation, democracy and citizenship, they could also support extreme dictatorial political systems.

This paper discusses the potential of the Internet, as a social space, to encourage and foster new opportunities for wider publics in civil society to participate in political affairs by looking at the use of the Internet by environmental non-governmental organizations.

My argument is that although the technology of the Internet provides us with some new form of public space, the reality of Internet political use in most developing countries presents a rather gloomy scenario. The considerations are twofold. First, there is an enormous economic barrier to Internet access. Second, the democratic systems are not fully developed and, therefore, a democratic culture is not yet consolidated, which might reflect on the attempts at online democratic exercises. Rather than being a public sphere for citizen political empowerment, cyberspace is in danger of becoming a mere space for commercial purposes and propaganda. Thus, I would like to develop this argument by highlighting two major factors that restrain democratic participation in the Internet: economic access and citizen participation. These factors are in turn linked to potential uses of the Internet in the new social movement and to evidence on the web pages of environmental organisations.

Democracy and the Internet

The relationship between cyberspace and democracy is very complex. I shall highlight two specific aspects of that relationship. First, there is a clear contradiction between the discourse of a utopian realm, where everybody accesses the Internet, and its privatised access ethos. On the one hand, the Internet culture has enabled a revival of open public discussion, creating a new social space through a decentralised communication system that institutes costless reproduction, and instantaneous dissemination. On the other, access to cyberspace is effectively expensive and a privilege of a relatively small minority of the world’s population, as it remains unknown and irrelevant to daily life in the world-at-large. Even when considering that there has been an explosion in the growth of Internet use and an increase in the number of people who access it on regular basis, it is still limited to a social, educational and economic elite. In addition, we should mention that the increased commercialisation of the Internet might intensify the pressure on its social and political use.

The second aspect relates to citizen participation in the political system. Such participation has been discouraged by three main factors: inadequate civic education, citizen apathy, and disconnection between citizens and their representatives, which might also interfere with the way people use and respond to the Internet as a political

space. It is important to highlight that the Internet cannot provide an instantaneous technological fix to the crisis of democracy but it has a significant role in the new political dynamics of the ‘network society’.

Inadequate civic education

One problem that inhibits political participation is the lack of basic education and decision-making skills, since an effective democracy requires that citizens should be trained in democracy. The civic education required for democratic decision-making involves not only the dissemination of information but also a shift in values underlying democratic decisions (Bellah at al, 1985; Putnam, 1993a). In developing countries, this factor has been fundamental in perpetuating old and unjust structures of economic and political power and keeping people distant from the political process of policy-making. Access to information is indispensable both to forming political judgements and to effective political participation.

The Internet has been argued to enhance the opportunity for citizens and the governing elite to communicate. While these capabilities might advance the process of democracy, it is less clear whether the Internet will foster the development of more thoughtful and civic oriented communication. According to Blumer & Gurevitch, the civic potential of the Internet is related to several aspects: the issue of active users; the possibility of involving large numbers of users in a civic dialogue; the provision of large stores of retrievable data that may be tapped into by users; the interactive exchange, enabling a symmetry of communicative power by making it easier for individuals to find and follow information of their interest, and by reducing the costs of acquiring information (Blumer & Gurevitch, 2000) .

However, the question is not whether interactive communication technologies (ICTs) have the potential to connect citizens to political institutions, but ‘what kind of political channels need to be created to enable ICTs to become sources of public empowerment’ (Coleman, 2000:200). Thus, for example, Coleman suggests the implementation of a number of political mechanisms ranging from ‘virtual public spaces’, to online policy proposals and consultations utilizing reliable online information. Nevertheless, so far, the Internet's civic potential has been greater than

its reality. Although a number of innovative initiatives have been developed, the Internet has not yet become an ordinary tool for public participation in the political sphere. Despite this, the Internet would seem to be a useful tool for providing citizens with civic and political information. The Internet could be used for the provision of information about parliament, political parties, non-governmental organizations, including a deliberative forum for citizens to exchange views with one another. Moreover, civic education through the Internet should not only provide basic information but also should enhance democratic culture by stressing the importance of ideals of commonwealth, and the need for a sense of common good and civic responsibility.

