The advent of internet has brought with it many changes in the social, economic and political lives of people around the world (Bimber, 2001). Although history tells us that citizens have been participating in their political and social systems before technology was invented, however, there is evidence to suggest that the Internet has an important impact and offers new venues for people to participate in their political and social lives. It will be the objective of this essay to substantiate this claim with examples of how internet has become a tool in rally the public for both political and social engagements.
The internet has been with us for less than three decades now, yet it has radically altered our daily lives. Most of us would now prefer sending e-mail than making phone calls or sending letters. Information is searched online rather than in the library or reference books. We order goods and services through the internet rather than walking in town to bank or shop (Etzioni & Etzioni, 1999). But even has the internet changes how we live, researchers have been wondering over the years whether internet communication increase, decreases or only supplement participation, interpersonal contact and community engagements.
Recent studies have revealed that heavy internet use increases citizens’ participation in voluntary organizations as well as in their political systems. But it supplements face-to-face interaction and telephone communication. But all these changes would depend on how the citizen’s are motivated by the opportunity presented by the internet. One area where internet use would certainly motivate individuals to participate is political systems (Bucy, 2000).
In political systems, the internet will offer an opportunity for the citizen to assess how they are governed while the government will be presented with an opportunity to strengthen its relationship within its structures and with the governed. Internet simply makes it easier for citizens to participate in the political process (Bucy, 2000). For example, a person may sign a petition, or e-mail his or her political leader without stepping outside his or her door. At the same time, it makes it easier for those with the same political inclinations to interact without necessarily bothering with the specific location of each other.
Political parties and organizations are also presented with an opportunity to reach out to their members within the shortest time possible and with the least resources available. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are just some of the internet tools exploited by political and social organizations to mobilize members to participate in political and social debates and activities as well as to rally members to a particular cause (Rogerson, 2009). The internet has provided room for the social movement organizations that had long been voiceless to be heard in the political and social arenas in various countries.
For long these social organizations had been trampled upon by conservative political forces but the advent of internet has seen a growing number of social movements and political activism. As Rogerson (2009) suggests, it is debatable whether the increase in political and social movements will serve the interest of the current political leaders or will benefit the long underrepresented populations, however, it is clear that internet has provided the like-minded individuals to locate and converse with each other on matters social and political.
In effect, the traditional distance between the organize activity and the debate has tremendously reduced (Bimber, 2002). There are numerous examples of social movement organization that have managed to involve the public in the social and political affairs of their countries. One such group is the Zapatista rebellion of 1996 in Mexico and Judy Williams’ world movement agitating for eradication of landmines.
Based on rapid sharing of ideas and information, these social movements have been able to build a strong base of followers willing to participate in achieving the general goals of the movement (Bimber, 2001). Social and political activists have been able to meet and communicate online more easily than ever before. Traditionally, these movements have been organized vertically with centralized chain of command structures. The e-movements, on the other hand have the luxury of operating differently and more freely. They have horizontally decentralized hierarchical leadership structures (Della-Porta & Mosca, 2005).
This increases participation among the members who act freely with fewer restrictions on what kind of action should be taken as may be the case in the traditional social and political movements where members may have different leadership styles. The e-movements offer diverse groups of people with different methods and leadership styles to approach a particular common cause with the sole objective in mind. It therefore provides different pathways for those with common interest to participate in achieving the broader objectives and goals of the movement (Etzioni & Etzioni, 1999).
Again, internet offers the local and national governments opportunities to place information about their activities and policies which can be accessed by the general public more easily. This not only increases the level of trust and confidence in the government operations but also makes the government appear more accessible and transparent with those it leads. When the public is more confidence in its leaders and trust in the government activities, it would be easier for them to constantly participate in the political system by engaging their leaders in debates to correct some of the policies they do not agree with (Bimber, 2002).
Moreover, the internet minimizes the costs of acquiring political information as it allows fast, unlimited and cheap access to the information (Rogerson, 2009). Those who are well informed on political activities and government policies will tend to participate more than those who are not. It can therefore be argued that the cheaper access to information by the public will bring along with it an increase and wider knowledge on the information itself, which ultimately will have a positive influence on political participation by the citizens (Della-Porta & Mosca, 2005).
Conclusion Political and social movements advocating for a particular cause may choose to ignore the power of the internet in this century at their own peril. The internet has not only benefited nonradical social and political movements to mobilized their members and the public in general to participate in various social and political activities but has been a great benefit to radical groups which have taken full advantage of it.
This is owed to the internet’s unique features like ability to reach out to a larger population at a very low cost as well as to mobilize people from different geographical regions within the shortest time. This has led to an increase in level of awareness in terms of political and social activities which in turn has led to improve participation among citizens. However, internet as a tool for mobilization has only been effective because it is supplemented by other traditional forms of communication like face-to-face, and mass media such as television and radio.