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Eric Gordon, Author

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Internet Parties: The Internet as Party, Policy, Platform, & Persuasive Symbolism

Dr. Adam Fish

The Internet makes political organizing less expensive and labor intensive by enabling otherwise disparate constituencies to collect into networked public spheres (Kriess 2012). What is not as well understood is how the politicians use Internet to crowdsource policy (De Cindio and Stortone 2013). In addition, little is apprehended about how politicians discuss Internet as an object of policy regulation (MacKinnon 2012). Finally, how is the powerful symbolism of the Internet as an emblem of innovation used to gather positive attention on the campaign trail? Internet Parties provide an opportunity to examine the confluence of these little understood issues of Internet politics. Internet Parties are unique amongst political parties for their emphasis on the Internet as a policy issue, party organizing system, policy generating tool, and lastly, a political fetish. In this essay, these four points are illustrated by a discussion of the Five Star Movement (5SM) of Italy and the Pirate Party of the United Kingdom.

Internet Parties use the Internet in the formulation of:

1) Parties: as a tool for party organization
2) Platforms: to crowdsource policies
3) Policies: to construct policies about the Internet
4) Persuasive Symbolism: For Internet Parties, the Internet is a powerful symbol used in campaigns.



Party


As a party of opposition and anti-corruption, The Five Star Movement of Italy (5SM) formally began on October 4, 2009. The leader of 5SM, the former comedian and television personality Beppo Grillo, describes 5SM as having its “feet on the ground, but its head on the web.” For 5SM supporters, Italian politics is corrupt, closed, and elitist. The decentralized and democratizing Internet challenges this elitism; and this simple argument, paired with perceptive Internet campaigning, has been working for Italy. In the 2014 European Union Parliamentary Election, the 5SM won 21.2% of the vote and 17 out of 73 seats. Internet is, therefore, central to the organizing practices that led to the recent success of 5SM.

With 1.47 million Twitter followers, Grillo has the largest social media following of any European politician. He uses social media to route around mainstream television, speaking directly to his supporters on his own Ustream and YouTube video channels. Grillo uses his internationally popular blog as a “central node” around which 5SM constellate (Rosanna 2013). The theory of nodality gives researchers purchase on understanding the role of Grillo’s blog. Nodality denotes a central position within a network and is necessary for efficient organizing within a party. With this “cybernetic centalism” organized around Grillo’s blog, the 5SM uses the Internet to identify and aggregate supporters as well as encourage voter turnout (De Rosa 2013). The meteoric rise of the 5SM movement is a result of a mix of virtual and actual practices, centered on Grillo’s blog and the use of meetup.org to solicit supporters to pack piazzas around Italy.

Platform


The Pirate Party began in Sweden as the Piratpartiet in 2006 around the issue of copyright reform. From 2009-2014, the Pirate Party had somewhat surprising victories in national and international elections in Sweden, Germany, the Czech Republic, Iceland, and the European Union. Some of these Pirate Parties, such as those from Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, Brazil, as well as local branches of the 5SM, make use of Liquid Feedback—a crowdsourcing system to develop propositions and make decisions (De Cindio and Stortone 2013). Liquid Feedback enables transparent decision-making, and allows its users can delegate their vote to more informed individuals. Its assets are also its problems, however, as Liquid Feedback’s radical transparency inhibits voter privacy and vote delegation can facilitate the aggregation of power.

It was potentially these problems that made the Pirate Party UK (PPUK) not use Liquid Feedback but instead the social news site Reddit to crowdsource their 2012 Manifesto. Reddit is a forum-like platform that allows users to make custom subreddit pages, as well as submit and vote on content. PPUK produced a 70-point Manifesto from 221 posts and 1961 comments on their subreddit r/policy2011. In 2014, the PPUK began developing Policy Beta as a platform on which to “submit, discuss and provide evidence to support a proposed policy. … The 'output' as it were, would be a policy, with evidence, that the party can support and adopt.” Liquid Democracy and Policy Beta are but two examples of the ways that Internet Parties use software and networked technologies towards the goal of co-constructing policy with their constituencies.

Policy


The “five stars” of Five Star Movement include: water, environment, development, transport, and Internet availability. They will cut fiscal government waste by “introducing new technologies to allow…the public access to information and services without the need for intermediaries.” 5SM advocates free Internet access and a tablet for every child. Unsurprisingly, the PPUK also prioritizes digital rights in its crowdsourced 2012 Manifesto. Some of the internet-based policies supported by the UKPP include broadband access for all, public WiFi, copyright reform, and the digitization of libraries. The Wikileaks Party—which ran Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in the 2013 Australian general election and received but 0.66% of the general vote—supports “internet freedom” and “will be fearless in its opposition to the creeping surveillance state, driven by globalised data collection and spying agencies.” Likewise, the Internet Party of New Zealand, founded by former Megaupload CEO Kim Dotcom, also advocates for “internet freedom” which includes “cheaper, universal internet” as well as citizen privacy from government surveillance. Internet policy is central to the goal as well as the self-identity of Internet Parties.