Citizen apathy A perceptible weakness in twentieth-century representative democracies has been the absence of strong public participation, caused by a widespread crisis of political legitimacy. Citizens have become detached from the political process for several reasons, ranging from disaffection and distrust in relation to their representatives to disbelief in the power of the vote. However, Blumer and Coleman believe that in recent years things have changed, inasmuch as new notions of the active citizen predict participation as a facet of civic duty. They present examples of innovations in public participation in governance but acknowledge that none of these experiments has dissipated cynicism and apathy. A number of scholars argue that to address political apathy, one must build effective local political communities based on civic organisations to bring about democratic revitalization (Barber, 1985; Coleman 1988; Putnam, 1994; and Newton, 1996).

There are several online possibilities to overcome apathy, such as the creation of a ‘virtual public space’ to enable citizens to get information about issues of their interest and to scrutinise the workings of parliament and government. In addition, the development of an effective political community at the local level might be fostered through chat rooms, electronic bulletin boards and online conferences enabling wider groups of citizen to participate in policy deliberation.

Links between citizens and their representatives The third factor to inhibit democracy is the disconnection between citizens and their governments. There should be a practical link between the voice of the people and their representatives. In a direct democracy, this would take the form of delegates being mandated, accountable and recallable. The literature registers several reasons for this disconnection; increased size and power of bureaucracy, the information asymmetry between the government and general public; and the high costs of communication and organization mean that the policy process is more responsive to small, well-organised interests than to large, poorly organised groups (Niskanen, 1971; Campbell et al, 1960; Becker, 1983; Mitchell and Munger,1991). Many of the suggestions to bring government and people closer call for a transfer of power from representatives and the business elite to ordinary citizens. However, most of the existing attempts are nothing more than symbolic gestures by politicians to engender public confidence in their own ability to effect change (Hale, 2000). In the end, improving the connections between citizens and their representatives requires more than improving communication, it needs the development of a public debate that is deliberative in nature. It is not enough for citizens and government to talk, democratic renewal requires ‘dialogical’ communication: cross-communication between citizens and citizens, and between citizens and public officials.

The Internet provides, in principal, a horizontal, non-controlled, relatively cheap, channel of communication, therefore it might be an option to reduce the distance between citizen and government or non-governmental organizations since it creates the opportunity to improve communication and reconnect citizens with their representatives, other citizens and democracy. It offers high levels of interaction, openness, visibility and support for group-based communication. Hale et al point out that ‘whether and how government applications of the technology capabilities will affect democratic processes will nonetheless depend on how they are designed and used - the social shaping of the technology (Hale at all, 2000:107).

The question is what kind of political online channel the social movement is creating in order to overcome the political crisis and foster public empowerment. This will be analysed through the examination of empirical data resulting from research on Non

Governmental Environmental Organizations online sites, focusing on the extent to which their web pages conform to the demands for democratic renewal.

New Social Movement The Twenty first century social movement is characterised by a common objective of transforming the values and institutions of society through collective actions and it has manifested itself on and by the Internet. The new social movement is a movement of opposition to global capitalism and although it has a global scope tends to be manifest locally. They challenge the transnational corporations, oppose the transnational capitalist class and its local affiliates in the political sphere, and promote cultures and ideologies of anti-consumerism. In most capitalist societies, social movements for what has become known as social democracy have united those who are hostile to capitalism, those who struggle to alleviate the worst consequences of capitalism, and those who simply want to ensure that capitalism works with more social efficiency than the so called free market allows. They are characterized by the unmistakable novelty of their practices, for example the use of credit cards for donations and the media and new media for mobilization, and the appeal of some of the most prominent social movements of recent decades, notably the women’s movement and environmental movement. The issue of democracy is central to the practice and the prospectus of social movements against capitalism, local and global. The rule of law, freedom of association and expression, and freely contested elections, as minimum conditions and however imperfectly sustained, are as necessary for mass market-based global consumerist capitalism as they are for alternative social movements (Sklair, 1999).

