Skip to main content

Review: The Internet and Democratic Citizenship

In their book 'The Internet and Democratic Citizenship' (2009) Stephen Coleman and Jay G. Blumler argue that for democratic participation to be meaningful and shape political outcomes, there needs to be "a new space for consequential interaction between citizens and their elected representatives". They propose establishing a new civic commons on the internet that will encourage deliberation among citizens, as well as between citizens and governmental decision makers. 

The book has three main arguments, namely: 

  1. The relations between members of the public and holders of political authority are in a period of transformative flux and there is a crisis of disengagement. 
  2. There is a relentless deterioration of mainstream political communication taking place and a deficit in political deliberation.  
  3. The internet has what the authors describe as 'the vulnerable potential' to improve public communications and enrich democracy

1. The relations between members of the public and holders of political authority are in a period of transformative flux. 

Coleman and Blumler start with the “crisis of disengagement.”  In essence while people express support for the concept of democracy, they are also increasingly dissatisfied with their ability to engage or influence decision makers and having no impact on public policy. People expect to be heard, governments are having trouble responding to this need. Many feel unacknowledged, not consulted and disrespected.

The book references a YouGov survey of 2,273 UK citizens in 2003 where 72% of the sample felt disconnected from Parliament and nearly half 46% felt very disconnected; and a 1999 survey by the US Council for Excellence in Government where almost two-thirds 64% of Americans agreed with the statement ‘I feel distant and disconnected from government’. 

The authors argues it is not reconnection that democracy needs most but "healthy respect for the reality of disconnection". This struck home to me in reading an article in the Sunday Times this week discussing Sweden and immigration. Immigration rose dramatically from 2000 onwards and "a rising number of voters say they were not consulted on this remarkable change." Populist movements leverage this disconnection.

2 A relentless deterioration of mainstream political communication is taking place

The problem is not a failure to communicate according the authors. The problem is "a deficit of genuine political deliberation". Dahlgren has argued there are minimal conditions for citizenship and the authors argue the current democratic engagement falls below these minimum levels. The authors are critical of the changing role of the media in this process, as discussed below.

The book proposes that new political spaces are required to bring together active citizenship and policy making. 

The project for this century the authors argue is to design more effective and sensitive ways of hearing and acknowledging the millions of voices and actions,

3 Interactive, digital media have a potential to improve public communications and enrich democracy

The authors argue the growth of the internet, and in particular social media, creates new possibilities for an “open-source” commons in a networked public sphere. The authors argue that the Internet possesses vulnerable potential. It is vulnerable for a range of reasons, not least the big technology and platform companies are more focused on profit than improving citizenship. 

They also note concerns about the impact of online space on civic deliberation and discussion, for example, Sunstein (2001) who found the internet leads to group polarisation and Noam (2002) who argued it diminishes the rational level of public sphere by forcing political arguments to become shrill, and simplistic in order to get noticed.

However, on balance they believe that the internet "opens up the possibility of overcoming the two most glaring defects of contemporary political culture namely the absence of effective mechanisms for public deliberation and the presence of mass media, which seems at odds with civic values."

The Media 

Being an active citizen takes time and means being sufficiently informed know what's going on in the world. The book recognises the role the media plays in enabling citizens to make sense of events, relationships and cultures of which they have no direct experience. 

The role of the media has become more important for politicians: “the authority of leaders derives from their ability to appeal to public opinion through news media.” This has led to the professionalisation of political communication with its ways of framing issues and of constructing public opinion preferences. Political news is a source of power, and politicians are involved in a power struggle to shape it to their advantage. Often there is a fine line between trying to achieve favourable publicity and manipulation.

The harder political consultants try to control and frame what journalists report, the harder journalists try to report the 'real story'. Thus journalists are increasingly involved in interpretive commentary, for example interpreting what a statement by a politician means for their audience. Public scepticism about politicians has also reinforced journalist tendencies to focus on political mistakes, misdemeanours and policy failures which can further undermine trust and create more disconnection.

The changes in the news media such as increasing competition and falling advertising revenues has meant fewer local journalist and less use of specialist correspondents. Publishers also need to find business models that work and gain attention as much as inform the public. There has been a shift in many areas to what has been termed tabloidisation with more focus on entertainment. However, following the Trump election there has been a shift by some citizens towards serious, quality news as measured by paid subscriptions. However, the scale doesn't work for local news subscriptions and there remains grave concern about the future of local journalism.

Overall the authors have concerns about the role of the media in informing citizens and encouraging engagement.

A New Online Civic Commons

The authors develop a model of “direct representation” to bridge the gap between referendums and the “indirect representation” of formal governance. They recognise that citizens cannot participate full-time but argue there does need to be "representative closeness" and "an ongoing rather than episodic political conversation." (p. 80) 

In their view deliberative democracy is not an end in itself. It has to have impact and be “embedded within the constitutional structure of policy formation and decision-making” (p. 39).  In essence, public deliberation must be linked to governance. The authors are convinced by the strong arguments in favour of embedding deliberative exercises within trusted democratic institutions and processes.

They argue institutionally protected spaces are most likely to successfully build bridges between competing political interests, preferences and values. 
They quote evidence from citizens juries that suggests the participants are likely to change their minds once exposed to new arguments (Stewart, Kendall and Coote 1994). While online networks on their own can be successful at achieving political bonding they are less able to achieve political bridging.

The online civic commons space proposed by the authors is specifically in the context of the United Kingdom. The authors argue that a publicly funded independent entity like the BBC could be charged with creating and managing the space. 
Thus the space would be managed by an inclusive public institution. This new agency would engage government as much as engaging citizens to ensure it has a real role in shaping policy.

They argue that democratic institutions and processes need to become more sensitised to the way that real people tell their stories, they must maintain close contact with those they govern, and fundamentally “public interaction with the democratic process must leave its mark” (p. 166). 

In simple terms the process must shape and influence policy or citizens will not become engaged. Too often people feel they have little or no voice in policy formulation and decision making (Vergez and Caddy 2001) and thus it is not surprising that people don't vote in elections or engage in politics.

This new space might not qualify as a public sphere in the Habermas sense but the authors argue it will provide new opportunities for citizens to interact.


There are limitations to deliberative approaches, for example, rational discussion cannot transcend conflicts of interest and values. Natalie Fenton (2016)  argues deliberative approaches can actually be counter-productive as they create an illusion of citizens with power and influence; and deny the reality of power.

There are also limits of scale. For example, if a nation of 250 million people gave each citizen two minutes, the resulting debate would take 950 years. It would be easier if each citizen contributed just 200 words of text but the resulting text would still take over 15 years for a human to read. However, a machine learning algorithm could distill the key points much more quickly.

Being an active citizen also means investing time to be informed about issues. Downs (1957) argued for most citizens it is not rational to be politically well-informed because the low returns and lack of impact do not justify the cost in time.

So is it feasible, will citizens engage with such a civic commons? The authors cite several studies, including a nationwide survey they commissioned, in which majorities expressed their willingness or desire to become more involved in political decision making, particularly at local levels of government.

Respondents to the authors' survey also revealed scepticism with many expressing concern that public officials really were not really interested in their input, and that "their participation would be inconsequential" (p. 186) 


The authors are conscious of the weaknesses of their online civic commons proposal and the vulnerable potential of the internet. However, they argue "no better way has been found to gather the public together, not as spectators, followers, or atomized egos, but as a demos capable of self-articulation" (p. 197).