Persuasive Symbolism


Political debate relies on both rational arguments and passionate persuasion. 

When politicians discuss the Internet, they are often trying to associate themselves with the symbolic power associated with technological innovation. 

Insiders in the 2004 Howard Dean campaign for US Democratic Presidential candidate often discussed the campaign with terms borrowed from technology, describing the campaign as peer-to-peer and open source (Kreiss 2012). US President Barack Obama, at a rally in Roanoke, Virginia, July 13, 2012 associated his Democratic government with the symbolic power of the Internet: “The internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet.” Infamously, US Vice President Al Gore linked himself to the economic growth associated with the “new economy.” In a March 9, 1999 interview on CNN with Wolf Blitzer, Gore said, “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” More than these traditional Democrats, Internet Party politicians tie themselves to the mythic powers of the Internet.

For instance, Grillo rhetorically links the transformative capacities of the Internet to 5SM—saying that the way that the Internet will be the end of traditional media, 5SM will be the end of corrupt politicians. In this manner, “The rhetoric of political change and the rhetoric of digital revolution can interact with each other, merging into a unique, coherent discourse” (Natale and Ballatore 2014).The Pirate Party—like smaller parties the Wikileaks Party and the Internet Party in New Zealand—want so much to be associated with the symbolic power of the internet that they use the “internet” and directly associated terms, such as Wikileaks and piracy, as their party name. This is so because of the power of symbolic association; and because Internet Parties rely upon Internet for organization, policy construction, and as a policy concern.

Conclusion


Internet Parties’ policies of copyright critique, government transparency, network neutrality, and anti-surveillance, as well as their practice of policy crowdsourcing, have become de facto for many political parties. In this way, Internet Parties may represent how “internet freedom” has shifted from the concern of geeky individuals to a concern for millions around the world. Naturalization of “internet freedom” may be healthy for the longevity of an Internet welcoming the experimentations of start-up companies, amateur media production, and transformative political dialogue.

Another naturalization that Internet Parties should bring to mind is the convergence of information business and information activism. 

Internet Parties throughout the world are predominantly staffed and supported by young and educated males many of whom are employed in information technology and other white-collar professions.

 If implemented, many of the policies advanced by Internet Parties would satisfy both the ethical as well as economic goals of this population. Liberal theories of democracy and capitalism both agree on the importance of qualities Internet Parties hold dear: individualism; freedom of speech, press, association; and a free marketplace of ideas. Contemporary governments have long helped information business by investing public funds in science, technology, education, and transportation infrastructure. Internet Parties rarely emphasis their policies on tax relief, job growth, government budget cuts, and other policies with obvious benefits to business. Instead, they emphasize their oppositional ethics and technoliberal activism. However, if an ethical preservation of “internet freedom” is the stated goal of Internet Parties, with direct economic ramifications for these policies supporters, then in the spirit of government transparency, should not this important trait be revealed? Civil society should address the contradiction of a networked communication system funded by the public and primarily exploited by business.

As the present benchmark for civic technology, who speaks with and on behalf of the Internet is important. Internet parties represent the reformist agenda in the fight on and for the Internet. The way Internet Parties conceptualize and work on the Internet, as well as their rapid emergence--and in many situations decline--could inform civil society working on behalf of future open and publicly available communication systems. Taking lessons from Internet Parties’ advancements and failures, civil society would do well to not fetishize the Internet as an object for party formation or policymaking or as a technology to replace the cumbersome and difficult task of grassroots political organizing. An accessible, interoperable, and generative Internet is not a given but it is also not a solution to political agonism nor grassroots political labor. Communication technologies are but one instrument in an assemblage of tools, messages, and community projects, the civil society will need going forward.

References

Kriess, Dan. 2012. Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

De Cindio, Fiorella, and Stefano Stortone. 2013.“Experimenting LiquidFeedback for Online Deliberation in Civic Contexts.” In Electronic Participation, edited by Maria A. Wimmer, Efthimios Tambouris, and Ann Macintosh. New York: Springer.

MacKinnon, Rebecca. 2012. Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom. New York: Basic Books.
De Rosa, Rosanna. 2013. “The Five Star Movement in the Italian Political Scenario.” eJournal of eDemocracy and Open Government 5(2): 128-140, figure 2. 130.

Margetts, Helen. “The Cyber Party.” Paper presented at the Causes and Consequences of Organisational Innovation in European Political Parties' at European Consortium of Political Research (ECPR) Joint Sessions of Workshops, Grenoble, 6-11 April 2001, 6.

Natale, Simone, and Andrea Ballatore. 2014. “The Web will kill them all: New Media, Digital utopia, and political struggle in the Italian 5-Star Movement.” Media, Culture, and Society 36(1): 105-121, 117.
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