Academic journal article Federal Communications Law Journal

The Challenge of Increasing Civic Engagement in the Digital Age

Academic journal article Federal Communications Law Journal

The Challenge of Increasing Civic Engagement in the Digital Age

Article excerpt

"The genius of democracies is seen not only in the great number of new words introduced but even more in the new ideas they express."--Alexis de Tocqueville (1)

     A. Broadband Affordability
     B. Broadband Availability
     C. Broadband Accessibility


The Internet has become the new platform for freedom of speech and the expression of civic ideas. With more than seventy percent of Americans online, virtual micro-communities, or niche web portals, have made it easier for people to deliberately seek out and sustain relationships with those that share similar interests, opinions, and backgrounds. (2) Citizens can pick and choose both the online destination where they want to share and the preferred format to communicate their opinions, whether through a blog, video, podcast, or tweet. Before the Internet, these ideas were shared at community town hall and block club meetings. People came together physically to mobilize around issues and to develop strategies for collective action. The civil rights movement of the 1960s is one such example. Civil rights leaders often planned activities in church basements, ultimately leading to well-orchestrated protests against legalized racism. These demonstrations culminated in a series of laws banning discrimination in public accommodations, public facilities, public education, federally assisted programs, employment, and voting. (3)

Most recently, the 2008 presidential election demonstrated how the Internet could drive public opinion and voter participation. President Barack Obama's campaign used online tools and social networks in a way that contributed to his victory as the first African American president of the United States. The Obama campaign used the Internet to raise half a billion dollars, the largest amount of contributions to a political operation ever received through online donations. (4) His website,, gathered thousands of e-mail addresses, and, in turn, nurtured a vast base of national volunteers supporting the campaign's field tactics. Young supporters of President Obama, especially those under the age of thirty, used social networking sites to inspire their peers to vote, resulting in more than twenty million young people participating in the 2008 election, an increase of 3.4 million compared to 2004. (5)

Today, Internet use continues to increase. As previously stated, more than seventy percent of Americans are online, and use of social networking sites has tripled. (6) College-educated, affluent minorities that were previously the slowest to use the web are now more prevalent users. (7) In many ways, this surge in online activity makes it possible for people to organize and unite in more powerful ways and voice opinions on predominant issues. Yet, disparities in digital access, especially among the less educated and poor, further contribute to the further alienation and possible disenfranchisement of these groups. Moreover, the affinity of individuals toward these online, niche-based communities can potentially inhibit broad coalition building, an essential aspect of American democracy.

While the example of the 2008 presidential election foreshadows the role of the Internet in our democracy, addressing the factors that create and maintain stratification on the web is the main focus of this Essay. I argue that unequal access to the Internet affects civic engagement when groups are underrepresented or on the periphery of online activity. Moreover, political deliberation among a diverse group of citizens is limited when individuals cluster themselves on the web within communities that essentially mirror their offline networks and experiences. In this Essay, I offer policymakers and other civic leaders interested in creating a just and inclusive democracy a series of strategies for transforming the Internet into a place for deliberative exchange that impacts future public policies, promotes digital inclusion, and restructures online platforms to more effectively broker relationships between diverse people and causes. …

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