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European Journal of Communication

http://ejc.sagepub.com Rethinking Politics in the World of ICTs

Sara Bentivegna European Journal of Communication 2006; 21; 331 DOI: 10.1177/0267323106066638 The online version of this article can be found at: http://ejc.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/21/3/331

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Rethinking Politics in the World of ICTs


Sara Bentivegna

A B S T R A C T

This article explores the relationship between ICTs and politics. The
rst part of the article briey looks back over the literature reconstructing the framework within which this relationship has been located. According to the optimistic approach, ICTs could act as a catalyst in establishing democracy worldwide: great expectations have been nurtured but they have been frustrated by reality. From the pessimistic perspective, this outcome is not surprising as politics in the virtual world reects politics in the real world. Both approaches share a traditional idea of politics and therefore fail to nd any relevant change. But signicant changes have occurred, as shown by how citizens have refocused their political attention outside the formal political arena. Social movements, civil associations, single issue groups or even discussion groups can be considered indicators of what has been called life politics or sub-politics. In a nutshell, this new kind of politics crosses the boundaries between politics, cultural values, civil values and identity processes. The picture that emerges gives us a different idea of politics to which ICTs make a signicant contribution. Key Words citizenship, fragmentation, Internet, life-politics, politics Politics like sexuality is an activity which must be carried on: one does not create it or decide to join in one simply becomes more and more aware that one is involved in it as part of the human condition (Crick, 1962: 26).

Sara Bentivegna is Professor of Theories of Mass Communication at the University of Rome La Sapienza, p. le Aldo Moro, 5 00185 Rome, Italy. [email: Sara.Bentivegna@uniroma1.it] European Journal of Communication Copyright 2006 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) www.sagepublications.com, Vol 21(3): 331343. [10.1177/0267323106066638]
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The world of ICTs and the world of politics It may seem somewhat odd to begin a review of the relationship between ICTs and politics with a quotation dating back more than 40 years, when the new technologies still belonged to the world of fantasy and politics was discussed in terms of problems light years away from those that have to be faced today. Nevertheless, Bernard Cricks resigned defence of the idea of politics in response to those who, even then, harboured the idea of anti-politics as a reaction to the contradictions and inefciencies attributed to politics, retains its currency and usefulness. The characterization of politics as an element of human nature makes it possible to intuit the innumerable aspects it can assume, which can be distinguished as soon as one starts to look within the meta-narrative of democracy to which we all contribute. In accordance with this perspective, one should also add the suggestions offered by Giddens (1991) and Beck (1997), who speak of life-politics and sub-politics, respectively, to account for the materialization of politics in different ambits and contexts, thus meaning the loss of centre as a consequence of the crumbling of the traditional political institutions that previously had control of it. The overcoming of the traditional boundaries within which politics was located occurred following profound transformations that recongured our society, at both internal and external levels. Information communication technologies (ICTs) have contributed, more recently, to further complicating the operation of redening the categories for reading and interpreting human activities. In the construction of the everyday narrative that makes up the history of our times, ICTs are used much like a hegemonic code, shared and distributed among all those inhabiting the contemporary world. Perhaps it is for this reason that, even today, we do not have at our disposal univocal shared interpretations to enable us to understand if and how our relationship with politics has changed following the advent of ICTs. Perhaps we nd ourselves at a standstill also because we have often assumed an idea of politics that belongs to a different era, often identied as a golden age, in which the mass parties constituted the channel enabling the integration of citizens within the state. Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, that era is now over: the mass parties have become catch-all parties, personal parties, professional-electoral parties, cartel parties and so on; the militants who guaranteed by means of their own work many of the functions appropriate to political parties have themselves disappeared, only to be substituted by the gure of the supporter. Nowadays, there prevails within the collective imagination a
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largely negative connotation of politics and, above all, of the actors who represent it. Even so, to distrust political parties does not mean renouncing politics tout court; this would in any case be impossible. It means, rather, reinventing politics. There are numerous indicators of this attempt to reinvent politics, from the new forms of mobilization of citizens recorded in the most recent electoral campaigns, to the establishment of the socalled single-issue groups; from global movements ghting against the effects of globalization or in support of peace, to groups of citizens who form groups in virtue of common interests and collective identities. Rethinking ICTs in relation to politics therefore means rst rethinking politics, and recognizing that a form of deterritorialization is taking place, eliminating the old boundaries and enabling the emergence of new actors and new forms of politics. Great expectations: politics goes online It is difcult to deny that nowadays we live in the era of democracy. In consecutive waves, the number of countries governed by democratic systems has been constantly increasing throughout time. Nonetheless, in spite of the expansion of democracy in the contemporary world, citizens of democratically governed countries ever more frequently declare themselves to be dissatised. As held by Giddens (1999: 712), The paradox of democracy is that democracy is spreading over the world . . . yet