The Birth of the 'Fifth Estate': William Dutton on 20 Years of the World Wide Web

By Manfred Dworschak

Part 2: 'Internet Played an Important Role in the Arab Spring'

A screen shot of the NeXT computer used by Tim Berners-Lee to browse the World Wide Web at the time became publicly accessible on Aug. 6, 1991. Zoom
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A screen shot of the NeXT computer used by Tim Berners-Lee to browse the World Wide Web at the time became publicly accessible on Aug. 6, 1991.

SPIEGEL: The Internet doesn't just arouse fears; it also sparks enthusiasm -- especially regarding its political potential in authoritarian regimes.

Dutton: The Internet undoubtedly played an important role in the Arab spring. An Egyptian Google employee simply set up a Facebook page he administered that brought together people who were concerned about the country's political leadership. That's typical: An individual, almost offhandedly, uses an infrastructure that's available to almost anybody. It's just as easy with Twitter. Now many regimes feel threatened, of course, and they are searching for kill-switches to shut this down.

SPIEGEL: Critics say the Twitter-supported rebellion was just a flash in the pan for the media. The real resistance, they argue, is not being waged by people sitting at computers or typing messages into mobile phones.

Dutton: At least people can find out online that there are others who see things in a similar way. And the mass media, which disseminate all those Twitter feeds, can help take the case one step further. Of course, there are also things the Internet doesn't do well, such as sustaining a political movement over an extended period of time.

SPIEGEL: So it's more of a medium to get things going?

Dutton: Yes. We can see that, for example, in the scandal over Rupert Murdoch's News of the World -- which is absolutely stunning stuff. There had been rumors for years over people hacking into private voicemail, but no one had seriously examined the issue. The media had become too entangled with politicians. Then there was a report that something like that had been done with Milly Dowler, the kidnapped schoolgirl who was later found murdered. And do you know what turned that case, almost overnight, into one of the biggest political issues in Great Britain? It was Mumsnet.com, a network that was originally designed to support parents with their everyday life. All of a sudden, many parents expressed outrage on the site, and the audience became so incensed, that they spontaneously launched a campaign, basically saying: This is enough.

SPIEGEL: This portal was really crucial for the scandal to gain traction?

Dutton: I think so. This shows very nicely that the infrastructure by which people can organize already exists. It may have been set up for something completely different -- for child-rearing purposes, for entertainment, for chatting with friends -- but that doesn't matter. Any infrastructure can be repurposed at a moment's notice. Even football clubs and rugby teams are organized online today. The neighborhood where I live has its own blog, a website and an e-mail list. Just about everywhere, there are potentially political groups, as soon as something happens that gets people upset. What is emerging here is what I call the "Fifth Estate". Networked individuals can hold the established estates -- the government, but also the media -- accountable at any time. In this sense, the Internet makes society more pluralistic, more democratic.

SPIEGEL: By feeding short-lived, impulsive protest movements?

Dutton: Just look at another example, the civil society website MoveOn.org in the United States, launched by two people. At first it was merely a smart mob that opposed the impending impeachment of then President Bill Clinton. But over the years, it turned into a sort of umbrella organization for all sorts of progressive initiatives.

SPIEGEL: It used to be said that the Internet enables a new form of democracy, with the citizens directly involved in political decision-making. Is that realistic?

Dutton: On the local level, yes, especially if people become upset about something. Here in Great Britain, there was a move to cut back local funding, with public libraries being one of the casualties. This prompted groups of supporters to gather around local libraries, and they linked with other groups over the Internet. The "Save Our Libraries" movement was fairly successful. But in general, the Internet as a medium of direct democracy is of limited use. I believe we have to get away from utopian views of people governing themselves from their couches. The Internet won't create a plebiscitary democracy, because most people are not that interested in politics.

SPIEGEL: And yet the Internet, in your view, does change democracy?

Dutton: Of course, because networked individuals are becoming an independent source of social and political accountability -- a Fifth Estate. For example, it can influence the agenda. Every prime minister, every city council knows that people will comment online on what he says and does. The crowd has become an independent power, even independent from the press. It has thousands of eyes, and it can quickly organize around issues, within days or hours, if necessary. This doesn't require constant attention.

SPIEGEL: But the most popular form of expressing an opinion on the Internet is to click the "Like" button on Facebook. Isn't that a rather shallow way of political participation?

Dutton: It just happens to be an advantage of the networked organization that the cost of participation is very low. Pressing a button is not a big activity, but when thousands or even millions of people click ...

SPIEGEL: ... then millions have just done something that costs them nothing. Doesn't it ultimately lead to disappointment when people figure out that politics cannot be remotely controlled with a mouse?

Dutton: By that logic, no one would vote, because voting is totally irrational. The likelihood that I make a difference with my vote is almost zero. People vote because it's a citizen's duty, a very important democratic act. And likewise, voting is pretty easy. Many online activities are more meaningful and potentially more effective.

SPIEGEL: A very tedious problem with politics on the Internet is the quality of the debate. Things become chaotic when too many participants join the conversation. Do you have any idea how this could be improved?

Dutton: It's true, there are people who say stupid things, and small groups can dominate the debate, just as in real life. That's normal. The Internet is hardly suitable for obtaining the public's opinion on important issues, it simply isn't a medium for government consultation. But it is ideal for people to quickly organize as soon as they are upset or concerned about something.

SPIEGEL: But many debates also suffer from the fact that anonymous participants can be offensive without having to fear any consequences. Wouldn't it be better if everyone had to reveal his true identity?

Dutton: You would think so, but it doesn't really help that much. In a study investigating a local electronic city hall we found that people who were required to state their full names didn't behave all that differently. They too became carried away and resorted to flaming and insults. Requiring people to use their real names doesn't moderate their behavior as much as you would expect.

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About William Dutton
  • Graham Harrison
    Professor William Dutton, 63, is director of the respected Oxford Internet Institute. The University of Oxford organization has spent the past decade researching the ways in which the Internet has fundamentally changed society.

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