4.2. How do digital media drive the challenge of institutions?

4.2.1. Intermediary institutions and the flow of information in democracies

Democracies depend on structures that connect governments, political elites, and the public. They facilitate information flows between different actors and different societal levels in democracies. Institutions like political parties, interest groups, and the news media make publics visible to elites, elites visible to publics, and publics visible to each other. They enable information flows making visible or allowing for the social construction of concerns, grievances, and interests of publics to elites and governments, while making elites and governments visible and - within bounds - transparent to the public. In this function, they provide, aggregate, and filter information.

In political science, political parties, interest groups, and news media feature to varying degrees. But, especially with regard to the first two institutions, their role as information intermediaries is often neglected. This is somewhat surprising as their function in this role determines the sense of representation in democracies. In fact, the political scientist Jan-Werner Müller has recently characterized these intermediary institutions as critical infrastructures of democracy [Müller, 2021], p. 89-137. In this, he emphasizes their crucial role and focuses attention on the normative principles that should guide their work and the analysis of their actual practices and impact.

By surfacing and aggregating voices, perspectives, and grievances intermediary institutions, like political parties or the news media, provide representation for groups in society. They aggregate information. They also filter voices, perspectives, and grievances that fall outside a shared democratic framework or violate shared democratic or discursive norms. These could be extremist voices on the political left or right advocating the exclusion of others from the body politic or the restriction of their rights. Or this could be hateful or discriminatory voices trying to poison discourse and exclude or denigrate others. In this, intermediary institutions filter information.

But representation is not just aggregation - simply counting individuals or mirroring groups and attitudes according to their relative strength. Instead, representation mediated through institutions like parties, interest groups, or news media is also about the construction of identities, agendas, allegiances, and conflicts. Channeling @Bourdieu:1990ui, Jan-Werner Müller observes:

"Here representation is not conceived as substantively or descriptively reproducing something that already exists. It is not a matter of mechanical reproduction. Rather, it is a process in which individuals offer to a possible constituency an image of themselves based on so far unrecognized ideas, interests, or aspects of their identities. As a result, citizens might perceive themselves and the politics they need in a novel light. A constituency is not so much reproduced, or even revealed, as talked into existence and, as a result, uses its political freedoms in novel ways."

[Müller, 2021] p. 79-80.

For Bourdieu, this is a crucial feature of politics:

"The power of imposing a vision of divisions, that is, the power of making visible and explicit social divisions that are implicit, is the political power par excellence: it is the power to make groups, to manipulate the objective structure of society. As with constellations, the performative power of designation, of nomination, brings into existence in an instituted, constituted form (...), what existed up until then only as (...) a collection of multiple persons, a purely additive series of merely juxtaposed individuals."

[Bourdieu, 1990] p. 138.

Examples for this construction of identities or the structuring of political conflict through intermediary institutions include on a large scale the forming and reproduction of national identity - what the political scientist Benedict Anderson has called "imagined communities" [Anderson, 2016]. On a smaller level, this also includes the formation of group identities around focusing events, surfaced grievances, or campaign slogans and the structuring of political conflict along these new lines as witnessed recently on Twitter around hashtags as #blacklivesmatter, #metoo, or #fridaysforfuture, practices that @Jackson:2020aa discuss in their recent book #HashtagActivism. The nature, inner workings, and influence of intermediary institutions structuring information flows and representation in democracies matter therefor, as they structure politics and political conflict.

Now we know that and why intermediary instituions - like parties, interest groups, or the news media - matter in democracies. But how is that connected to digital media and the current technological and political changes we are witnessing? To answer this question, we have to turn to one of the few political scientists who explicitly thought about the impact of technology on these intermediary institutions and provided a theory on how they are impact through technological change.

In his 2003 book Information and American Democracy: Technology in the Evolution of Political Power, Bruce Bimber analyzes shifts in communication technology and their effects on political organizations in their function as intermediary institutions enabling the flow of information in democracies. In his analysis, Bimber clearly shows that intermediary institutions in democracies are closely connected with the communication technology of their day.

"[...] information regimes exist in American political history as periods of stable relationships among information, organizations, and democratic structure. The features of an information regime are: (1) a set of dominant properties of political information, such as high cost; (2) a set of opportunities and constraints on the management of political information that these properties create; and (3) the appearance of characteristic political organizations and structures adapted to those opportunities and constraints."