in mature democracies, which the rest of the world is supposed to be copying, there is widespread disillusionment with democratic processes. A rich literature exists on the causes of this detachment between citizens and political institutions, reconstructing point by point the transformations that have occurred within the political system (Klingeman and Fuchs, 1995; Pharr and Putnam, 2000), the contribution of social and individual modernization (Inglehart, 1983), the erosion of so-called civic culture (Putnam, 2000) and the multiplication of episodes of corruption and misgovernment (Pharr, 2000). Without entering into the merits of an extremely rich and articulate debate, it is sufcient here to focus on the political systems attempted responses in the face of the growing disaffection of citizens. Initially, in order to recover lost ground in terms of communication with citizens/electors, the political system welcomed the opportunities offered by the media, bringing about the complex phenomenon described summarily as the mediatization of politics. The consolidation of mediated
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politics has gradually given rise to complex questions regarding the nature of the product on offer, modes of access, mechanisms of control and so on. Furthermore, the major transformations that have swept across western democracies have also contributed to changes in the traditional system of political communication (Blumler and Gurevich, 2000; Bennett and Entman, 2001). Among these, as well as the phenomenon of globalization, the advent and diffusion of ICTs have certainly taken on a signicant role. ICTs have not only penetrated the economic, legal and cultural realms, but have naturally also involved the political sphere. On the other hand, the interpretation of politics according to the categories established by the ICTs has been accompanied by the conrmation of ICTs in society as a whole, as in the past the mediatization of politics was accompanied by the mediatization of society. The ICTs greatest appeal lies in the opportunities they offer for re-establishing direct relationships between citizens and political exponents, as well as giving life to new forms of participation in democratic processes. It has seemed as if, in one fell swoop, the cure has been identied for suffering democracies, to the point of attributing to ICTs the power to save them. In accordance with this tendency, one may locate Le vy (2002), who has predicted the fall of dictatorial regimes worldwide following the diffusion of ICTs, and Clift (2000: 2), who has maintained that just as television saved democracy in the past, in the future, it will be saved by the Internet. Aside from the validity of such declarations, it is interesting to highlight the vagueness of the model of democracy thereby assumed. In short, which type of democracy can be strengthened by ICTs? As is well argued by Barber (2004), to specify the model of democracy assumed as a reference point is of key importance in identifying the role played by ICTs. If, in fact, one assumes the model of representative democracy, ICTs strengthen the dimension of control exercised by the governed over governing bodies, by increasing and diversifying the information available. The opportunity of exercising such control ensures the attainment of the conditions necessary for the pluralistic competition between actors described by Schumpeter (1942), one of the structural elements of representative democracy. If instead one assumes the model of direct democracy, ICTs play a role not only in terms of providing access to information but also in relation to participation. Citizens are in fact called upon directly to make important decisions in numerous areas of public life. The consultation of citizens by means of electronic surveys provides a good example of the contribution of ICTs to the achievement of this model of democracy and
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shows the inevitable scaling down of traditional intermediary bodies such as political parties and unions. Finally, if one assumes the model of strong democracy (Barber, 1984), the centrality of ICTs may be conrmed in relation to information, deliberation and participation, clearly with some variation. In fact, strong democracy is characterized by the presence of strong participatory and deliberative elements without, however, renouncing the representative aspect. From this brief illustration of some of the models of democracy, it clearly emerges that the model assumed alters the expectations linked to ICTs, along with the criteria by which any possible changes introduced by ICTs may be appraised. In the initial phase of the entry of ICTs into the political sphere, these reections remained in the background. The so-called cyber-optimists focused their attention on the inevitably democratic features connected to the broader dissemination of information and the multiplication of opportunities for interaction and participation. As a consequence of the availability of greater informative and participatory opportunities, citizens according to the optimistic reading would automatically become good citizens, in turn strengthening democracy. The cyber-pessimists, however, have highlighted the resistance to change on the part of the political system and the lack of citizens willing to transform themselves into good citizens, thus leaving the democratic processes unchanged. In any case, both approaches have omitted to underline the relevance of the problem of the digital divide still unresolved in our societies (van Dijk, 2005). The reference to a precise and univocal approach optimistic or pessimistic has long prevented the bringing together of elements present in both readings that may be useful in comprehending the changes in process. The optimistic approach, in fact, is certainly correct in emphasizing the importance of broadening the information available. From this point of view, ICTs would certainly reinforce democracy understood as a democracy of information (Schudson, 2004). But the cyber-pessimists are also right when they assert that greater availability of information does not necessarily translate into greater consumption. The desire to be a good citizen precedes and accompanies the wish to be an informed citizen. It is thus illusory to attribute to ICTs the power to transform distracted and uninformed citizens into well-informed participants. It is, rather, more realistic to attribute to ICTs the power to destabilize the control of the production and circulation of information held by the traditional media.
