digital democracy

In the Myth of Digital Democracy, Matthew Hindman argued against political scholars’ idea that the Internet truly democratized American politics. Unlike political scientists, who felt the Internet would “expand the range of ideas and amplify the political voice” of ordinary citizens, Hindman argued that “cyber politics mirrors traditional politics” (6, 9). He argued that the Internet’s “infrastructure” limited the amount of content that citizens saw (16). He used data to show the inequality of access to political information on the Web.

Hindman explained that the link structure of the Web determined the information people saw. Links allow people to visit different websites. According to Hindman, “the more paths there are to a site, the more traffic it will receive” (15).  Some websites remain at the top of search engines, such as Google and Yahoo, because of their visibility on the web. Web developers use HTML codes to build websites. The websites “say nothing about search engines” and “these tools determine what users will observe” (15).   With a “winners-take-all pattern” in politics, a few large websites control the amount of political information disseminated across the web (56). “It may be easy to speak in cyberspace, but it remains difficult to be heard” (142).

Hitwise’s clickstream data explained the role of search engines in directing traffic to politically relevant sites. “Hitwise’s primary measure is the number of visits a site receives” (60). As larger websites continue to promote traffic and serve as major outlets for citizens, other independent websites, political news audiences and bloggers continue to remain invisible by the majority on the web. “Many Americans maintain a blog but “only a few dozen political bloggers get as many readers” as a college newspaper “(103). Hindman also explained that blogs did not serve as a fair platform to discuss American politics. He also stated that blogs gave “educational, professional and technical elites new influence in society” (103).

Howard Dean’s political campaign changed citizens’ views about online organizing and fund-raising. Hindman found that more liberals “dominate the audience for politics online and liberal sites attract greater levels of traffic” (25).  From Dean’s campaign, citizens witnessed “the long list of supportive blogs and the number of citizens willing to sign up as supporters on the Dean Web site” (27).  While ordinary citizens volunteered and many liberals gave donations for Dean’s campaign, Hindman argued that the “campaign for resources changed but the campaign for votes did not” (37). This idea explained Hindman’s concept that smaller represented groups’ voices often remain unheard in politics.

Hindman observed different categories of online content to convey that many citizens do not care about political information. Nearly “10.5 percent of Web traffic goes to adult or pornographic, 9.6 percent to Web Service mail, 7.2 percent to search engines, 2.9 to news and media and 0.12 percent to political websites” (61). The Internet “increased the political knowledge of citizens already interested in politics” as oppose to “affecting the apathetic” (10).

While many think the Internet is a “narrowcasting medium that levels the playing field, eliminates gatekeepers and gives voices” to the marginalized groups, Hindman showed that the Internet did not democratize American politics (38).