[Bimber, 2003] p. 18.

But information regimes are not necessarily stable. In fact, technological change can lead to their disruption. This is what Bimber calls an information revolution. Bimber provides examples for these information revolutions in the US: such as the growing availability of the postal service and newspaper during the 19th century; and subsequently, the emerging mass audience through the growing availability of first the radio and then television. These information revolutions change politics by shifting the option space available to political actors, thereby potentially shifting the balance of power. Bimber writes:

"An information revolution disrupts a prior information regime by creating new opportunities for political communication and the organization of collective action. These changes create advantages for some forms of organization and structure and disadvantages for others, leading to adaptations and change in the world of political organizations and intermediaries. This is to say that democratic power tends to be biased toward those with the best command of political information at any particular stage in history."

[Bimber, 2003] p. 18.

Shifts in technology thereby can lead to shifts in the nature and inner workings of intermediary institutions shaping the flow of information in democracies. They provide new opportunities for new actors and limit opportunities of established institutions, adapted to an earlier stage of technological development. This is exactly what we are currently witnessing with the impact of digital technology on politics and society. Digital technologies have shifted important features of the information environment democracies face, this leads to the challenge of established intermediary institutions - such as parties, interest groups, and the news media - and the emergence of new actors and practices. The driving factors behind these challenges are digital media. They do so in three ways, by:

  • lowering the costs of information production, distribution, and access,

  • lowering the costs and opportunities in the coordination of people, and

  • providing the communication backbone for an increasingly dense network of interconnections between people all over the world.

We will now discuss the first two of these factors and their consequence for politics and democracy in greater detail.

4.2.2. Lowered costs of information production, distribution, and access

In times when information production, distribution, and access are comparatively expensive people depend on intermediary institutions that have the necessary means to provide these tasks. In times when information is comparatively cheap, people do not have to rely anymore on intermediary institutions for their information. Institutions therefor lose their monopoly on information for a specific group and are potentially weakened through this loss of function.

In the past people belonging to a specific political faction depended on a central institution - a party - to provide them with information about their local chapter, the goings on in the capital, and how the leadership of the faction positioned itself regarding current events. Typical communication channels available to the party were regular communiques - such as letters or member magazines - or regular meetings in which the leadership informed local party members about current events. At the same time, the party also made specific members, practices, or concerns visible to the party elite and the broader base - for example by featuring them in their communications. This made the organization and its attitudes and opinions visible to itself. The cost of collecting, producing, and publishing that information gave the intermediary institution power. The institution could decide which information to publish, which elite-position to communicate to the base, and what section of the base to feature. The institution had an important gatekeeper function for the faction. This gave it power over the base.

Today, members of political factions do not have to rely on party institutions for information anymore. Instead, they can take to politically aligned but not institutionally controlled digital media to learn about current events. Or they can take to Twitter or their messenger group of choice to learn what other politically likeminded people are saying. By making information production, distribution, and access cheap, digital media have provided new informational options beside those of traditional intermediary institutions. This weakens intermediary institutions in at least two ways:

First, and most obvious, by offering alternative voices the opportunity to reach people without the explicit or at least tacit agreement of an intermediary institution, digital media enable the challenge of the power of intermediary institutions over their fields. As we have seen Castells diagnose, central power over information means central power over people. This central power over information is challenged. While in the past, the party leadership could use their institutional power over information flows to set the agenda or to feature or silence specific groups within the faction, today this is increasingly difficult. Many alternative media outlets are available to activists that inform them about alternative ways of seeing the world, different from those party orthodoxy or leadership favor and Twitter quickly surfaces dissident groups within factions who share a view different from the leadership.

This makes intermediary institutions more difficult to lead. Internal differences can surface quickly and gain traction through the instant visibility on digital media. Examples include, fringe positions in political groups gaining visibility on social media and in turn being amplified through media coverage. This can hamper the opportunities for parties to establish comprise with other political groups or even empower extremists allowing them to publicly speak for a faction instead of more moderate representatives.

At the same time, this opens intermediary institutions up to outside influence. For example, by funding politically but not institutionally aligned digital news sites, outside interests, such as business or interest groups, can challenge the power of central intermediary institutions. By establishing cheap alternatives to institutionally vetted information sources, outsiders can shift the agenda within factions and feature selected groups or individuals that challenge the central authority of the institutions.

