Social media and democracy

I was at a conference today during which much was made about how social media – well it was tabbed as ‘The Internet’ but I think they meant social media – is changing the way democratic societies across the globe govern themselves.  The assumption is that those in power will be forced to listen to the voices of those they represent, and be accountable. In this vein, it was mooted that China will have democracy forced upon them, and there is nothing they will be able to do about it. Hmmm…

Well, OK, you can see how social media, or The Internet, gives many fora for opinion/discussion and can act as an effective lobbying/rallying tool. You can even see that there is little any government or ruling party could do to silence those voices – take China and its efforts to block access to YouTube – this is clearly a losing battle.

However, it is just another way for people to speak – it does not enable listening! Yes it can create a two-way conversation, yes you can feel as if you are speaking directly to the person – rather than through convoluted channels that might dilute your message… but who is listening? What assumptions are they making about you?

Anyone who works in an e-media team in the public sector, will tell you how difficult it is to champion the use of any social media tool to any great effect. And, other than responding to the perennial cry: ‘I want a blog’ – which never, ever really means I want a blog (Miliband excepted of course) there is little or no interest. This could be due to the fact that there is a great nervousness around it: mis-information and wild assumptions all ultimately culled by risk aversion/avoidance. Sure, there are some great examples of its effective use: Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Number Ten’s e-petition site and the Ministry of Justice Governance of Britain site are all great examples of effective and supported use of social media tools – however, these are the exceptions and hardly about to start affecting the political philosophy behind democracy – or even give those who govern our country too much to be concerned about.

I remember being impressed by the Wispa campaign, where a Facebook group successfully nagged Cadbury’s to bring back their favourite 80s chocolate bar; I can’t see how nagging will ever enforce an EU referendum, for example, or change policy, or get you out of your tax liabilities.

Yet I keep hearing how these voices cannot, will not and should not be silenced… and a true democratic society would utilise the opportunity afforded by social media. My feeling is that there is nowt you can do to lower the noise level, but to enable real change, or the change that is suggested could be afforded by social media, a fundamental shift needs to take place in the way people listen. Until then, nagging/lobbying/campaigning through social media tools will have very little effect.

That is my view on social media and democratic change. HOWEVER, there is a great opportunity for any ruling nation to use social media tools to consult, deliver messages and perhaps better understand society’s concerns, but that is another conversation – and one that I know can be answered by members of public sector e-media teams across the globe.

16 responses

  1. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Mike Harmon

  2. Are we in danger of seeing the noo meeja through Old Media and Old Political eyes. e-petitions, online consultations et al are just politics, comms and pr in shiny new clothes. even leaving aside any cynicism that might suggest that nothing’ll happen, it is still at its heart a top-down, Oliver Twistish set of relations.

    The real power of all this lies in the wiki-effect where politics is taken out of the hands of the politicians and reworked at the local (or local-virtual levels). Then politicians, policy makers and thinkers have to come to the people who are networking and delivering networked services, rather thgan inviting them for tea and biscuits in Whitehall.

    As more and more communities use these tools to empower them to develop and deliver innovative and powerful network-effect solutions and strategies – with or without Political support, the more Government (big and small g) will have to run to catch up.

    People with wikified, wisdom of crowds, opens source content power to reframe debates, create new ideologies and cultural practices will not passively accept ‘consultations’ with an ‘e’ tagged on the front. They’ll be too busy changing politics and society from below.

    This of course does not mean that a Government cannot impose law from above, it just changes the legitimacy of that law and its political or electoral base. Hegemony, Gramsci called it. If only he had put an ‘e’ in front of it.

  3. I really like this post, I have also subscribed to your blog.

    Its really interesting how politicians always talk about engaging with the public and reducing apathy but when given such an amazing opportunity manage to get it so wrong.

    As with all this kind of things I suspect adoption will only kick in when politicians can see the opposition reaping the benefits.

    keep up the good work.


  4. Thank you for your kind words and encouragement, Simon. You are very right about big ‘P’ politics and social media assumptions – will be v interesting to see what happens in this space over the next 12 months (watching the mayoral campaign too – think that will get quite fun!)

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  9. I am an old man fascinated by the possibilities of the social networks and what is referred to as “citizen journalism”, which, I believe, is germane to this discussion. My age, I’m sad to say, is proving to be a barrier against my keeping up with the pace of innovation and the profound changes these new technologies bring, but this particular area grabs my interest more than all others.
    It seems to me that the technologies that are now almost universally available, such as the mobile phone, Youtube, Twitter and so on have handed to the people the means by which they can express themselves to the rest of the world – and this is for the first time in history. Suddenly anyone can make a pitch for the attention of the entire world – and that is truly revolutionary.
    No longer can the people’s voice be silenced by the authorities. Dictatorships now live behind thinner walls because the silence they imposed is no longer available to them. The new technologies, the social networks have thrown open the gates, the “we media” have made it possible for the man in the street to have his say whether his government wants him to or not.
    This is a profound change. We no longer have to rely on the establishment to choose what news we should hear, what issues we feel should strongly about. Until now the establishments of all countries have been able to pick and choose what we get to hear about, to turn our attention to issues that suit THEM rather than publicly discuss those things that matter to us. As great a shift as that might be in the UK, it is greater in China, in Russia, in North Korea.
    Of course there will be a huge mountain of rubbish posted by people, trivia that relates to our comfortable lives in the here and now – but for those who search a little harder there are the voices of the visionaries, the cries of the oppressed, the roar of the multitudes who are, for the first time able to address the world – and that, surely, is a step towards democracy in its true form. Paul Caplan is right; the framework has changed. There is no longer any reason why people should go cap in hand to politicians for an agenda, no reason to have the discussion decided in the corridors of power. The people can, for the very first time, speak. It should be interesting to see what they have to say…

  10. Thank you for your reply and theinvite! It would be a pleasure to talk to people who are working in this field. I live in Hertford – but I was in King’s Place only last Saturday looking at the photo exhibition. I’ve just Googled Rewired State so I’m getting there! Will an email tomorrow be ok? I’m very interested in this topic and look forward to further discussion.

    • Oops, I hadn’t noticed it was nearly three years old! You must have been a long way ahead then.
      As to “not a huge amount has changed” I’m not sure. The technologies have become embedded and their usage is ubiquitous. What’s more, there are more interesting outcomes than we at first seem to have anticipated. Yes, we heard the voice of the ordinary people in New Orleans when Katrina struck and Bush ignored them. Youtube gave the victims the means to object. The Chinese earthquakes, simlarly, saw the people over-riding the governments censorship through Twitter and Youtube again. Now, it seems, the recent student riots were choreographed using Twitter and Facebook – which was not widely anticipated. The goalposts have been moved so far that we’re now, as it were, playing across the pitch rather than along it. Recent Guardian articles about the way in which the role of critics (film, music, theatre etc) has changed because there is now a huge bank of online “citizen” opinion which, perhaps, more comfortably reflects the taste of the people than that of the often consciously arty professionals. Although this is not a political change it is an empowering change which might have considerable influence on the self-esteem of populations. Let’s see how Egypt and North Africa move in the next few months…

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