Environmental Movement and the Internet

In relation to the environmental movement, the technology of the Internet has improved the communication of environmental activists both among organisations and with the public in general. In many ways the environmental movement has become global in scope, they can both spread the word and bring diverse constituencies together. The beginning of a new level of international solidarity is clear in the way groups from the base have made connections and are working

together across national and cultural borders. Most environmental non-governmental organisations are moving online with reworked services. They are exploring a widening range of Internet applications: building global coalitions to present their objectives, to raise funds; to mobilise supporters for their campaigns, to send personally targeted messages, to bombard journalists with electronic ‘press releases’, and reliance on global information networks, all of which makes them rather dependent on the Internet. The Internet then becomes a privileged medium of organization for the social movement opening up new paths for social change in the ‘network society’. In this scenario, Castells argues that the Internet became a crucial component of the kind of social movements emerging in the information society for three reasons: first, since social movements are basically mobilized around cultural values and the communication of values, mobilization around meaning is fundamental to their cause. So they are built around communication systems, because “ they are the main way in which these movements can reach out to those who would adhere to their values, and from there to affect the consciousness of society as a whole”. Second, “they have to fill the gap left by the crisis of vertically integrated organizations inherited from the industrial era”, i.e. their forms of organization might be based on loose coalitions, informality, semi-spontaneous mobilizations, and non-hierarchical structures. Thus, the Internet became a crucial medium of expression, organization and networking because it permits the movement to establish new patterns of ‘organization’ and communication. The third factor is the globalisation of the social movement, i.e. the “power increasingly functions in global networks, largely bypassing the institutions of the nation-state, movements are faced with the need to match the global reach of the powers that be with their own global impact on the media, through symbolic actions”. Accordingly, the Internet provides the material basis for social movements to challenge the structures of power in a global scale in their struggle for a new society (Castells, 2001:140).

Environmental NGOs Web Pages

To examine the extent to which the Internet enhances the features of democratic participation outlined earlier, I looked at the web sites of Brazilian environmental

NGOs. Few of these are international in scale and have national offices in Brazil1, with web pages in Portuguese, and most are local organisations. The methodology of analysis is based on the non-governmental environmental organizations which have a fundamental role as representatives of civic society. My argument is that those organizations should play an important role in fostering political participation through their online pages. Therefore, the focus is on whether those institutions have developed democratic online strategies for ‘ordinary’ people to be able to exercise their citizenship by effective participation in the environmental movement. In addition to the issue of democratic participation, the research looked at two aspects: changes in communication patterns and the notion of discursive democracy2. The general outcomes of the analysis3 suggest that most environmental organizations see the arrival of the Internet as a potential communication vehicle that might replace, at least in part, television and newspapers, which are expensive media for them to use to publicise their work. Others have seen it as complementing existing communication outlets, and useful for internal communication via e-mail capabilities. All the organizations studied were aware of the potential gains to be made by providing virtual information, which can be accessed at any time by a global audience. All the major NGOs have home pages that the public can access4. NGOs are relatively new to the realm of Internet communication. In general, the sites are not as creative and challenging as the ones in the commercial sector. The bigger organizations are more willing to adopt the Internet as part of their communication strategy and to seek to gain a new audience from doing so. The smaller organizations do not have the financial resources to produce web pages yet but are planning to do so in the near 1

The country has a total population of approximately 170 million people, of which 70% live in urban areas. According to the latest statistics there are 11.3 million people using the Internet; women’s participation in cyberspace has decreased to 40.2% of the total of residential users. Additionally, the number of hours of access of the Internet has declined in relation to previous years, from 16 to 10 hours/week. IBOPE one line, June, 2000. 2 Nixon & Johansson use the term to “describe discussion and interaction between individual citizens that may support more consensual forms of decision making. It implies an engagement or involvement in politics that refutes the notion of a passive consumption of ‘top down’ delivered political views, in favour of ‘bottom up’ discursive interaction in which the citizen not only consumes but plays a part in creation of politics. (Nixon & Johansson, 2000) 3 Online interviews were conducted with representatives of NGOs 4 The home page addresses of the organizations studied are as follows: ; ; ; ; ;

future. They all demonstrated a concern in relation to the difficulty of online communication to reach the ‘ordinary’ public, given that most of the population who really need environmental information and education do not have access to computers, corroborating the argument that the economic barrier is a huge problem for the exercise of online democracy. Although the main perception of the Internet was an instrumental one, i.e. a tool to be used to get their messages across to different publics, there was also a clear sense that the Internet is not simply technology, rather it is a communication medium which has transformed their exercise of politics in the ‘network society’.

