A first problem with these early claims, however, is: What do we mean by “democracy?” For many early proponents of electronic or online democracy, the presumption was that the internet would facilitate some form of direct or plebiscitary democracy – for example, through instantaneous polling or votes. Such plebiscite arrangements, however, have long been criticized for their capacity quickly to turn anti-democratic as they are prey to the problem of “the tyranny of the majority.” In contemporary terms, the wisdom of the crowd can quickly turn into the madness of the mob. Moreover, as Jean Beth Elshtain warned vis-à-vis television voting experiments in the 1980s, such voting lets us confuse “simply performing as the responding ‘end’ of a prefabricated system of external stimuli” with democratic participation. Especially as new media and digital media are increasingly driven by the frameworks and assumptions of consumption and entertainment, political theorists Marcel Henaff and Tracy Strong presciently observed early on that “the main public space of our time is that of consumption; hence the political is subjected to its logic and has come to be assessed by the criterion of the image”. But consumer “choice” is relentlessly assaulted by ubiquitous advertising appealing to our individual tastes, desires for convenience, and so forth – all the more so as the massive amounts of data collected about our browsing, choices on streaming services, social media use, credit card use, et cetera ad nauseam, allow advertisers to “micro-target” their ads to each of us individually. However pleasurable and rewarding our lives as consumers may be, such choices are starkly different from those assumed and required by democratic processes and governance: minimally, such citizen choices are to be shaped by reasoned debate and with at least some view toward the larger good, not simply one’s own.
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