Politics Magazine

Wireless Politics: The Future of Democracy

Posted on the 26 June 2011 by Realizingresonance @RealizResonance


Wireless devices will contribute to the changing social, political, and media consumption patterns of the global citizenry in ways that will have dramatic implications for democracy. The millennial generation has demonstrated a surprising affinity for political participation due to the inclusiveness of the social networking aspects of web 2.0 technologies. Personal mobile devices that are internet capable bring this inclusiveness to a whole new level and can leverage the full potential of social networks. The migration to new media channels and the growing participatory culture will be encouraged more through the adoption of smartphones than is currently the case with widespread broadband internet connections. This could lead to greater civic participation, or could degenerate into a fractured media landscape that promotes digital tribalism rather than healthy political engagement.

Cell phones are now ubiquitous worldwide, and they have already had such an impact on American society that it is hard to remember how we ever lived without them. In 2006, the ratio of voting age Americans to mobile subscribers was already 8 in 10 (Chambers, Sebastian 11). Mobile phone subscribers in the U.S. topped 276 million in the middle of 2008, which was 89% of the population. A full 20% of households exclusively use wireless (“Wireless Quick Facts”) (Table A). Where the landline telephone had been a fixture of homes and families, the mobile phone has become a “social object” that pervades the culture. The number of mobile subscribers overtook the number of landlines all the way back in 2002 (Srivastava). Only 12% of the 4 billion worldwide mobile phone subscribers use smart phones, but it has been predicted that this market could grow up to eight times as large in only a few years (Cramer). Already half of all Americans have accessed the internet wirelessly (Dense “The Mass Media” Lecture). The prevalence of wireless has created a culture of constant connection to our social units. Mobile internet increases the connection potential and the construction of large networks of loosely affiliated individuals is likely to have many unexpected effects.

The implications for politics and media have by now been realized to some extent. Besides the obvious application as a device for voice communication, other standard features of the common cell phone, like text messaging capability and embedded cameras, have been utilized by politicians, journalists, voters, and activists. The personal nature of mobile devices means that a smartphone is not just a pocket-sized portable computer, but an expression of identity like clothing (Dense “Media Centralization” Lecture). The rapid proliferation of wireless phones is having a profound transformative effect on shared human culture. The sense of belonging to a physical location is being replaced by a sense of belonging to a virtual network space. Individual control and the fragmentation of communication channels allow for users to construct and maintain their associations regardless of place and time (Srivastava 112). The traditional social hierarchies are becoming weaker as these virtual networks develop (Srivastava 119), and the need to be constantly connected cuts across generations; a recent survey by Motorola indicates that 80% of Millennials, 78% of Generation Xers, and 78% of Baby Boomers are equally enamored with the constant accessibility of mobile communication (Farrell, Wiesner). Also, the line between work and personal life will continue to blur in a wireless and virtual world (Snyder 24). The changes to social habits and media preferences from cell phone adoption have implications for the news, politics, and civic communication.

The growth of social networks has been shown to accelerate with the employment of mobile devices (Snyder 22). This has been recognized by sites like Facebook and MySpace, who have the goal of establishing their social networking apps on mobile handsets as seamlessly as standard calendar and alarm clock apps (Chambers, Sebastian 18). In a couple of focus group studies of college students and social networking habits, it was indicated that on average they logged on to the network about three times per day (Coyle, Vaughn 14). With the Millennial Generation, the importance of social networking fits with their need for equality and civic consensus, as well as their tolerance of diverse viewpoints, and has increased their political participation (Winograd, Hais 170). Wireless devices with internet capability and easy access to social networking tools encourage a greater use of these tools and increase the political influence of social networking as a communications medium.

Tools for Campaigns and Governing

The press has played a pivotal role in the U.S.’s electoral process since the country’s inception. If there is to be an informed consent of the governed, then theoretically the modern media’s role in covering elections is to provide a window on candidates and act as a referee between them. In reality the media acts as a mediator, image creator, expectation setter, field narrower, campaign critic, election documenter, and purveyor of election results (Dense “Media and Elections” Lecture). However, with the rise of the internet candidate, the old media’s control over this process has slipped and much more of these roles are being played by media sources on the web. Sites like YouTube have ushered in a regime of transparency in campaigns and a real window onto the candidates. This new reality was aptly demonstrated when incumbent Senator George Allen tanked his reelection by referring to a staffer of his opponent, who was then video taping Allen as “macaca”. The volunteer Allen was referring to was an American of Indian descent and the racial slur was posted on YouTube for all to see (Winograd, Hais 134-135). With cameras now a standard feature on many wireless devices, there is the potential for a constant window on the candidates.