Now, these challenges of intermediary institutions can be empowering. We have seen above, how institutions can deteriorate with regard to their central functions. By enabling challenges, digital media might thus point the way to helpful reform by empowering alternative approaches to gain visibility and power. At the same time, digital media can also be used by challengers who are not interested in a broadening of access to intermediary institutions but instead try to narrow it to benefit their own specific political creed. These challenges are also enabled through digital media.

4.2.3. Lowered coordination costs

Digital media have also lowered the costs for people to coordinate. In the past, this was another function that intermediary institutions held for political factions or social movements. In technology regimes where coordination is costly, people need intermediary institutions to carry the cost and run the logistics. This could mean collecting, maintaining, and updating lists with contact information with organization members and sympathizers. Or this could be the collection of funds to tide over members who faced income loss through strike or protest action, or to cover legal costs members face due to actions for the group.

In technology regimes with high costs of coordination, political activists need to go through existing intermediary institutions - existing groups, non-governmental organizations, or parties - for collective action or to get their voice heard. This gave these institutions power over which type of position or group to support and which to ignore. This had beneficial effects for discourse and politics by filtering out radical positions or groups and being able to coordinate around central causes and focus public attention and participatory energies. On the other hand, if intermediary institutions fail in their selection function, this can deteriorate into exclusionism, allowing insiders of the institutions to pursue their interests and topics and exclude those by outsiders.

The lowering of coordination costs through digital media allows the challenge of these institutions. By providing low costs digital tools that allow interested people to find each other, organize, and provide tactical support during collective action digital media offer alternatives for activism and participation to established intermediary institutions, such a parties, activist groups, or non-governmental organizations.

This has both good and bad consequences. For one by using digital tools new groups of people with shared but unrecognized grievances can find each other and coordinate collective action. They do not depend on existing intermediary institutions validating and picking up their cause in order to achieve visibility in the public arena or get access to the resources necessary to organize large-scale collective action events. Instead, they can find supporters and sympathizers on existing digital media infrastructures, there they can also get the word out and document their cause and actions, as well as collecting the ressources necessary to pursue them.

Free services like Google Mail or Google Docs provide any group with the resources to run a powerful distributed co-working environment without any costs. Meta/Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok allow to get the word out and to document activities. Crowdfunding platforms allow to collect financial resources from a broad base of supporters. And petition platforms allow groups to quickly visualize the supposed size of supporters behind their cause.

These opportunities enable groups not recognized or represented by established intermediary organizations to coordinate around their cause and gain public visibility. These opportunities lie behind public successes of groups like Occupy Wallstreet, Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and Fridays for Future. In enabling these groups, digital media provide opportunities for the empowering of unrecognized groups and causes in society and discourse and thereby are strengthening democracy.

But there is no guarantee that digital media will be used by challengers of intermediary institutions to empower democracy by extending participatory rights or representation. Instead, they can also be used by challengers bent on restricting participatory rights or denying representation to others. Examples for this abound among the uses of digital media by extremist and far right groups in Western democracies. Enabling a challenge of intermediary institutions therefor by itself is neither good nor bad for democracy, instead each challenge needs to be interrogated on its own merits or demerits.

There is another detrimental effect of this challenge, we should discuss. The new opportunities for the coordination of people around causes has raised the expectation of some, that political organizations would lose their general necessity for activists and thereby over time be displaced by temporal cause-based alliances of people that once causes were achieved would dissolve with people free to find new alliances around new causes at another day. While at the face of it promising, after all who would not want to do away with the often stuffy and slow structures of political organizations, this stance ignores the importance of political organizations beyond information and coordination functions. Political organizations also provide the link between political activism and political structures, such as governments or parliaments. This link is important to allow for grievances, concerns, and collective energies to constructively shape policy instead of remaining on the street or social media. Various digitally powered - or at least enabled - movements suffered from exactly this missing transmission. Think of Occupy Wallstreet or Fridays for Future. Organizations therefor remain necessary for political activism. But by losing their monopolies on both information and coordination, they may end up weakened in others ways. This overall weakening of political organizations might also end up limiting their ability to function as transmission belts between political activism and political institutions - such as parties, governments, or parliaments. This would weaken democracy.