Click of a mouse, younger democracy

Internet usage is up this election year – and young Americans are leading the way.

Arguably not since Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” pamphlets literally revolutionized colonial thought in 1776 has a form of media been as politically potent in America as the Internet is during the 2008 elections.

Consider findings the Pew Internet and American Life Project recently released : Roughly 40 percent of Americans are using the Internet for political information or participation – up nearly 10 percent from the 2004 presidential race. Leading this virtual charge is the ubiquitous voting bloc labeled, sometimes disdainfully, as the “youth vote.” The poll says that 18- to 29-year-olds comprise nearly 60 percent of Americans who use the Internet to exchange and consume political information this election year.

This could indeed be the redemptive year for young voters, whom politicians have been able to use as conciliatory door-knockers without having to pay serious attention to their demands – mainly because of a weak polling-attendance record. To be sure, the Barack Obama and John McCain camps are channeling youth activism through the Internet like never before (particularly Obama). But likewise, the Internet provides young voters a means to partake in, and therefore shape, the political debate like never before.

Some caution, however, that the Internet is like an erratic animal that bites as much as it obeys. Online anonymity provides easy avenues for fabrications and hate speech to infiltrate political conversation. But false and ugly speech revealed in a public domain is better than it traveling across the nation unaddressed.

So maybe as this historic election plays out on computer screens across the nation we are testing the wisdom of the First Amendment. Young voters, particularly college students, should continue to write that test. The youth, after all, don’t even have to take to the streets to voice dissent anymore like the raucous baby-boomers before them. No, today’s revolution is at the click of a mouse and it heralds a more youthful, informed and participatory democracy.