Despite the limitation of 160 characters, the most used mobile messaging application is simple message service (SMS), with over 2.4 billion users having sent and received text messages on their cell phones (Israel 21). This medium became an important political tool during the 2008 Presidential campaigns. A survey of 18-25 year olds revealed that 23.3% of them used text messaging to send or obtain information about candidates, and 1 million Obama supporters signed up for his text message alerts program. (Bennett “The Digital President”). The next political innovation that utilizes SMS is likely to be text message donations. This method for charitable donations has already been adopted by many non-profit organizations. In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, more than $7 million in SMS donations poured into relief organizations like the Red Cross and the Yele Haiti Foundation in the first 36 hours. This topped $30 million after five days. In comparison, Hurricane Katrina text message donations accounted for a much smaller $400,000 (Choney). The ease of use and new popularity of SMS for donations suggests the potential that this will become a prominent tool for political campaigns in the near future.

With the growing adoption of internet capable handsets, social networking websites like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter are able to be accessed by users virtually anytime and anywhere. Twitter is particularly suited to mobile users, because the inspiration to build it came from an idea to take SMS from a one-on-one to a public conversation (Israel 21). In 2008 Barack Obama won the digital race in a landslide (Bennett “The Digital President”), which includes dominating Twitter with 80,000 followers on election night, making him the most popular account on the site (Israel 205). As the recent sexting scandal, Weinergate demonstrates, Twitter can also end a political career as easy as it can facilitate it. While Twitter’s use by political campaigns to organize and alert supporters to important news has been comparable to the application of other social networking tools (Israel 205), its transformative role in governance itself has just begun to emerge. Twitter facilitates communication between government officials and constituents, especially in the areas of transportation, law enforcement, and disaster response. Real-time and mobile access to Twitter from wireless devices is an especially useful and affordable way for bureaucrats to alert, or respond to, the public during a crisis, emergency, or a tardy transit system (Israel 211-214). Wireless infrastructure can help build trust between local governments and constituents.

Civic Journalism, Smart Mobs, and Terrorism

The egalitarian nature of the internet and web 2.0 has led to a new phenomenon of citizen journalism. In a society where everyone has a voice, civic journalism promises to aggregate the power of average people to invigorate the news with more perspectives, deeper, unfiltered, and more focused coverage, and a more engaged public (Schaffer). Citizens can offer high-quality coverage of stories that the mass media would not cover, and force a two way conversation into the mainstream press (Bennet 282-283). The CNN iReport Desk, allows viewers to upload pictures, video, and commentary, giving CNN a free source for breaking news and typical citizens the ability to become part of the story (“Exposing the Power of Citizen Journalism”). YouTube encourages users to “Broadcast Yourself” and the popularity of vlogging (Burgess, Green 59) has merged citizen journalism with social networking, which promotes an environment for participation that is sustainable over time (Burgess, Green 79). Digital Journal actually pays citizen reporters for their work and All Voices is a citizen journalist site that is set up specifically for cell phone users (“Exposing the Power of Citizen Journalism”). With the standardization of photo and video capture capabilities on cell phones, the threshold has become even lower for virtually anyone to record and report spontaneously on unfolding situations.

Mobile phones have been used by activists and protestors around the world for real-time coordination during demonstrations. Cell phones calls were used to organize government protests as early as 1992 in Thailand (Hemanns 74). Since then there have been many instances of “smart mobs” or “flash protests” have taken place from Spain to Australia (Hemanns 78), including one in the Philippines in that used text messages to help coordinate the overthrow of President Joseph Estrada (Srivastava 113). In the summer of 2009 protests over contentious election results in Iran, and the opposition utilized Twitter to spread information and build support, prompting conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan to write, “The Revolution will be Twittered” (Morozov). In China, more people use SMS than email for communication, leading a cultural shift characterized by a demand for diversity of information sources and a breakdown of the effectiveness of the traditional propaganda roles of the Chinese media (Latham). Mobile devices provide an equalizing tool, especially in regions that have typically operated without a free press in the past.

