Ever since the internet went mainstream in the 1990s people wondered about how it would affect democratic politics. In seeking an answer to the question, we made the mistake that people have traditionally made when thinking about new communications technology: we overestimated the short-term impacts while grievously underestimating the longer-term ones. The first-order effects appeared in 2004 when Howard Dean, then governor of Vermont, entered the Democratic primaries to seek the party’s nomination for president. What made his campaign distinctive was that he used the internet for fundraising. Instead of the traditional method of tapping wealthy donors, Dean and his online guru, Larry Biddle, turned to the internet and raised about $50m, mostly in the form of small individual donations from 350,000 supporters. By the standards of the time, it was an eye-opening achievement. In the event, Dean’s campaign imploded when he made an over-excited speech after coming third in the Iowa caucuses – the so-called “Dean scream” which, according to the conventional wisdom of the day, showed that he was too unstable a character to be commander-in-chief. Looked at in the light of the Trump campaign, this is truly weird, for compared with the current Republican candidate, Dean looks like a combination of Spinoza and St Francis of Assisi.
But the lessons of Dean’s approach to fundraising were not lost on later contenders, particularly Barack Obama, who put together a team of tech whizzes drawn from the big internet companies and deployed all the black arts of surveillance capitalism to target voters, motivate supporters and get out the vote – on two occasions, 2008 and 2012.
These initiatives were first-order effects because they were predictable: they merely harnessed the obvious affordances of online technology – the ability to communicate efficiently with a large number of people, solicit and process donations, disseminate campaign messages and so on. They changed the way campaigns were conducted but they did not change the nature of politics.
The second-order effects of the internet – the technology’s ability to mobilise and coordinate large-scale collective action – were first seen in late 2010 when the Arab Spring kicked off. As Helen Margetts of the Oxford Internet Institute and her colleagues argue in their book Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action, the internet did what it had done in every area of commercial life, namely lower the transaction costs of doing something – in this case engaging in political activity. This is creating, Margetts and her colleagues argue, a new kind of “turbulent”, fast-moving, unpredictable politics.