Political Campaigns in an Internet Era

Russell L. Weaver


[extract] Communications technologies have evolved dramatically over the centuries. Before Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, people communicated primarily through oral or hand-written means; processes that were slow and not conducive to mass communication. The Gutenberg printing press enabled printers to create multiple copies of documents, and led to the widespread dissemination of ideas and information. Ultimately, the press contributed to dramatic societal transformations, including the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, and the Protestant Reformation. After Gutenberg’s invention, communications technologies remained relatively stagnant for many centuries until electricity was harnessed in the nineteenth century. Electricity had an equally profound impact on communication because it made it possible for information to move much more quickly than people could move, and led to an explosion of new technologies, including the telegraph, radio, television, and eventually satellite communications and the internet.

Despite revolutionary advances in speech technologies, mass communication was tightly controlled for centuries. Throughout history, governments have tried to restrict or control communication through tactics such as the imposition of prior restraints, including content licensing, as well as through criminal prosecutions for seditious libel, Even when the government was not censoring or repressing speech, not uncommonly private individuals exercised control over the means of communication. Since most speech technologies were expensive to own and operate, not everyone could own or operate the means of communication. Even Benjamin Franklin, who was famous as a printer, among other things, struggled for a long time to acquire the means to purchase a printing press. Because of their cost, most communication technologies (including the printing press, telegraph, radio, television and satellites) were owned by a small number of rich people who controlled access to those technologies. As a result, advances in speech technology did not necessarily make it possible for ordinary people to engage in mass communication. Media moguls could favor the stories and political positions that they preferred.

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