Many have praised the emancipating role played by Facebook and Twitter in the democratic uprisings of the ‘Arab Spring’. Meanwhile, Anders Breivik, fuelled by ideologies and chemicals he found online, emailed his manifesto across the globe before committing his Norwegian massacre. So what role does the internet have to play in modern politics?
This was one of the questions up for debate at the recent conference of European parliamentary technology offices. The conference took as its theme, “Hope, Hype and Fear Technologies”. ‘Cyberdemocracy’ was one of the case studies discussed under this heading.
Weaving a political web
Why should politicians care about the internet in the first place? They have little enough time as it is, without the added commitment of maintaining an online presence; and rarely can the intricacies of a political discussion can be condensed to a 140 character ‘tweet’. But the internet is a staple pastime of the modern citizen; social networking sites are proving useful for galvanizing support; and the ‘digital convergence’ of our electronic gadgetry mean that the internet genie is out of the bottle. Politicians, therefore, must work out how to make the genie work for them, both as a tool and as a broader influence within democratic societies.
Officially, ‘cyberdemocracy’ refers to the use of the internet to “enhance citizens’ engagement in democratic processes.” This idea is nothing new. In the 1970s, when the US first developed the ‘Electronic Information Exchange System’, a forerunner of the internet, it was immediately suggested that it had “potentially revolutionary political applications” to the voting system. Forty years on, e-Voting is proving problematic to implement. The ‘black box’ nature of computers makes such voting systems opaque to public scrutiny, and therefore susceptible to error and fraud. Also, since all voters’ details must be recorded by the computer, the system poses a threat to people’s privacy and security. As a result, Ireland and the Netherlands currently have moratoria on the use of e-Voting. More research is needed if this vision is to be realised.
e-Petitioning has had slightly more success. More than 50 percent of the messages first sent by the UK’s ‘writetothem’ website were from people who had never previously written to their elected representative. The UK government now has an official system whereby any petition that gains more than 100,000 signatures “could be debated” in Parliament. Germany has a similar set-up with a 50,000 threshold. But such ‘clicktivism’, as cynics like to describe it, takes less effort on the part of the activist and is consequently more easily ignored by the politician. There is also the problem that one person is able to sign a petition many times from different email accounts. Furthermore, although the arena for venting political frustrations has been enlarged, the capacity for acting on the issues raised hasn’t.
There is a significant social aspect to the debate. Young people, one of the groups least engaged in politics, are the most technologically literate and cyberdemocracy can help them to get involved. But at the same time, we risk alienating those who lack physical access to IT or the skills to use it are likely to be further excluded. In the UK, 20% of the population doesn’t have internet access; in some parts of the country the figure is as high as 70%. Far from being the panacea for social inequality that some had hoped, the internet may be widening the socioeconomic divide. Those likely to get involved in politics are middle-class and well-educated. Those likely to get involved in internet politics are also middle-class and well-educated. Nonetheless, with the ‘e-takeover’, digital inclusion will surely be the key to social inclusion in the future.
Democracy also relies on information, a commodity that is available in abundance in cyberspace. The predominance of the internet as people’s first port of call for information has prompted governments to make better use of their data. It also cuts out the middle men: we no longer need the media, or even political parties, to provide their spin—videos of politically important events are now available for us to assess for ourselves within minutes of them happening.
Improved access not horizons?
But its blessings are also the causes of its limitations. The internet’s wealth of information, rather than challenging our existing prejudices, arguably only serves to reinforce our current ideologies as we follow the ‘tweets’, links and ‘likes’ of all our similarly-minded friends. In the extreme, ‘electronic tribes’ nurture fundamentalists in online forums before returning them to reality to commit acts of terrorism. Cyberspace also breeds a chronic short-termism: no commitment to consistent long-term goals is required and rarely do people take full responsibility for their actions online.
So does the internet a menace or a blessing for modern democracy? As is often the case, the power of a technology for good or evil depends on the implementation. That is why research conducted by parliamentary science and technology offices is vitally important.
Featured image credit: Sergeyv Nivens via Shutterstock
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