Is the Internet Making Us More Libertarian?

What’s the big idea?

During an interview with the New Yorker in 2007, Karl Rove argued that information technology is influencing Americans to become more fiscally conservative. He said:

“There are two or three societal trends that are driving us in an increasingly deep center-right posture. One of them is the power of the computer chip, [which] has made it possible for people to gain greater control over their lives. It’s given people a greater chance to run their own business, become a sole proprietor or an entrepreneur. As a result, it has made us more market-oriented, and that equals making you more center-right in your politics.”

In Rove’s view, the interactive nature of digital communication promotes a feeling of individual agency among users and leads them to question the importance of a large central government. In this subtle way, the Internet nudges users toward libertarianism. But is there any proof of this claim?

It turns out that there are a few pieces of evidence to support Rove’s perspective. Small-government activists have emerged as one of the most forceful political blocs in new media, most recently with Tea Partiers and Ron Paul supporters making their presence known on Facebook and Twitter. In fact, a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project showed that Republicans in general, despite being older and (on average) more recent adopters of digital technology than democrats, use social media for political purposes slightly more often than their liberal counterparts (the split was 40% for Republicans to 38% of Democrats).

Furthermore, the people who spend the most time with information technology—techies themselves—have emerged as strong supporters of libertarian ideology. Silicon Valley is one of the key sources of funding for the libertarian party, and some of the nation’s most prominent libertarians, such as Peter Thiel, made their fortunes in technology. And, as the recent controversy over the Stop Online Piracy Act illustrated, computer engineers are often resistant to over-regulation.  Writing on TechCrunch in 2010, Michael Arrington spoke for a lot of techies and engineers when he said, “I’ve always believed that the government tends to screw up everything it touches.”

Yet none of this proves that Rove was correct. It is one thing to observe that many techies are libertarian-leaning; it is quite another to conclude that the computer chip is nudging the entire country toward the fiscal right. Indeed, there are many possible explanations for the formidable online presence of Tea Partiers and Ron Paul supporters—such as the fact that libertarians are simply a motivated bunch right now thanks to issues like the national debt. Not to mention, of course, that the left maintains a formidable presence online as well, with decidedly un-libertarian groups like Occupy Wall Street using social media just as effectively as their right wing counterparts.

More importantly, to get lost in an argument over whether the Internet has a partisan bias is to miss the point. The potential of digital technology is to give people of all points of view a platform for their views, a place to find community, and a tool to influence the future of the country.

What’s the significance?

Instead of approaching the political power of the Internet in terms of “liberal” vs. “conservative”, it is better to approach the issue along a spectrum of “participation” vs. “apathy.” In order for the Internet to fulfill its revolutionary potential, it must do two things: first, make non-voters enthusiastic enough about politics so that they turn into voters, and second, give American voters a powerful new tool to participate in the political process. 

Unfortunately, the first trend has yet to materialize. According to last year’s study from the Pew Center for the Internet and American life, which focused on social media in particular, people who use social media for political purposes also tend to be politically active in other ways. Says author Aaron Smith:

“There is a huge correlation between offline political activism and online political activism. People who are active online politically are also more likely to vote, to donate money, to participate in protests, sort of outside of the online space… The people who don’t use these tools to engage politically are the people that aren’t really engaged politically in other areas as well.”

Yet while the Internet may not be inspiring non-voters to get off the couch, it is certainly being put to good use those 10 to 20 million Americans who are already highly active politically. Take, for example, the recent scandal over the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to de-fund Planned Parenthood. Their announcement provoked a firestorm of criticism, much of it generated on Twitter and Facebook. When, after a few days of fierce backlash, the Komen Foundation reversed its decision, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards credited new media turning the tide in her organization’s favor. “I absolutely believe the exposure on Facebook and Twitter really drove a lot of coverage by mainstream media," she said. "I've never seen anything catch fire [like this.]"

As the technology continues to progress and voters continue to devise ways to affect politics online, effective online activism of that sort will become even more common. This will be even more true as the plummeting price of computing continues to erase the “digital divide” between rich and poor. Who knows; one day, rather than helping either the “right”, or the “left”, the Internet could blow up that distinction altogether.

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