The role of cell phones as tools for anti-government activism crossed the line into terrorism on September 11th, 2001 with the Al Qaida attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center (WTC). The 19 hijackers used cell phones to coordinate the attacks. Mohamed Atta, who was aboard American Airlines flight 11, placed a 60 second call to Marwan Al-Shehhi, who was on United Airlines flight 175 at 7:45 am. This is assumed to be a go ahead signal for the hijacking, and less than two hours later these planes would crash into the twin towers of the WTC (Dutton, Nainoa 239). The hijacked passengers used mobile phones to communicate information to authorities and family members on the ground. There was at least one call from a crew member or passenger on each of the first three planes that crashed, which painted a picture of the situation for those watching the events unfold on the ground. On United Airlines flight 93, there were at least nine phone calls from passengers and crew to family and authorities on the ground. When the passengers on flight 93 learned about the fate of the other planes they left the line on an air phone open so that a GTE/Verizon Airfone representative could hear someone say, “Are you guys ready? Let’s roll.” This was just before the group of passengers stormed the cockpit and brought the plane down in an open field before it reach the terrorist’s intended target (Dutton, Nainoa 239-240). Wireless technologies were used in both nefarious and heroic capacities that day illustrating the dual nature of its benefits and detriments.

Regulation and Privacy

Some of the political issues surrounding mobile phones are highly controversial, especially those involving regulation and privacy. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the independent regulatory board that monitors broadcast communications in the U.S., such as radio and television. The commission is mandated to serve the public by licensing media channels and supervises them to ensure that public service and local interest programming is provided. However, this authority does not extend to the internet (Dense “Government Regulation” Lecture), let alone the media available on the wireless internet. The commission does watch over the telecommunications industry in other important aspects though, such as the licensing of wireless spectrum. The FCC’s Transaction Team also regulates mergers and acquisitions that deal with these spectrum licenses, like the investigation and hearings that are underway in order to see about approval of AT&T;’s purchase of T-Mobile. Most of these regulatory functions are not related directly to politics, but do involve government agencies and lobbying.

Net Neutrality is one of the most contentious issues currently facing the FCC. Net Neutrality is the policy that all internet traffic, from webs surfers to content providers, will receive the same speed and freedom of access. The major telecommunications firms, mainly AT&T;, Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon, would like to deregulate the internet. This could mean that users would have faster access to the content providers who pay the new tolls or who partner with the large telecoms to deliver a premium experience (Dense “Net Neutrality” Lecture). The supporter’s of Net Neutrality include a much wider group of interests, from the internet giants Google and Amazon, to opposing political organizations MoveOn and the Christian Coalition (“Save the Internet!”). The FCC is now weighing the possibility of instituting Net Neutrality rules in the wireless domain as well. The telecommunications companies have made strong arguments that the limited resource of wireless spectrum requires network management and should allow them immunity from these regulations (Ramsay). The character of mobile media and hence its effects on democracy will depend on how the governments shapes regulations like Net Neutrality.

The problem of surveillance and privacy is a growing concern surrounding the use of wireless devices. GPS is now standard in most modern cell phones, which provides the potential for real-time location tracking (Snyder 23). As more wireless applications are adopted location awareness will be combined with the data from health monitoring, budget tracking, or carbon footprint apps. Mobile devices have the potential to record immense amounts of intimate personal facts about the users that might be accessed by the government, employers, or hackers (Shilton). Future mobile phones will work within a wireless ecosystem in which software will be conversing remotely and automatically between many devices in the background, which increases the opportunities for hackers to worm into handsets (Snyder 23). Mobile devices provide greater freedom of consumer choice, but present different problems for liberty.

Civic Revolution or Digital Anarchy

The rise of new media on the internet is having a disruptive effect on the traditional media and there is a lot of anxiety about the future of the old media channel as well as the character of the news that is presented. There has been a mass migration of eye balls away from the network news to YouTube (Garfield 27). From 1970 to 2002 the share of U.S. households that subscribed to a daily paper shrank from virtually all of them to only half (Bagdikian 115-116), and if declining circulation were not enough the classified advertising has moved from print medium to websites like CraigsList and eBay (Garfield 24). Newspaper readership is actually up if you count the readers on the web (Garfield 25). It has been argued that web portals like Google News may benefit consumers in the short run, but that Google is “free riding” on the hard work of actual journalists and news organizations (Jones 187). Google gets all the advertising dollars, but does not pay for the content it serves. In order to find new readers and sources of revenue, newspaper journalists have switched to producing content in multiple formats like audio podcasts and cell phone news distribution (Jones 173). The trend towards wireless media consumption will increase the demand for news organizations to provide content for this format.

Where the broadband speeds on the internet have began a wave of disruption for traditional media, the current and next generations of mobile devices will establish new patterns of media consumption. There is a greater demand for choice, networking tools, and content that is easy to find quickly (Clark, Aufderheide). Advertisers will no longer be able to rely on commercials to entice a passive audience, but will need to utilize the concepts of Social Networking to create word of mouth buzz and customer promotion. Information is trusted better when it is received word of mouth from another person in our circle of friends (Dense “Social Media” Lecture). This new era of marketing has been called Socialnomics (“Social Media ROI: Socialnomics.”), or Listenomics (Garfield 15), which translates to an environment that requires the powers that be to accept a little loss of control to the crowd. Data from 2001 and 2002 indicates that local television stations that offer political and election pages on their websites see increased traffic to these pages around elections and voter registration deadlines. Even after an electoral event has passed website traffic settles to a higher level than before the event (Meltzer, Mueller, Tisinger 58-60). In the context of politics this means that voters and constituents will be utilizing the technologies that force campaigns and governments into greater transparency and a more responsive action.

