Friday 9 December 2016

How the internet is shaping our politics

Russian hacking of the Democrats is a stark example of the web's power to influence elections, says John Naughton

John Naughton

Published 18/09/2016 | 02:30

Ever since the internet went mainstream in the 1990s, people have wondered about how it would affect democratic politics. Stock photo: Getty
Ever since the internet went mainstream in the 1990s, people have wondered about how it would affect democratic politics. Stock photo: Getty

Ever since the internet went mainstream in the 1990s, people have wondered about how it would affect democratic politics. In seeking an answer to the question, we made the mistake that people have traditionally made when thinking about new communications technology: we overestimated the short-term impacts while grievously underestimating the longer-term ones.

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The first-order effects appeared in 2004 when Howard Dean, then governor of Vermont, entered the Democratic primaries to seek the party's nomination for president. What made his campaign distinctive was that he used the internet for fundraising. Instead of the traditional method of tapping wealthy donors, Dean and his online guru, Larry Biddle, turned to the internet and raised about $50m, mostly in the form of small, individual donations from 350,000 supporters. By the standards of the time, it was an eye-opening achievement.

In the event, Dean's campaign imploded when he made an over-excited speech after coming third in the Iowa caucuses - the so-called "Dean scream" - which, according to the conventional wisdom of the day, showed that he was too unstable a character to be commander-in-chief.

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