In The Economist:
“TECHNOLOGY IS NEITHER good nor bad; nor is it neutral,” said the late Melvin Kranzberg, one of the most influential historians of machinery. The same is true for the internet and the use of data in politics: it is neither a blessing, nor is it evil, yet it has an effect. But which effect? And what, if anything, needs to be done about it?
Jürgen Habermas, the German philosopher who thought up the concept of the “public sphere”, has always been in two minds about the internet. Digital communication, he wrote a few years ago, has unequivocal democratic merits only in authoritarian countries, where it undermines the government’s information monopoly. Yet in liberal regimes, online media, with their millions of forums for debate on a vast range of topics, could lead to a “fragmentation of the public” and a “liquefaction of politics”, which would be harmful to democracy.
The ups and downs of the presidential campaign in America and the political turbulences elsewhere seem to support Mr Habermas’s view. Indeed, it is tempting to ask whether all this online activism is not wasted political energy that could be put to better use in other ways. Indeed, the meteoric rise of many online movements appears to explain their equally rapid demise: many never had time to build robust organisations.
But online activism cannot be dismissed. Some movements have had real impact, either by putting an issue on the political agenda or by taking over an existing organisation. Without the Occupy movement, the debate about income inequality in America would be much less prominent. The same goes for the Black Lives Matter campaign and violence against African-Americans. In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters managed to commandeer the Labour Party. In America, Donald Trump seems about to do the same with the Republican Party (though whether he can do it to the whole country remains to be seen).