Digital Democracy: How the American and Hong Kong Civil Societies Use New Media to Change Politics

Rikkie L. K. Yeung
Rikkie L. K. Yeung Visiting Fellow, Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies, Brookings

April 3, 2008

Introduction: Digital Democracy and “You”

Democratic participation faces challenges in many modern societies, including the United States and Hong Kong. Americans are confronting growing executive power and legislative gerrymandering, and the resulting disillusionment of the electorate. Hong Kong citizens are struggling for something more basic about democracy—universal suffrage. New media, based primarily on the Internet, which allows users much more autonomy to create and distribute content than traditional mass media, are being heralded as the savior of government by and for the people. Time Magazine, for instance, selected “You” as its 2006 Person of the Year, in part due to the emergence of blogs and YouTube videos as a political force in the 2006 U.S. mid-term elections.1 Can new media actually boost democratic participation and change politics in a lasting way? Or is such optimism as inflated as internet stocks during the dot com mania at the beginning of this millennium?

People-based political activism in the digital age contributed to the loss of the Republican majority in both houses of Congress to the Democrats in the last elections. Blogs and online video sites raised awareness of George Allen’s “macaca” incident and Mark Foley’s lewd messages to pages, both of which bruised the GOP’s reputation. Surprise wins in Senate races by Democrats Jim Webb in Virginia and Jon Tester in Montana were facilitated by the rising influence of netroots bloggers within the Democratic Party, political “vlogging” on YouTube, online election fund raising drives, and get-out-the-vote operations conducted through the Internet and mobile phones. After the 2006 mid-term elections, the power of new media—once the domain of “political insurgents” who lacked money and support from the political establishment—is now fully recognized by mainstream American politicians. Many candidates in the 2008 presidential election, including Democratic frontrunners Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, used the Internet to announce the formation of their exploratory committees or candidacies.

In Hong Kong, an advanced economy with a very different political system and culture, access by average citizens to digital technologies is comparable to, and in some ways surpasses, access in United States. But the use of new media in politics by Hong Kong civil society still has a long way to go to match the sophisticated new media strategies that have been adopted in America. The potential for further development, however, is clear. Since 2003, more and more Hong Kong citizens are using new media in the democracy movement. Without much guidance from pro-democracy politicians, ordinary citizens spontaneously used websites, e-mail, online video and cell phone messaging to mobilize their families and friends to participate in democracy rallies attended by tens of thousands; to get out the votes for pro-democracy candidates in elections; and to use Internet radio to express opinions seldom found in the self-censored mainstream media.

Apart from the U.S. and Hong Kong, there are other international examples of political changes facilitated by new technologies. For example, average citizens used mobile phone text messaging in the People Power II demonstrations in the Philippines that led to the downfall of former President Joseph Estrada in 2001.

Do these developments signal the dawn of digital democracy? The idea has excited many who believe in the power of information technology to transform the world. Skeptics, however, claim that the real victories of digital democracy are actually more limited and gradual than many predicted. After all, the new media are simply tools to facilitate bottom-up, people-based participation in many aspects of civic life. How “You” use the new media tools matters more than the technological possibilities.

This paper examines how the American and Hong Kong civil societies have explored the use of new media to promote democratic participation and change political realities. The choice of the United States and Hong Kong for comparison is made because the two are well-developed international economies with widespread access to advanced information technologies; but the political, social, and cultural environments are different. This paper chronicles recent developments on the strategic use of the Internet in the U.S. elections as well as the spontaneous use of online and mobile media during democracy and social movements in Hong Kong. The conceptual and empirical discussions aim to shed light on several questions. What are the potential benefits and limitations of new media as a civic tool? What factors should be considered when using new media for political purposes? How can civil society groups and individual activists adopt the new media technologies in politics? What strategies and new media applications have been used, and why? What has been the impact on political outcomes so far? In what cases has new media succeeded, backfired, or made no difference, and why? What have been the problems? What are the possible future directions and concerns?

Discussion of these questions is structured into four parts. Part 1 introduces the definitions and scope of major concepts adopted in the article, and discusses the theoretical potential and limitations of using new media in civil society. Part 2 identifies general key factors for civil society activists to map out a new media strategy: legal, social, economic, cultural considerations and the ecology of traditional media, which differ from society to society. Part 3 uses case studies of Hong Kong and the United States to illustrate the application of digital media to political participation in different political systems and cultures. The concluding section compares the impact of the use of new media on the politics in the two societies; examines the problems arising from this development; and looks to the future of new media applications.

The means and results of the political use of new media in the American and Hong Kong civil societies are dissimilar in many respects due to the political, social, and cultural reasons. Of particular interest is that the American liberal netroots have used the new media strategically and systematically to challenge the Republican Party, whereas Hong Kong citizens have spontaneously used new media (without a coherent proactive strategy from civil society leaders) to mobilize participation in the democracy movement. In both cases, the use of new media increased democratic participation by the otherwise apathetic masses. Both cases support several generalizations about how new media may increase participation in politics. First, it reduces frictions in political mobilization particularly in the areas of fund raising, voting, and participation in protests; and this is especially useful at the times of general discontent in the society. Second, it fosters a sense of individual empowerment among citizens, thereby reducing political apathy. Third, so far political insurgents (those out of office or out of the mainstream) have more effectively experimented with alternative media than incumbents, who enjoy advantages in resources and access to the traditional mass media. Fourth, in election campaigns, the more competitive the race, the higher the incentives are for the candidates to explore creative use of digital media.