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The pessimistic approach, on the other hand, is right to underline the resistance to change on the part of the traditional political system. A rich and articulate literature developed throughout the years would conrm the existence of a strong resistance to the use of ICTs on the part of political parties in western societies (Bentivegna, 2002; Gibson et al., 2003; Margolis and Resnick, 2000). In general, it can be argued that the political parties have simply transferred the existing framework from the real world to the virtual realm, using ICTs principally to improve the speed of organizational communication. However, the reluctance of political parties to exploit the potentialities of the ICTs cannot be translated into a general dismissal of the new opportunities, as the pessimistic approach would suggest. In fact, while in the case of political parties one may speak of a missed opportunity, the same cannot be said for other bodies such as single-issue groups, movements and civic associations. For all these bodies, ICTs have constituted and continue to constitute a vitally important tool enabling them to attack the traditional media monopolies, to give life to forms of pressure at any level. From this point of view, it is certainly correct in insisting upon the innovative potential of the ICTs as it is correct in adopting a new focus that, abandoning the initial expectations that accompanied the spread of ICTs, can concentrate instead upon the myriad appearances that politics can assume in cyberspace. ICTs and the multiplication of public spheres A study of the impact of ICTs on politics cannot be undertaken without dwelling on the concept of the public sphere. Initially formulated by Habermas (1977), the concept of the public sphere has been criticized and revisited many times (Calhoun, 1992; Dahlgren, 2001; Fraser, 1992), but nonetheless the concept itself remains compelling, both empirically and normatively (Dahlgren, 2005: 148). In extremely schematic terms, the public sphere can be represented guratively as a symbolic space within which the circulation of information, the exchange of opinions and the formation of political will are located. In truth, aside from acknowledging the spread of new forms of discourse, it is also necessary to consider the new elements characterizing the public sphere in our society. In what Beck (1997) has dened as a second modernity, in fact, there exists a plurality of public spheres, dynamic and spatially complex in nature. On the other hand, to return to the concept formulated by Habermas (1996), this element is brought to light through the introduction of the element of differentiation of density
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of communication, organizational complexity and range. This means that we must consider as indicators of the public sphere the exchanges that occur not only in public spaces, such as streets and waiting rooms, but also in public assemblies or, at an even more abstract level, the mass of media consumers at both national and international level. In order to identify the contribution of ICTs to the construction of these multiple public spheres, it can be useful to start from an analysis of the various dimensions in which the concept can be articulated. Dahlgren (2005: 150) suggests that one conceptualise the public sphere as consisting of three constitutive dimensions: structures, representation, and interaction. Within the structural dimension one may include the media institutions and the social and political institutions that create the conditions within which the media operate. The latter intervene in determining the possibility of development of these structures, which guarantee a vital public sphere. Aside from focusing on the direction taken by ICTs, it is equally necessary to consider the real possibilities of access on the part of citizens. If, in fact, the public sphere represents the space in which all citizens can interact and express their opinions and convictions, then all citizens must have the right of access. With regard to the role of the ICTs, there is no doubt that, after an initial anarchic phase, another has emerged characterized by the presence of economic and nancial interests that have often exported pre-existing balances into cyberspace. Rather than considering ICTs as an opportunity to enable civil society to express itself and to construct a vibrant public sphere, these may be seen as a way to broaden the market, in which consolidated economic rules govern. In the current phase in the history of electronic space, powerful corporate actors and high performance networks are strengthening the role of private electronic space and altering the structure of public electronic space (Sassen, 1998: 194). The civil society groups who use ICTs for their own political and public purposes have opposed, and continue to oppose, this attempt at privatization. The governmental and political institutions, for their part, have delegated the task of self-regulation largely to the market. Moving on to an analysis of the impact of ICTs on the representational dimension, it is necessary to take into consideration the output of the media, including the mass media, the micro-media (email, lists) and the middle media (organizational sites) (Bennett, 2004). In this respect, the most signicant innovations range from the transformation of consumers into producers, conrming a pluralism of information. In short, it is the same communicative content redened within the different
