When Digital Hordes Attack

Will the internet lead to a new “tyranny of the masses”? That seems to be the worry of German liberals. But they are as mistaken as wholesale believers in direct democracy: “The masses” don’t exist – not even online.

In politics, you want the masses behind you, not in front of you. Whoever is able to move the masses, holds power. With the recent electoral successes of the pirate party in Germany (which cannot be separated from fresh ideas about political participation), a discussion has arisen about the supposed “popular masses” on the internet. The only problem: They don’t exist.

After being almost obliterated in recent regional elections, the Secretary-General of the German liberal party FDP took to the microphone to condemn the new-found competition. He argued that the pirate party’s understanding of politics would be “determined by the tyranny of the masses”. Sascha Lobo, an influential German blogger – you might call him the Secretary-General of the country’s blogosphere – was quick to speak out against the liberals. What they feared, he said, could not be called tyranny. It was the idea that masses of people on the internet would start to articulate their political views more than once every four years during elections.

Two world views collide. One of them regards the masses as threatening to politics. From a historical perspective, that is not necessarily a dumb assessment. Often, massive political participation meant revolution. More often than not, the drunken joy of revolutionary change was followed by a painful hangover. According to the other world view, popular participation implies hope. One of the founding ideas of democracy is that everyone should be free to participate in politics. In ancient Athens, citizens assembled, discussed, and then decided their common affairs collectively. In modern societies, it’s impossible to bring everyone together in front of the national parliament. But the mechanisms of the internet make it at least less impossible. This is the intellectual origin of the pirate party: A virtual Athens for the 21st century.

It is the most charming aspect of direct democracy that people can participate universally. However, direct democracy also tends to be highly optimistic. Participation, as the pirate party wants it, is no easy thing. It requires a large amount of resources: education, access to information, and spare time. “The masses on the internet“ will hardly constitute sixty percent of the population – which we assume to be a poor turnout when it comes to electoral participation. In other words: Political abstinence will not simply disappear.

Still, the emphasis on participation is not a bad one. The pirate party is a good deed for German democracy. If we manage to populate the intersection between politics and the internet, we might achieve more direct forms of participation, a better informed citizenry, and more efficient forms of governance. The time has clearly come to move in this direction. Every voters who is motivated to participate more in politics because of new communication technologies is a gain for the democratic system.

It can be argued that going to a poll every other year is insufficient political participation. But elections remain important, primarily because they are so undemanding and hence practicable. But even with this form of low-level engagement, most people tend to base their vote on sympathies for a party or individual politicians. Max Weber’s claim remains true: Not everyone can be an expert in the field of politics.

Individuals or groups will use the internet to deliver one-sided information, argue for specific positions, and attempt to steer public opinion into a certain direction. And the masses will follow. Both the liberal party and Sascha Lobo have fallen short in their arguments. Neither will the masses become a force of tyranny on the internet (tyranny is still the tactic of choice of small elites), nor will they articulate their will on a regular basis. But where the two worlds meet, a coherent picture begins to emerge: “The masses” don’t exist – neither the good kind, nor the bad one.

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