New media and fat democracy: The paradox of online participation
This chapter speculates on the internet’s wider inﬂuences on the shape of institutional politics in contemporary representative democracies. It does so by focusing on the communicative links and patterns of engagement that are emerging between elected politicians and other groups of political actors operating around the political centre. Recent studies are combined with the results of 100 semi-structured interviews with UK-based political actors (politicians, journalists and oﬃcials) in an eﬀort to identify developing trends. Findings suggest that internet-mediated democracy, at least in the UK
case, is encouraging two, somewhat contrary political trends. On the one hand, more political actors at the immediate edges of the UK institutional political process are being further engaged in a sort of centrifugal movement going outwards from the centre. However, at the same time, the distance between this fatter political centre and its public periphery is increasing. Mass, oﬀ-line news media, which is the dominant source of political information for most, is becoming less informative. Those same online spaces and communicative exchanges, developing around the political centre, are relatively insular and exclusionary. In other words, politics, for those already engaged or interested, is becoming denser, wider, and possibly more pluralistic and inclusive. But, at the same time, the mass of unengaged citizens is being subject to greater communicative exclusion and experiencing increasing disengagement. These paradoxical tendencies lead to what might be described as a thicker,
broader form of elite polyarchy. This is akin to a sort of middle-management expansion of UK politics or a fatter democratic elitist model. While such a shift may be interpreted as ‘new’ and ICT-driven, it might equally be argued that new media is exacerbating pre-existing political and media trends in mature Western democracies. Internet-enhanced politics may be improving democratic engagement and accountability at the centre but, as yet, is unlikely to be oﬀering a solution to wider patterns of public disengagement from institutional politics.