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levels of complexity indicated by Habermas (1996), but simultaneously, the same architecture of the public sphere is profoundly altered. In fact, the old monopoly over information once held by the traditional media is subject to discussion following the proliferation of actors who can now take the oor. This proliferation constitutes the most direct indicator of the contribution offered by ICTs to the creation of a public space in which the demands of civil society can acquire visibility. As noted by Sunstein (2001), the proliferation of niche audiences leads inevitably to fragmentation and specialization. Before considering such an opportunity as a threat to the sense of belonging to a wider community, one should reect on the increased sociocultural heterogeneity in contemporary societies. If, in fact, one sets out from a recognition of such heterogeneity, the fragmentation of information and communication facilitated by ICTs would appear as one of the numerous tangents associated with this process. On the other hand, the goal of ushering all citizens into one unitary sphere, with one specic set of communicative and cultural traditions, is usually rejected on the grounds of pluralism and difference (Dahlgren, 2005: 152). To complete the picture, it is necessary, nally, to focus on the dimension of interaction. The opportunities for interaction made available by ICTs range from participation in a discussion on the quality of the informational output offered, to an exchange of opinions on what it means to belong to a specic religion in the contemporary world, to a contribution to the writing or rewriting of news within a site offering information. Even before being characterized in political terms, this interaction is dened as civic: it constitutes a sign of the presence of civil society and testies to its contribution to the formation of the public sphere. The two concepts, in fact, are inherently interconnected, the former standing for structures and the latter for shared meanings emerging through these structures (Sassi, 2001: 100). The issues faced so far lead to a recognition of the existence of a plurality of public spheres and impose, at the same time, further reection on their specic features. This reection can originate from the proposal to distinguish between public sphere and policy sphere, formulated by Bennett and Entmann (2001: 24): the rst refers to the area of informal public life . . . in which citizens can identify social interests and possible conicts; the second refers to the substratum of the public sphere within which ideas and feelings are explicitly connected or communicated to exponents of government, to political parties, to candidates. The distinction proposed by Bennett and Entmann has the advantage of attributing a specic relevance to public discussion in
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assuming political decisions, but without thereby diminishing the value of such opportunities for discussion. Exchanges and confrontations between actors are not always aimed towards inuencing a political decision; on occasion, they occur in order to conrm membership of a group, or a shared interest or identity. As part of an evolutionary process, they can, as a consequence, also consider the element of intervention in political decision-making processes or may even be taken as a point of reference by those who are called upon to give political solutions to given problems or conicts However, aside from a recognition of multiplication of the public sphere, it is also necessary to acknowledge the transformation of its nature and its functions in the contemporary world. With regard to such a transformation, ICTs have played a signicant role by providing a meeting place, varied and personalized content, and opportunities for interaction. In short, they have contributed to promoting what are called alternative or counter public spheres that can offer a new, empowering sense of what it means to be a citizen (Dahlgren, 2004: xiii). Interaction between the world of politics and the world of ICTs There is no doubt that ICTs have played, and continue to play, a signicant role in the transformation of the political dimension in contemporary societies. If, however, they are considered to be both agents of change, shaping their contexts of use, and objects of change, which are shaped and redesigned by users in their familiar contexts (van Dijk, 2005: 184), the denition of such a role becomes more difcult. Their role, in fact, must be analysed in relation to the context in which they are used. The context within which we all live, and in which we formulate and implement our idea of politics, is characterized by what Beck has dened as a second modernity or a reexive modernity, which sees the conrmation of the self as a reexive project in response to the contradictoriness of the social, economic and cultural forces at work in contemporary societies. This process inevitably also involves their relationship with politics. Rather than being a choice, however, this revision derives from the same afrmation of democracy that produces new standards and demands, which cause opinion to turn to dissatisfaction with the standoff and the authoritarian character of the prevailing conditions, despite any expansion of democracy achieved (Beck, 1992: 193). This different understanding of politics translates into an inevitable loss of focus in politics, with a consequent scaling down of the formal