The second phase of the research consisted of asking a small number of non-net users to examine the NGOs web pages. The overall results were not encouraging for the organizations if they are hoping to attract new members or to perform a role in fostering the exercise of citizenship via the web pages5. The levels of information were considered to be either too basic or too complex, and sometimes, not up to date and not user friendly. A huge variety in the environmental information available in the web sites was found. For example, SOS Mata Atlantica provides the user with rich information on environmental legislation, gives governmental organisations' addresses and provides open space for users to ask questions. In contrast, some of the other sites are so small and basic that they are in reality nothing more than a text page electronically presented. The majority of the sites range between these two extremes, providing the most basic information on environmental affairs but without extensive mechanisms and details necessary for visitors to conduct basic business on the web. In general terms, the analysis showed that the information provided on government policies and strategies for the environment on the web pages were very disappointing. There was little information regarding, for example, political parties and their green platform. Thus, environmental NGOs web pages do not appear to be ideally designed. As such, a citizen or interest group attempting to learn more about environmental politics might not be able to rely on an environmental web page for basic environmental civic education. ; ; ; ; ; 5 They were a group formed by university students, liberal professionals, house wives, and representatives of grass roots movements; different age/sex/race/income/education. They were asked to look at several aspects, such as: clarity, interactivity possibilities, level of information, and so forth.

The second path to improve democratic revitalization is to strengthen civic association by facilitating horizontal communication and interaction between groups. These include other grass-roots advocacy groups, environmental governmental institutions, and private companies. The results showed that most of the web pages provided links to other organizations, but not information about these organizations. The main use of the web sites for discursive democracy should be via chat rooms or with electronic bulletin boards. The web pages analysed did show a great deal of interactivity in relation to spaces for debate; they offered the option of web mail, space to participate in their campaigns, and to criticize environmental crimes. In addition, while the chat rooms give the impression of a democratic interchange of ideas, one has to question the value the organization gives to its content. The chat rooms are often ‘ordinary members’ exchanging ideas between themselves, and not a bottom up flow informing the policy makers. The result is that environmental web pages are unlikely to promote social capital among citizens.

The third aspect is vertical communication between citizens and government. The analysis shows that very few web pages contained a good level of information regarding major environmental government departments. For those who offered this connection, the information was related to national and local environmental departments and to the main governmental institutions dealing with different issues of environmental degradation. The study suggests that NGOs web pages generally are not using electronic communication capabilities to their fullest potential to facilitate interactive communication. Having said that, there were good examples of sites that explore the potential of the Internet by presenting web pages with easy design to facilitate users' interaction with the diversity of information and spaces for debate that may enrich local political discourse.


The results of this study are not very hopeful yet demonstrate a process of adjustment by the NGOs to explore the political potential of the Internet. The three difficulties for the exercise of participative democracy that have been identified - lack of civic information, citizen apathy, and disconnection between citizens and their

representatives - have not yet been overcome by the web pages analysed. However, the potential of the Internet to foster changes in the ‘traditional’ political scenario are being experienced by NGOs and although not fully developed, we should recognise that the Internet has improved the political debate.

The results of the research show that there is still a long way to go before we can witness the nourishment of a strong democracy through ‘virtual space’. The NGOs uses of the Internet seem, in some ways, to be attached to old patterns of doing politics, even though their political practice is progressive and recognised as a revitalising force in the politics of the new millennium. Perhaps the outcomes are also relative to the typology of democracy practised and the perceptions of citizenship held in Brazil. The present ‘picture’ of Internet use might be a reflection of a place where authentic democratic practices are not fully developed and where citizens are held in low regard or excluded by their representatives and other experts in the public sphere. Perhaps the most promising outcome of this study relates to the fact that the NGOs uses of the Internet as a global forum of communication to promote a new society have changed the Internet from a business tool and communication medium to what Castells calls a “lever of social transformation” (Castells, 2001:143)

I would agree with the assumption that the technology of the Internet is dialogical, democratic and libertarian in its essence. Even so, there is no automatically democratic character to the new media; democratic practice must be established within political culture, not depended upon as if it were an intrinsic property of a technological miracle. The results also demonstrate that any attempt to develop a ‘digital democracy’, from which the majority of the population is excluded economically at the point of access, is a political self-delusion. Despite this, the history of the Internet needs to be written and, so far, the best way to do that is by sharing experiences and experiments that produce knowledge about the role of the Internet as a recognized public sphere.


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Olga Guedes Liverpool John Moores University, UK


Liverpool John Moores University UK O acesso aos textos dos encontros panamericano e 2001 Bugs é exclusivamente reservado aos partici- pante...

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