Masthead CMC Magazine / April 1, 1996

Building Democracy Online

by Scott Aikens and Erna Koch

Most political discourse is not democratic. Rather, it is controlled by elite institutions, most conspicuously political campaigns and the political media who select which messages to disseminate via the limited resources of editorial space and time. But, as we live in a country based on the principle, "government of, for and by the people," this massive level of control is not a foregone conclusion.

What is needed to ensure that our political discourse is democratic, then, is a change in the political media. Specifically, we need to change what I will call the agenda-setting function of the political media, wherein those who control the distribution of information set the course of debate. In setting the course of debate, the political media perpetuates a top-down model of political discourse, in which those at the top of the information business hold control over the information provided to the public for discussion. This is not at all democratic.

As the first online public debate, the --Minnesota Electronic Democracy Project (E-Democracy Project) provides insight into what a democratic dialogue might be. This dialogue, as demonstrated in the Minnesota online debates, has both ^pros and ^cons. But the outcome, of this project suggests that the creation of a National Electronic Democracy Network may be a way to hold government and other institutions accountable to the public. [TOC]

G. Scott Aikens ( has acted as the E-Debates Coordinator for MN E-Democracy since 1994. He is a U.S. citizen completing his Ph.D. in political theory at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. The title of his Ph.D. work is "American Democracy and Computer-Mediated Communication--A Case Study in Minnesota."

Erna Koch ( is a Legal and Policy Consultant with The Harrison Institute for Public Law at Georgetown University Law Center.

Copyright © 1996 by Scott Aikens and Erna Koch All Rights Reserved.

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