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political arena. This scaling down is supported by numerous empirical indicators, ranging from the reduction in membership (Mair and van Biezen, 2001), to open declarations of distrust in political parties, to the reduction in electoral participation, to an open accusation of disinterest in the demands and needs of citizens. If one takes the formal political arena as a reference point for dening the role played by ICTs, the result is inevitably disappointing. In this context, in fact, ICTs can only take on a marginal role, in support of a pre-existing organizational and communicative apparatus. In the case of exceptional events such as electoral campaigns, ICTs assume a prominent role but without ever modifying the fundamental nature of the relationship between political actors and citizens. Even in the US, looked upon as being at the cutting edge with regard to the application of ICTs in the political eld, signicant directions have not yet been offered. If one looks, in fact, at the cases of online fund-raising and the blogs opened by candidates which certainly marked the last presidential campaign (Corneld, 2004) one notes that they did not alter the coordinates by which the formal political arena is dened. If, however, one takes as a reference point the intricate and complex world of sub-politics, the situation alters decisively and ICTs assume a central role. To begin with, it may be held that they enable the conrmation of the presence and achievement of political action that would otherwise be difcult to implement. Throughout the last decade, the presence of new actors able to tap into a rich repertoire of new methods of participation and mobilization has been in constant development. This is not the place for a review of the development of so-called cyber-activism (McCaughey and Ayers, 2003), or for an account of the use of ICTs on the part of social movements (van Donk et al., 2004). The point of interest here is, rather, the strategic use of ICTs achieved by these actors. In some cases, as in that of the anti-globalization movement, ICTs have been used to create transnational networks (Tarrow, 2005), to organize the participation of demonstrators on a few occasions, and to create a source of information alternative to that provided by the traditional media (Kidd, 2003). In other cases, as in that of organization of demonstrations in Spain after the Islamic bombing attacks, ICTs have been used to mobilize people. Alongside these experiences, others may be added, in spite of their not achieving comparable visibility or having a similar impact. It may also be held that they enable the expression of an idea of citizenship developed along the lines of what Schudson (2004) has called a democracy of rights and the spread of a humanistic culture, emphasizing that self-expression values radiate into all major domains of
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life, helping to reshape sexual norms, gender roles, family values, religiosity, work motivations, peoples relation to nature and the environment, and their communal activities and political participation (Inglehart and Welzel, 2005: 3). In recognizing this contribution, however, one cannot escape from the inevitable fragmentation of the political dimension. This process effected through the use of ICTs is, however, only a reection of a transformation in progress within contemporary societies: the impetus towards individualization that marks todays world is duplicated in the world of ICTs. From this point of view, ICTs are shown to be extremely versatile as they lend themselves to being shaped and redesigned by users in their contexts. Furthermore, the context in which citizens of the contemporary world nd themselves is characterized by a multiplication of voices and fragmentation of interests. It thus appears evident that a reevaluation of ICTs in contemporary societies requires, in the rst instance, a reconceptualization of the idea of politics: only if one abandons the territory of traditional politics does it become possible to identify their contribution. This contribution broadens the spectrum of informative output, enabling us to interpret the world in which we live in a different way. In a nutshell, it enables the spread of the ability of the new social identities for establishing themselves, acquiring an awareness of their position outside the political system, for putting forward forceful and articulate requests to take part in it, bringing about the disintegration of the spectacular, slogan-lled world of typical post-democratic electoral politics (Crouch, 2003: 130). In our changing world, ICTs are certainly able to take on a relevant role in stopping the march towards post-democracy, or rather, a phase in which politics and governments cede territory to privileged elites. However, for this to happen, it is necessary for citizens to perceive the need to change course. In the presence of this need, there is no doubt that ICTs assume a key role. References
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