The Law School Magazine  ·  Spring 2012 : Departments

Connecting Democracy: Online Consultation and the Flow of Political Communication

By - Spring 2012
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With the proliferation of online communication tools, e-democracy is steadily transforming the relationship between government and citizens, a phe­nomenon that Peter M. Shane, the Jacob E. Davis and Jacob E. Davis II Chair in Law at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, explores in his most recent book, Connecting Democracy: Online Consultation and the Flow of Political Communication, published by The MIT Press in 2011.

Shane, an internationally recognized scholar in administrative and consti­tutional law, has been interested in the impact of new technology on the democratic practice since the 1990s. Receiving a National Science Foundation grant for interdisciplinary study related to cyberspace and democracy, he is the co-chair with co-editor Stephen Cole­man, of a multinational research group that studied online consultation and its relationship to democratic discourse in the building of democratic legitimacy.

Online consultations refer to Internet-based discussion forums that represent government-run or government-en­dorsed solicitations of public input with regard to policymaking. The book inves­tigates this growing trend and its effect on democracy in the U.S. and Europe, examining the potential of Internet-en­abled policy forums to enrich democratic citizenship.

“As soon as we had the World Wide Web, new media began to impact the democratic process, allowing citizens to become more directly engaged. There was the potential to cure problems con­cerning the public input process. Govern­ments hold lots of public hearings for people to voice their opinions, but they are held at specific locations at specific times. It may be hard to get there, or to learn what happened afterward. But the Internet changed all of that,” Shane said.

Despite the widespread availability of online forums for political expression, few are tied in any ascertainable, account­able way to government policymaking, as the book notes. After 15 years of such consultations, their democratic potential is nowhere close to being realized. Con­necting Democracy discusses this issue in addition to addressing the question, “Why would anyone want to spend time online talking to the government?”

The problem, Shane states, “is that people will not be motivated to engage (the government) if they believe their efforts are pointless.” The book, and specifically the chapter he co-authors, The Legal Environment for Electronic Democracy, explains how the law can and does require the government to take public opinion into account.

“The Administrative Procedures Act requires agencies to give opportunities for public comment on proposed regula­tions,” Shane wrote. “Rules may be set aside if a regulation is shown to be arbi­trary, where important issues were raised but the agency ignored them. This is just one example of how the law can create leverage on behalf of the public that wants to engage. By doing this, it provides an incentive to draw more people in to participate in the democratic process.”

Aside from public input into and review of government rules and regula­tions, another important use of online public engagement is the ability of the government to involve citizens in the election process.

In the 2008 presidential election, President Barack Obama’s campaign suc­cessfully embraced online consultation and citizen-engagement initiatives. The Obama campaign used the Web to raise money, mobilize local campaign activi­ties, fight attacks by opponents, get out the vote, and measure voter attitudes.

Online videos also played a major role in the campaign, as the book notes. By one count, 104,454 videos about Obama were uploaded during the campaign, with more than 889 million views, compared to 64,092 videos about Republican op­ponent John McCain, which were viewed 554 million times.

Shane anticipates that the Obama campaign will commit even greater time and effort to the use of new online media in the next election, based on the campaign’s previous success of translat­ing important political messages into engaging media.

The book offers an optimistic forecast for the democratic potential of the Inter­net, based not only on the “availability of new tools,” as Shane writes, “but because large numbers of people are adopting new media habits that are genuinely participatory and thus engaging in the public sphere in a way that could breed a more deeply democratic culture.”

On his predictions for the 2012 elec­tion: “Mitt Romney will be better than McCain was in 2008, not because he is personally better, but because someone from his campaign has surely looked at Obama’s use of new media in the last election, why it was effective, and will try to emulate the same kind of positive production values. If they don’t, they will suffer,” said Shane.

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