Despite weakening the biases and gate-keeping of the old media regime, not all the developments of new media disruption are positive for democracy. The individual and customizable media experience promoted by wireless internet doesn’t solve the problem of information bias just because consumers become the gate-keepers. Monetizing content on the internet, which is typically free, will also require advertising dollars, with businesses looking to filter content in order to create a good selling environment (Bennett 248). The fragmentation of information caused by a personalized media experience may also be contributing the break of the social reality and the tendency of people to conflate information that supports their predisposed opinions with facts due to the reduction of authoritative sources (Bennett 250-251). There is no filter for truth on the internet, like the dissemination as fact of a false story that Oliver North called for Osama Bin Laden’s assassination in 1987 (Jackson, Jamieson). It has been suggested that personalized gate-keeping on internet news has led to widespread belief in conspiracy theories; like that 9/11 was an inside job (Taibbi 302). While wireless devices have the power to overcome some of the systemic issues with the traditional dynamic between media and politics, there are other challenges that will develop which may have unintended and negative consequences.


I was excited to write about this topic because I have worked in the wireless industry for the last ten years and I have watched the evolution of mobile phones with awe. However, it was with my upgrade to a Motorola Droid smart phone that I saw the potential political tool. With the Droid’s ability to customize, I set up my left home screen with Google and YouTube search bars, and icons for quick access to Facebook, WikiMobile, and Twitter. This gives me all the tools I need to be an informed citizen, or even a citizen journalist. Smartphones have been shown to encourage informational learning through their capacity for data access and storage, and their collaborate tools (Clough, Jones, McAndew, Scanlon 370). I can attest to this encouragement. The ability for me to learn about the intricacies of local, national, and global political issues and players is now available with one tap of my finger and I am taken to Google News, Twitte,r or Facebook. I can briefly check out the announcements or debates on these pages several times a day and can follow links to YouTube videos for a deeper discussion on issues I am interested in. Before my Droid I barely paid attention to local politics, but now it is really easy and fun.

In 2008 I campaigned for Republican Presidential Candidate Ron Paul and ended up being elected as an alternate delegate to the Washington State Republican Convention in Spokane. We were a large minority of delegates and in order to coordinate effectively from different parts of the convention floor we used a combination of text messaging and hand signals. Even though the Ron Paul delegates were not successful in getting our candidate nominated with this strategy, I expect that cell phone tactics will become commonplace at political and electoral events in the future. In fact someone may even create an app for that. With more smartphones in people’s hands, the problems of virtual democracy from the home computer are solved by the merging of physical and virtual participation.

My biggest concern for the future of media and its effects on politics is that an individualized and an absolute free market system for determining what the news should be will result in a continuing fragmentation of reality for Americans. This class has given me the tools to critically evaluate the media I encounter and the properly understand the sources of bias that may be present. I can also locate good alternative sources for news where I can get a larger view of reality. However, most people don’t ever take a Politics and Media course and it is difficult to convince them to believe your information is credible if they did not hear it from an official source. I have learned that this results from a lot of mental traps like the “barking moonbat” effect when people’s need to maintain consistency makes them irrational (Jackson, Jamieson 69), and the “root for my side trap” that skews our digestion of evidence contrary to our existing opinions (Jackson, Jamieson 73). The fragmentation of media sources and the freedom from centralized and officially biased news does not guarantee rational and effective political discourse.

However, a free internet with low barriers for civic participation represents an addition to the media landscape that is good for liberty. The justification for the First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech and press are based on the presumption that these freedoms are necessary for a full and functioning democracy. The underlying point of these rights is not served by news programming that focuses on sensational coverage of crime and controversy. However, the traditional mass media of newspapers and television is dominated by a small number of conglomerates that have no particular stake in the preservation of democracy if it conflicts with their financial interests (Bennett 20-21). The concern is seriously weakened in a world where the majority of global citizens possess a wireless device in the palm of their hand that gives them the ability to record and communicate the audio, visual, and editorial aspects of their immediate surroundings at anytime and anywhere. This leaves the task of democratic organization completely up to the people.

Jared Roy Endicott

Wireless Politics: The Future of Democracy
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